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  • Influence or Affinity?
  • Glen Macleod

WHEN I FIRST PROPOSED an MLA roundtable discussion on Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, it seemed like a natural pairing. There was, after all, a book-length study of the subject—Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens by the respected critic Diane Middlebrook—published as long ago as 1974. And the Whitman-Stevens relation has been a central concern in the work of Harold Bloom throughout his long and productive career, from his early essay “The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens” (1966) to his retrospective summation of his literary theory in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011). A panel on this topic might prompt some fresh perspectives on a well-established case of literary influence.

The topic turned out to be more interesting and more controversial than I anticipated. Several of the short papers on the MLA program argued that—contrary to received opinion—there was no significant relation at all between the two poets. This provocative thesis inspired a broad range of responses from the audience, leading to a lively and stimulating discussion that went on long after the roundtable was officially over. This special issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal continues that discussion with expanded versions of the conference papers and contributions from several other Stevens scholars.

The first essay, by Tyler Hoffman, focuses on Whitman’s catalogues as a way of defining the essential difference between the two poets. Whitman thought of these collections of people and things as parts of actual American life and as symbolic of “that ultimate democracy for which America stands.” Stevens, however, was interested mainly in ideas and “acts of the mind,” not “large numbers of concrete things.” He found Whitman’s “Americana” unpoetic, primarily of historical interest, and “a little threadbare” at that. The two poets, in Hoffman’s view, had fundamentally different approaches to poetry.

Patrick Redding, too, questions the basic notion—derived from a critical tradition that includes Roy Harvey Pearce, Joseph N. Riddel, and James E. Miller, Jr., as well as Middlebrook and Bloom—that there is any important relation between Whitman and Stevens. Calling for “a return to [End Page 1] the facts” of documentary evidence rather than unsupported theoretical assertions, he traces the critical reception of both poets to show that no one seriously suggested such a relation between them until the 1960s. Redding argues that we should take “at face value” Stevens’ dismissive references to Whitman and makes the case that Stevens’ negative attitude toward the author of Leaves of Grass was shaped primarily by the views of two Harvard professors he knew: Barrett Wendell and George Santayana. His summary conclusion is that Whitman “failed to make a sustained impact upon Stevens’ writing and thought.”

Matt Miller, a Whitman scholar, casts an equally skeptical eye on the prevailing idea that there is “a natural, even inescapable connection between these two great poets.” He carefully traces the history of the Whitman-Stevens pairing (adding to this tradition the critics Denis Donoghue, Thomas B. Byers, and Mark Noble); challenges Bloom’s narrow reading of Whitman (his “selective preoccupation with a small group of Whitman’s poems”); and documents the surprisingly mixed reception of Middlebrook’s Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, which originated as her dissertation under the direction of Bloom. Miller concludes that Whitman and Stevens are essentially very different poets, “better understood in opposition to one another.”

Acknowledging that Bloom’s theory of literary influence is currently out of fashion, Lee Jenkins helpfully summarizes its key assumptions about the Whitman-Stevens relation: that, for Stevens, Whitman represents an American Sublime and that such poems as “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” and “The Idea of Order at Key West” are “crisis-poems” recording his struggles with his great American precursor. She then proposes—as a more transatlantic, up-to-date approach to theorizing this literary relationship—a kind of “spatialized or rhizomatic” model of intertextuality, centering on the “French connection” between the two poets, particularly their reception in France in the 1920s.

Roger Gilbert tests the Bloomian notion that Whitman deeply influenced Stevens’ poetry by asking, “Are there moments when...