According to one of his business colleagues at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, the poetry Wallace Stevens wrote was a “bunch of gobbledygook.” According to critic Harold Bloom, Stevens was the “best and most representative” American poet of his time, who enjoyed an artistic flowering in his later years unrivaled since Sophocles. Whichever assessment is true, Stevens led a paradoxical life—a strait-laced insurance lawyer, with a poetic streak, during business hours, and an angst-ridden, hard-drinking, occasional brawler after work.
Born October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, the second of five children, his uneventful childhood was punctuated by an attack of malaria that forced him to repeat the ninth grade. He went to Harvard, where he edited the literary magazine. After moving to New York, worked as a newspaperman, frequented Greenwich Village artistic circles, published a few poems in literary magazines, and then went to law school. He took a job with an insurance company and in 1916 moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent the rest of his life.
Stevens married a Reading girl, Elsie Viola Katchel, who was, in his parents’ view, from the wrong side of the tracks. They did not attend the wedding, and Stevens never spoke to his father for the rest of his life. The marriage was difficult. Elsie was described by those who knew her as “a mousy little creature,” “unbalanced,” “not very helpful to Wallace,” “off the beam,” and a “witch.” For his part, Stevens was said to have “treated her like ash.” After the birth of their daughter, Holly, the couple moved to separate bedrooms and rarely saw or spoke to each other.
Elsie deplored alcoholic beverages, and Stevens, in the view of one of his employees, “liked a good drink-up.” Most of his carousing, accompanied by plenty of martinis or whiskey, was done on business trips to New York or solo vacations to Key West, Florida, where he liked to hang out—and sometimes exchange words or blows—with Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost. On several occasions he got into fierce arguments with Frost, who accused him of being drunk and “acting inappropriately.” Stevens once challenged Hemingway to a fistfight, and wound up with a broken hand, a broken nose, and two black eyes.
Stevens turned out lean, surreal, Modernist verses with an idiosyncratic vocabulary, often writing them surreptitiously between reviewing contracts at his insurance office. His poetic output included such landmarks as “Harmonium,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” They earned him a place of honor among Modernist poets, including his friends William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. The Pulitzer Prize, for his Collected Works, came in 1955, shortly before his death.
Stevens once referred to himself as a “dried-up Presbyterian,” but he maintained a lifelong interest in Roman Catholicism. On his many trips to New York, he would often stop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a couple of hours of meditation. He maintained correspondence with a nun named Sister Madeleva, the president of St. Mary’s College and also a poet, who urged him to “join the fold.” Stevens’ deathbed conversion, attested by the hospital chaplain, has been disputed by his daughter, Holly.
On March 28, 1955, Stevens went to see his family physician, Dr. James Moher, about stomach pains he had been having. Moher odered barium X-rays, which failed to disclose any disease. On April 19, still suffering, Stevens underwent more thorough X-rays, which showed diverticulitis, a gallstone, and a bloated stomach. He was operated on April 26, at Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital, by Dr. Benedict Landry, who discovered Stevens was suffering from stomach cancer. He returned home on May 11 to recuperate, but Elsie, who had had a stroke earlier that year, found herself unable to tend to him, and he was sent to Avery Convalescent Hospital on May 20.
In early June Stevens was feeling well enough to attend commencement ceremonies at the University of Hartford, where he was given an honorary degree, and on June 13, he went to New Haven to receive another degree from Yale. After that he returned to his job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity, but on July 21, he suffered a relapse and went back into the hospital.
During this final stay, he developed a friendshsip with the Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Arthur Hanley, with whom he had daily conversations. “I think I’d better get in the fold now,” Stevens told him. Father Hanley gave this account of Stevens’ conversion in a 1977 letter to Professor Janet McCann, a poet and professor at Texas A&M University:
“The first time he came to the hospital, he expressed a certain emptiness in his life…We sat and talked a long time. During his visit this time, I saw him 9 or 10 times…At least 3 times, he talked about getting into the fold—meaning the Catholic Church. The doctrine of hell was an objection which we later got thru… alright. He often remarked about the peace and tranquility that he experienced in going into a Catholic Church and spending some time. He spoke about St. Patrick's Cathedral in N.Y. I can't give you the date of his baptism. I think it might be recorded at the hospital. He said he had never been baptized. He was baptized absolutely. Wallace and his wife had not been on speaking terms for several years. So we thought it better not to tell her. She might cause a scene in the hospital…He said if he got well, we would talk a lot more and if not—he would see me in heaven.…”
On August 1 Stevens lapsed into a coma and died the next day at 8:30 a.m. at the age of seventy-five. He is buried in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.