- “The Phases of This Difference”: Jews, the Figure of the Rabbi, and Hebrew Texts in Stevens’s Poetry
IN MY ROLE as President of the Wallace Stevens Society, I often receive unusual queries regarding Stevens’s life and work. Sometimes intriguing questions come my way having to do with Stevens’s musical interests, or advice about critical works to consult or about a biographical detail. A few years ago, a woman wrote to me with a rather stark question. The email read: “Was Stevens an anti-Semite?” Such a direct question seemed to expect a yes-or-no answer, and I was taken aback. The answer, of course, is much more complex than I could possibly offer in an email response. Yet, it is a question that had gnawed at me well before I received the woman’s query, and continued to do so for a good time after.
That Stevens expressed anti-Semitic attitudes and feelings, particularly as a young man, is clear from some of the letters and journal entries that he wrote during his early years in New York City. In a letter to Elsie, for instance, in which he was responding to his fiancée’s informing him that a Jewish man had moved into a neighborhood close to Reading (where Elsie still lived), Stevens responds by using a classic negative stereotype: “Only the gold lettering in front of the cottage betrays the Hebraic occupant.” Sadly, Stevens goes even further when he notes that the new occupant in Reading “married a Christian”: “The fancy revolts at a Christian and a Hebrew billing and cooing among the vines” (qtd. in Richardson 335). Let me say at the outset, however, that it is not my aim to catalogue Stevens’s anti-Semitic comments, nor to determine whether we must label him an out-an-out anti-Semite.
My aim here is much broader than that, for Stevens’s offensive attitudes are part of a larger and more elaborate story about how he incorporates Jews, rabbis, and Hebrew texts into his poems, and how the presence of these figures and texts pertains to his greater poetic project. While there is certainly evidence in these few comments that Stevens harbored anti-Semitic views, comments in his prose (again, letters and journals) and his representation of Jewish figures and Hebrew (biblical) texts in poems suggest a more complicated narrative. It is this more complicated narrative that I will pursue in these pages. My essay will unfold in three parts. First, [End Page 56] I will look briefly at Stevens’s references to Jews in his poems. Then, in the more extensive second part, I will turn to the figure of the rabbi in his poetry. Finally, I will discuss his references to portions of the Hebrew Bible in poems that bring to light the ways that Stevens plants aspects of Jewish/Hebrew culture into the terrain of his “poem of the earth” (CPP 730).
Stevens’s portrayal of Jews in poems (that is, poems in which he uses a Jewish name or refers to “Jews” as a group) encompasses his view of the Jew as an outsider and, at the same time, as a version of himself—a solitary figure who stands separate or rests apart from others. In “Cortège for Rosenbloom” (1921), it is his Eastern European Jewish name that identifies Rosenbloom as Jewish. Stevens structures the poem in eight stanzas that progress with a dirge-like rhythm matching his funereal subject. Yet, “Cortège” is hardly a solemn or mournful poem; rather, in the plodding rhythm that persists throughout, Stevens emphasizes the foreignness of his subject and the anonymity of those who carry him to his resting place, and creates an almost mocking comic effect. Those who carry the coffin of “the wry Rosenbloom” are “the infants of misanthropes / And the infants of nothingness.” With the word “misanthropes,” Stevens gestures to the historical otherness of European Jews. He reinforces the reader’s sense of their difference in the way he describes their dress in stanza five—“It is turbans they wear / And boots of fur” (CPP 63)—and especially in the way he imagines...