Wallace Stevens was taciturn, yet deeply emotional, aloof, yet highly expressive; he was an American poet who embodied the union of the artistic and the practical.
He was born on October 2, 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His father, Garrett Barcalow Stevens, was a schoolteacher turned attorney; his family had been in Pennsylvania for several generations. His mother, Margaretha Catharine “Kate” Zeller was also a schoolteacher.
Wallace’s relationship with his father was, at best, tentative. Though he would later claim to be a perfect amalgamation of both his parents’ best traits, Stevens actually seems to have grown to be a carbon copy of his father. Garrett Stevens’ self-discipline and ability to do many things at once was almost legendary. Wallace himself also possessed these traits. They allowed both men to succeed in both their professions and in their chosen avocations. Garrett Stevens was also known to be aloof and unaffectionate with his wife and children, a characteristic Holly Stevens claims her father also unfortunately perfected. Like his father, Wallace also was to become a powerful speaker and writer who received many awards and commendations in local oratory contests .
The Stevens boys’ school life is somewhat of a mystery. They initially attended a private kindergarten in Reading ran by a French woman. They then entered the grammar school attached to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Next, they enrolled in Reading Boys High School. During high school, Wallace’s grades fluctuated wildly. He would go from having the best marks in his class one semester to completely flunking his exams the next. He was forced to repeat his freshman year,which put him in the same class as his younger brother John. Wallace would later tell friends this retention was due to “too many nights out,” but school records indicate that he missed almost a year of school due to an unnamed illness. This illness is mentioned frequently in biographical information on Stevens, yet the exact nature of the illness is never clarified. The roots of the poet’s contradictory nature can be seen in these early days of education. In spite of being a miserable student, he was known to be incredibly intelligent and frequently entered and won local essay contests and competitive exams.
After barely graduating from Reading Boys High School, Stevens was accepted as a special student at Harvard University. It was here that several of his poems first appeared. In 1900, Stevens left Harvard without graduating. He went to New York to pursue a writing career, working briefly at the New York Tribune.
In 1901, Stevens entered New York Law School. He completed his degree there, and in 1904 was accepted in the New York Bar. It was also during this year that Stevens encountered Elsie Viola Kachel during a visit home. Elsie was a lifelong Reading girl, and in 1908 they became engaged. They married September 21, 1909. Their only child, Holly, was born in 1924.
Since his law school graduation in 1903, Stevens had been quietly and privately writing poetry in his spare time. Later in life, he claimed to get ideas for poems on his daily walks. He would walkabout town in the morning or on lunch breaks, then return to his office and dictate to a secretary who would put his ideas down on paper.
In 1923, Stevens’ first collection of poetry, Harmonium, was published by Knopf. Early reviews of Harmonium were disappointing. Critics called Stevens’ work“verbal stunts” and “unenduring.” Although Stevens was, at times, discouraged by such harsh criticism, after brief periods of licking his literary wounds, he would resume his compositions.
In the late nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties, Stevens had begun to achieve new heights of public and literary popularity. During this decade, he was invited to lecture at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities. Parts of a World was published in 1942, followed by Transport to Summer in 1947. In 1949, the awards began to pour in. That year, Stevens was awarded the prestigious Bollengen Prize in Poetry from Yale University. This was followed by two National Book Awards. Finally, Stevens received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955 for The Collected Poems.
Much of Stevens’ poetry has been described as obscure. The meaning is not transparent; the reader has to think deeply, to make personal and literary connections in order to comprehend and find meaning in it. Like the man who composed it, the work is full of contradictions. He was an odd combination of attorney and artist; the officious businessman who found personal solace in the most superfluous of art forms, poetry. In spite of biographical details and even his own recollections in journals and correspondence, the man remains, like his poetry, enigmatic. Fortunately, he chose to share just a few of his innermost reflections through his work, leaving the most private and intimate to remain a mystery.