Journal of Modern Literature 27.1 (2003) 105-121
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"Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!"— Wallace Stevens's Figurations of Masculinity
In his seminal essay, "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet" (1943), Wallace Stevens concludes by affirming the necessity of a model man and writer who retains the essential "masculine nature that we propose for one that must be the master of our lives."1 This "virile" poet conforms largely to early twentieth-century male physical ideals: disciplined, capable of extraordinary self-restraint and feats of strength, he is not unlike turn-of-the-century bodybuilder Eugene Sandow or dietician Horace Fletcher in his capacity to forge a trim, muscular "figure." His unique understanding of the laws and limitations of real and imagined worlds are the direct result of his embodiment of pure, American masculinity as well as the pragmatic sensibility he inherited from intellectual fathers such as William James.2 The image of this assertive, "virile" young man dominates our understanding of how Stevens, once a young "rowdy" and football player, imagined himself as a male poet and representative lyric voice in early twentieth-century America. However, while a great deal of ink has been spilled over Stevens's investment in conceptual figures such as the "dandy," "man number one," the "hero," the "major man," "medium man," the "subman," and the "giant," little attention has been paid to the physical aspects of these figures or the rare but revealing images of male bodies in Stevens's work.3 The specific nature of the masculine ideal has gone unquestioned in Stevens [End Page 105] criticism: it is taken for granted that a real man must be muscular and physically masterful, and that Stevens himself must have admired such a physique exclusively. Yet Stevens and his interest in poets "virile" and otherwise must be understood as the product of an American society in which masculinity was an extremely fraught and contested cultural site.4
By the turn of the century, the concept of a firm, character-driven manliness was replaced by the more amorphous, anxiety-laden category of masculinity that was dependent upon its opposition to women and those racial and ethnic groups perceived as cultural, social, and political threats.5 Stevens, while from a middle-class family, a product of Harvard and a lawyer, nonetheless was keenly aware of his proximity to the feminine practice of poetry as well as the working-class world of his Dutch and German-American ancestors. For example, writing in his journal shortly after college, Stevens defended poetry from "effeminate" ideas, inextricably linking "Poetry and Manhood."6 His attitude towards ethnicity and class, however, is more complex, suggesting both a pride (and snobbery) rooted in his family's Colonial origins as well as a sense of himself as an [American man whose white ethnic background marked him as relatively ordinary]. In letters to his fiancée, Elsie, he declared himself "German to the uttermost . . . Peasants are glorious" (Letters, 120). Later genealogical work reaffirmed his probable descent from individuals he described as comfortingly "real people": "a decent sort of carpenter, or a really robust blacksmith, or a woman capable of having eleven sons and of weaving their clothes" (Letters, 499).
While Stevens's interest in his background could be attributed to a typical desire on behalf of middle-class men to recapture their more "masculine" and "primitive" essence from working-class counterparts, it must also be considered in the context of Stevens's consistent interest in his own body as a manifestation of this working class, ethnic background. Rather than predictably muscular, however, Stevens perceived his Germanic body to be "fat" and even freakish, disruptive yet oddly ordinary in its tendency towards overweight and even possibly acromegaly.7 The result of this self-perception, combined with his fascination with his ancestry, is that Stevens, the poet perhaps most frequently associated with aesthetic abstractions and "ideas of order," often ends up writing paeans to "man's passionate disorder" (Letters, 300). Frequently embodied in distinctly fat characters...