Inky Pilgrimage

Mark Ford

  • The Contemplated Spouse: The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie edited by Donald Blount
    South Carolina, 430 pp, £30.95, January 2006, ISBN 1 57003 248 3

‘I am convinced,’ wrote Henry Church to the poet who had just dedicated to him his longest poem, ‘Notes toward a Supreme Fiction’, ‘that Mrs Stevens has had an important part to play in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.’ This was in 1943, by which time Mr and Mrs Stevens had been living together in marital discord for more than a third of a century. ‘Mrs Stevens and I went out for a walk yesterday afternoon,’ Stevens once quipped to a colleague at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; ‘we walked to the end of Westerly Terrace, and she turned left and I turned right.’ The Stevens household was neither mirthful nor relaxing, according to the few who penetrated it, for visitors were not encouraged and houseguests out of the question. ‘We held off from each other,’ Holly, their only child, recalled in Souvenirs and Prophecies (1977), her edition of the young Stevens’s journals; ‘one might say that my father lived alone.’

Yet Church was right: Elsie was central to Stevens’s poethood, although she refused to read his later poetry and resented his literary success. As part of his five-year courtship of her he composed a pair of 20-poem sequences, ‘Book of Verses’, which he presented to her on her 22nd birthday in 1908, and ‘The Little June Book’, given the following year. ‘It would only be proper,’ he wrote, ‘for you to have your own private book of verses, even if it were very small and if the verses were very bad.’ Although certain lines and images from both are carried over into Harmonium, neither sequence suggests that their author, who was then about thirty, was likely to metamorphose into one of the major poets of the 20th century. It seems to have taken the disappointment of the marriage itself, which he had fondly imagined as likely to ‘exceed all Faery’, to convert Stevens from a dabbler in 1890s-ish colours and textures and whimsicalities into the author of ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ and ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’.

Stevens met Elsie Viola Moll (née Kachel) in June 1904, during a visit to his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. He had been living in New York since 1900, and had discovered the hard way that ‘the world holds an unoccupied niche only for those who climb up – work and study, study and work,’ to quote one of the many exhortations with which letters to Stevens from his manically industrious father are filled. After a dispiriting attempt at a career in journalism, Stevens enrolled at New York Law School, and was admitted to the Bar a few weeks before a friend introduced him to Elsie at her home on South 13th Street, the wrong side of the Reading tracks. ‘All her life,’ Holly Stevens said of her mother, ‘she suffered from a persecution complex which undoubtedly originated during her childhood.’ Elsie’s parents married only shortly before she was born, and her father died the following year; her mother remarried when Elsie was eight, but her stepfather never formally adopted her. Unlike Stevens, who studied at Harvard, Elsie was not well educated: she had been forced by financial pressures to abandon high school in her first year. She was, however, an accomplished pianist, and found a job demonstrating sheet music in a local department store.

‘The music you desire,’ Stevens wrote to her midway through their prolonged courtship, ‘is the music that takes the spirit away from its surroundings and ministers to it.’ Certainly that was the music he desired of her, and in his courtship letters he frequently pictures her as a boundless source of soothing sounds that would allow him to forget the stresses of his surroundings and minister to his much battered spirit. When it comes to money, we tend to think of Stevens as the man who earned $17,500 a year in the middle of the Depression, or who purchased an 11-room house in a respectable district of Hartford, Connecticut with cash; but such affluence was the result of his dogged adherence to his father’s injunction to ‘work and study, study and work,’ and it was not until he was approaching forty that Stevens achieved a measure of financial security. A few months after meeting Elsie he writes in his journal: ‘Living a strange, insane kind of life. Working savagely; but have been so desperately poor at times as not to be able to buy sufficient food – and sometimes not any.’ At times it looked as if Stevens’s quest for a niche in the legal profession would turn out as badly as his career in journalism. On leaving law school he set up in partnership with a Harvard acquaintance, Lyman Ward, but this soon foundered. For the next three years he drifted from law firm to law firm. ‘Out of work,’ runs the terse entry in his journal for 15 September 1906. ‘I am in the mood for suddenly disappearing,’ that of 6 June 1907. It was not until he moved into insurance the following year, and the newly booming business of surety bonds, that Stevens found his professional niche – though even here his progress was slow and often thwarted. ‘I am far from being a genius – and must rely on hard and faithful work,’ he wrote disconsolately to his wife after being passed over for the position of surety manager in a New York bond enterprise. In 1914 he at last secured a better post, as resident vice-president of the New England Equitable Insurance Company, only for his branch of the firm to go belly up two years later. At this alarming juncture, however, one of Stevens’s earliest contacts in the surety world came to his rescue: James Kearney was now in charge of the bond department of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, an outfit poised to become a rival in literary fame to Kafka’s Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. ‘Come to Hartford,’ Kearney wrote to Stevens, ‘and I’ll put you to work.’ He remained on the company’s payroll for the next 39 years. Almost all his poetry was written during this period.

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