Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-11-23
- Reviewer: Staff
Mariani, a literary biographer (Gerard Manley Hopkins) and an English professor at Boston University, examines, insightfully but laboriously, the life and work of Wallace Stevens. Mariani views Stevens as one of the 20th centurys most important poets, but acknowledges he remains an unfamiliar figure compared to contemporaries Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. (Mariani also notes that Stevens called Eliots 1922 masterwork, The Waste Land, a bore.) Going from Stevenss roots in Reading, Pa., to his time in Greenwich Village; Key West, Fla.; and Hartford, Conn., Mariani traces the path of an enigmatic author who was both a poet and an insurance executive, and who published his first collection, Harmonium, in 1923, when he was 44. In Marianis view, Stevenss blend of radical modernism and individual conservativism added to the allure of his work. Mariani speculates on Stevenss sometimes difficult, contrary nature and on his lifelong search for meaning and the sublime. While Marianis critical capacities prove strong in this finely wrought analysis, his dense, impressionistic, often florid language can make the going difficult. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim and Williams. (Apr.)
Well Read: Stevens' ideas of order
The gentleman gazing intently at us from the jacket photo of The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani’s illuminating biography of Wallace Stevens, could be any successful businessman in midcentury America—a confident, well-fed mandarin. Stevens is, of course, one of our great modernist poets, but the alternative guise is no less accurate, for he spent most of his professional life as an insurance executive. That duality runs throughout the narrative of his life and helps define Stevens, who, we come to see, was as straight and narrow in his quotidian affairs as he was brilliantly fancy-free in his writing.
Mariani, perhaps best known as a National Book Award finalist for William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (Williams was another modernist genius with a day job—as a doctor—and was an important contemporary, friend and influence on Stevens)—ably balances a straightforward chronicle of events from his subject’s life with an analysis of the poet’s often difficult, inventive work. While the two can seem quite separate at times, Mariani manages to make connections that give a deeper understanding of the man and the poet.
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879, and in many ways his life seems to have been a concerted effort to steer clear of his father’s wish that he return there and live a provincial life centered on family. There is an underlying irony, because while Stevens outwardly strained against that notion, and never returned permanently to Reading after graduating from Harvard, he did concede to his father’s vision by opting for a conventional career in insurance. And he did marry a girl from his hometown, the shy Elsie Kachel, but their early romance quickly waned, and the marriage became a hollow thing, with Stevens often traveling for work and Elsie retreating into her own insular world. The best word to describe Stevens’ relationships both with Elsie and the rest of his largely estranged family might be “arid.”
Stevens’ poetry, on the other hand, is anything but arid, with its dazzling wordplay and imagery. His complexity of thought has given generations of readers much to decipher and contemplate, and Mariani traces the origins of such iconic works as “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Stevens came of age as a poet somewhat late—his first book was not published until he was 44—in the exciting period around World War I when modernism was born. The most compelling sections of The Whole Harmonium detail Stevens’ interactions with other poets and artists of this time, as well as such influential mentors as the critic Carl Van Vechten, the patron Walter Arensberg and Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe.
While there has been much critical work done on Stevens over the years, there has not been a lot of biographical inquiry, perhaps because, as the Academy of American Poets website puts it, “Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life.” Though it is hard to convey a life of the mind, Mariani’s biography does justice to this cerebral, metaphysical poet and his enduring body of work.