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  • The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani
  • John N. Serio
The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens.
By Paul Mariani. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Around 1990 when Paul Mariani updated his 1981 acclaimed biography of William Carlos Williams, he composed a poem dedicated to Williams titled “Some Sort of Answer.” Noticing his refrigerator light on at 3 A.M., Mariani confronts Williams, who has taken out the bowl of plums. “Well, did I do it? Did you recognize / yourself in what I said?” Mariani asks. “You dredged up several selves, / I’ll give you credit,” Williams responds. “You gave a proper diagnosis, / and I was always one for celebrating light,” adding, “Only / in our poems are we ever really us.” Feeling he has gotten some sort of answer, Mariani tries to grasp Williams, “But he was still too quick for me,” and like Wallace Stevens’ angel of reality, quickly, too quickly, he was gone.

Such a poem might someday be written by Paul Mariani about his biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. Does it express the life and character of this unusually reticent, publicity-shy, private, and complex person? Is Mariani able to plumb the depths of Stevens’ poems to unmask the man beneath? Is he able to glean from Stevens’ voluminous prose—journals and notebooks, thousands of letters, essays, published interviews, prefaces, acceptance speeches, as well as observations by others—a genuine sense of the man himself? Mariani demands some sort of answer.

Mariani brings to the table an unusual combination of talents—teacher, biographer, literary critic, and poet—and he brings all these to bear on his subject. He writes with tact and discretion, never overstepping the bounds of what one might infer, as other biographers have done with interpretative and sometimes psychoanalytical leaps. He often presents insights with the deft touch of a poet. Commenting on the coldness of Stevens’ marriage, for example, he observes that “Good Man, Bad Woman” uses the same fifteen-line form as “The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard,” written two years earlier, “as if the new poem were broken off from that longer one, like a sliver of ice” (175 [uncorrected proofs]). Or when he discusses “The Widow,” that private three-line poem enclosed in a letter to Ronald Lane Latimer about a cold wife who kept her husband’s reliquiae in a gold case under her pillow upon which her husband’s head had never rested. Milton Bates notes the key to the poem lies in the word “reliquiae,” which Stevens used to refer to his poetry in an earlier letter. Mariani goes one step further: “‘Reliquiae’: the remains of what was once a man contained in a golden text, . . . words that would come in time to replace the living man himself” (195).

One of the strengths of this biography is that we get a genuine sense of Stevens as a person. Like Williams, Stevens admits his work, like the work of all artists, “is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise” (CPP 717). Mariani bases his portrait primarily on Stevens’ writings, [End Page 93] and he resists the easy temptation to take too much material from Peter Brazeau’s oral biography, thus preserving those revealing first-hand accounts for readers of that book. Although he begins in a traditional format—outlining Stevens’ parentage and upbringing in Reading, Pa., his Harvard education, his financial struggles and concomitant emotional ups and downs in New York, his break with his family over Elsie, the developing strain in his marriage, the extensive travel during the early years with the Hartford—when he turns to the poetry and essays, something magical happens. Blending paraphrase and quotation, he seems to slip into Stevens’ skin, and we feel as if Stevens himself is speaking directly and personally to us. As he takes us through challenging poems such as “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” or “The Auroras of Autumn,” or an essay such as “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” we experience a peculiar sense of intimacy, as if Stevens himself is explaining his poems or essays to us, and...