- Epistolary Stevens
Have you noticed that often a writer's letters are superior to the rest of his work?—Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way
IS THERE, as my title would suggest, an "epistolary Stevens"?1 And if so, how are we to situate it within the larger body of his work? My epigraph is a quotation borrowed from a rather flamboyant character in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, called Madame d'Arpajon, the jilted lover of Monsieur de Guermantes, who exclaims, in one of the social gatherings the novel is notorious for, "Have you noticed that often a writer's letters are superior to the rest of his work?" (Proust 539). The question is, in many ways, a provocation, since letters are more often than not regarded as inferior to "the rest of [the] work."2 Through her, what we have is Proust slyly addressing his readers, expecting us to test the validity of her statement and reflect on the literary value of the epistolary.
Studying poets' letters is by no means self-evident. While they are often appreciated for their critical value, their literary value remains largely overlooked. Having coedited the first volume of The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Hugh Haughton notes that letters "generally fall by the wayside in the institutional study of literature" (57). And indeed, until the current double issue was set up, none of the previous issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal, not one conference on Stevens, and only a single conference panel devoted to the poet over some six decades of scholarship has focused solely on the epistolary material. This is all the more surprising as most Stevens scholars are in the habit of making use of the letters for the sake of an argument, more or less extensively, more or less explicitly, as if it were a matter of course—with the unfortunate consequence of treating the letters as a secondary source to be pillaged and plundered at will, while in fact, technically, they are fully and wholly a primary source.
From a theoretical perspective, it is generally accepted that letters belong to what Gérard Genette has brought together under the category of the epitext: along with interviews, diaries, and notebooks, correspondences remain a literary epiphenomenon, separate from the œuvre. They are widely treated as materials that stand on the outside looking in.3 Editorial practices tend to replicate the notion of the epistolary as distinct from the [End Page 7] literary: poets' letters often come in separate volumes that perpetuate the myth of their distinctness or even alienation from the main corpus, thus consigning them to a generic limbo within literary studies, a surplus, research materials in excess of "the real thing."
Yet it is odd, when you think of it, given its number of brilliant representatives—from Cicero to Rainer Maria Rilke, from Madame de Sévigné to John Keats—that epistolary writing should be so readily brushed away. Surely, Samuel Richardson's experiments with the epistolary novel, Montesquieu's and Rousseau's philosophical explorations in Persian Letters (1721) and The New Heloise (1761), and, of course, Crèvecœur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) on the other side of the Atlantic have in their own times demonstrated the richness of this literary terrain, as these works doted on the malleable nature of the letter as a form and genre to probe into issues of self, nation, and social change in times of deep transition.
Perhaps the time has come to challenge more directly and explicitly some of the age-old assumptions about the literary value of the epistolary. While reading poets' letters has been common practice for centuries, we have yet to recognize them as a major literary genre in and of itself, with its own history and its own canon. In his foreword to the paperback republication of Stevens's letters edited by the poet's daughter, Holly, Richard Howard bravely undertakes to redress the fault, making a case for poets' letters in general as an "indispensable genre" and for Stevens's letters in particular as a brilliant specimen to be put "with those of Keats alone"—"a readily ascended...