One of the most celebrated proponents of postmodernism’s main idea that we create our own reality discovered that the notion made his life unlivable and miserable. This giant of the literary world was a rebel without a cause. For the past fifty years his work has been used to inculcate the postmodernist mentality in university students. Yet, in midcareer he had to turn around from the many dead ends into which his ideas had led. He found himself rejecting the illusions that had made him famous.
A POET BORN
Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania. Wallace’s father, Garrett, was a successful lawyer who used his legal fees to invest in farms, rental properties, and new businesses. The family prospered until the turn of the century, when market downturns and a fire at one of Garrett Stevens’s businesses, a bicycle plant, undermined their stability. From the turn of the century onward Garrett struggled to maintain his family’s position in Reading society, of which he was extremely jealous.
Wallace, the second of five children, enrolled at Harvard in 1897. Stevens was influenced by French poetry, particularly Paul Verlaine’s work, which explores how the mind creates a private world. Stevens became a lifelong Francophile, reading extensively about Paris and eventually ordering books and paintings from shops there. He never actually took a trip to France, though. He wanted only the Paris of his imagination. He preferred that his own private world not be compromised by reality.
His father advised Wallace to follow him into law, but Wallace thought he’d try writing. He moved to New York in 1900 and worked for the New York Tribune and for the monthly magazine World’s Work. This proved a tough way to make a living, and after a short while he attended New York Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1904.
That summer while on a visit to Reading, he met Elsie Moll. Her mother, who came from a once-prominent family, had a troubled history. Elsie’s father passed away while she was still a child, and her mother’s next husband couldn’t afford to keep Elsie in school.
Wallace Stevens was soon smitten with Elsie Moll simply because she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She became his “muse,” as he began writing poetry in her honor. Wallace and Elsie courted for five years as Stevens struggled to establish himself as a lawyer in New York.
In 1909, Stevens felt secure enough to marry Elsie Moll. One summer evening he presented the beautiful young woman to his family at dinner. It was soon obvious that Stevens’s parents disapproved of the match. After Wallace had taken Elsie back to her home, he and his father quarreled. Stevens took his parents’ objections against Elsie as rank prejudice against her social background. Stevens’s father undoubtedly understood that lust had vanquished all other considerations. He tried to put a stop to the wedding.
At the culmination of the argument between father and son, Wallace shouted that if Elsie was not welcome, then he would never visit his father’s house again.
Elsie and Wallace married soon thereafter, holding a small ceremony, which none of Wallace’s family attended. Unlike most shouting-match threats, Wallace’s came true. His father died two years later in 1911, without ever having had Wallace visit him again.
DESCENT INTO MODERNISM
In New York, Wallace became part of an avant-garde group of artists. He became aware of the emerging artistic movements whose strands gathered in what came to be known as modernism. Modernism was essentially the attempt to establish the arts on a purely human basis, to create works that did not imitate life (because life was random) but were worlds unto themselves. Modernism relied on what were considered the unassailable materialistic assumptions of science. Stevens commented that “one must live in the world of Darwin and not of Plato.”
Stevens began writing his first mature poems during the years of World War I. And in 1916, Stevens joined the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, heading up its new surety bond department. He and Elsie moved to Hartford, Connecticut.
From this time until his death in 1955, Stevens’s life settled into dual tracks. On the one track he was a highly paid insurance executive. On the other track, Stevens the poet rose at six o’clock every morning to read for two hours, stoking his meditations for his daily forty-minute walk from his home to his office. (Stevens never learned to drive a car.) He composed much of his poetry on these walks, then dictated to his secretary the lines he had just conceived.
In 1923, A. A. Knopf published his first major collection of poems, Harmonium, which includes many of the poems universities currently teach their students. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” flatly denounces traditional faith, and “Sunday Morning” celebrates neo-paganism. The latter poem praises lusty bodily life as a far finer thing than heaven. The poet asks, “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be/ The blood of paradise?”
Critics recognized that a major poetic talent had debuted with Harmonium. A few found Stevens’s belief in art as life’s ultimate value facile and empty, however. Latter-day critics have been defending Stevens against these charges ever since, but Stevens himself seems to have taken the criticism to heart. For very personal reasons he was coming to recognize that our blood carries the seeds of our own destruction as well as the possibility of erotic bliss.
Not long after Stevens was married, he found that the youthful beauty he had married was also a person with her own likes and dislikes, many of which were contrary to his. In Hartford, Elsie quickly restricted the family’s social life. She didn’t like Stevens’s fashionable friends and was glad not to have them around. Indeed, because she felt unable to share in Stevens’s literary life, she came to despise it. No doubt Stevens played his unwitting part in encouraging her to feel this way. He was often a pompous fool.
Elsie became dismissive of her husband’s poetry, calling it “affected” as indeed some of it is. When Stevens set her up in a big home on Westerly Terrace in one of Hartford’s best neighborhoods, Elsie became a recluse.
In 1924, when Wallace and Elsie had a baby, Holly Bright Stevens, Elsie mothered her child in a manner that excluded Wallace from his daughter’s life. Both Wallace and his daughter longed for each other’s affection, but until Holly grew into a young woman, she saw little of her father. Elsie grew old just as quickly as she could. She dressed like a spinster and became as dowdy as possible.
Stevens’s life, far from being a neo-pagan riot on a Greek isle, quickly became wintry, grave, and cold. Elsie and Wallace set up separate suites for themselves in the house on Westerly Terrace. At night they ate dinner together in stony silence before retreating to their separate bedrooms.
The grimness of Stevens’s life was partly relieved by the winter trips he took south every year from the mid-1920s to 1940. A favorite Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” came out of such a trip. This poem typifies much of Stevens’s work, particularly in its attention to how the mind shapes our experience. He imagines a woman singing by the sea, contrasting the sophisticated design of her song the imaginative world it brings into being with the monotonous and unmindful sound of the sea itself.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
The trouble with being the singer the maker of one’s own world becomes apparent as soon as one tries to live there. What makes Stevens truly great, in my opinion, is that he thought through answers that were too easy and discarded them.
Stevens’s own dissatisfaction with the point of view of Harmonium virtually put a stop to his poetry writing for seven years. He would eventually make fun of his own affectations. In “The Motive for Metaphor,” Stevens writes how he used poetry to evade seeing himself clearly. His poetry was the place “Where you yourself were never quite yourself/ And did not want nor have to be.”
ASCENT TO REALITY
Gradually, several developments in his life began to call Stevens out of his despair. He remained faithful to Elsie, despite their alienation, and as a result his relationship with his daughter slowly developed and became increasingly important. He came to recognize that life had a meaning beyond the two tracks of his own life: materialism and aestheticism.
Stevens’s relationship with Holly finally directed his attention back to his family in Reading. When his youngest brother, John Bergen Stevens, died in 1940, Wallace attended the funeral. Only one of his four siblings, Elizabeth, remained alive. At the funeral, Stevens met most of his nieces and nephews for the first time. He began sending them gifts and doing small favors to advance their careers.
By this time, Stevens, in his sixties, had performed a complete about-face on the importance of relationship and community. He began a quest to trace his genealogy. Stevens wanted to come to terms with the people who had made him what he was particularly his mother’s line, the Zellers, whose religious faith Stevens found impossible to forget. Every time he went to New York, he visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, becoming so knowledgeable about the cathedral’s history that he took friends on guided tours.
In Stevens’s final poems, several among his greatest, he began to glimpse an imagination at work in the world, an imagination that was far greater than his own. Stevens had always written as if the poet’s art imposed order on an otherwise dead and meaningless world. He finally saw that the poet’s imagination only touched the far greater imagination of his Maker.
On April 26, 1955, Stevens underwent exploratory surgery that revealed inoperable stomach cancer. He began to talk with the chaplain of St. Francis Hospital, Father Arthur Hanley, about becoming a Catholic and being baptized. Father Hanley counseled with Stevens more than ten times over a period of months before baptizing him and receiving him into the Catholic Church.
The questions that the ultrasophisticated poet Stevens and Father Hanley discussed turn out to be the questions that everyone asks: Stevens wanted to know whether hell truly exists and why the world is full of suffering. Father Hanley explained the necessity of free will and Jesus’ own insistence on the reality of hell. In the end Stevens found Father Hanley’s answers liberating.
After his baptism, Stevens, according to Father Hanley, seemed very much at peace. Hanley quotes Stevens as saying, “Now I’m in the fold.” Stevens finally realized that life is not about inventing ourselves but about finding “the center,” the place in God’s world where we are kept secure.
FINDING THE GOOD LIFE
The Norton Anthology of World Literature, a standard textbook in many universities, describes Stevens’s poetry this way: “Stevens finds the ultimate human value in the artist’s freedom to imagine the world anew in a ‘supreme fiction…’ [an] artistic transformation whose creation is enough to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless universe.” That’s an accurate statement about Stevens’s early work, but it’s the only part of Stevens’s story most people know, leaving an impression that Stevens himself found this point of view satisfying. Instead, the whole of Stevens’s life and work reveals the unlivable and self-refuting nature of postmodernism.
He discovered that the worldview he followed, the one contrary to the Christian view of reality, simply isn’t workable. It can’t be true because it fails to conform to reality. Toward the end of his life, Wallace Stevens realized that humankind was God’s idea, not God humankind’s and he reconciled himself with reality’s Author.
Stevens’s poetry shows that he was moving for years toward a Christian view of reality. His decision to be baptized may well have been hastened by his impending death, but this deathbed conversion was the logical culmination of the hard lessons experience had taught Stevens. The great poet was finally smart enough and honest enough to cast off his celebrated illusions and live the truth. Repenting of his rebellious nature, he gave himself to his immediate family, to the broader community of his nieces and nephews, and finally to God. He found the good life, at last.
(Charles Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. For more information go to www.pfm.org.)