Historical Markers
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) Historical Marker
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Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
323 N 5th St., Reading

Dedication Date:
October 2007

Behind the Marker

Portrait of Wallace Stevens Wearing a Suit
American poet Wallace Stevens, circa 1950.
When Wallace Stevens died in 1955, his obituary in the New York Times began with a perfect encapsulation of the duality of his life by identifying him-in this order-as vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and that year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. On the surface, Stevens always seemed like two people: the buttoned-down businessman who sits behind his desk every day poring over actuarial tables, on the one hand, and the groundbreaking American master of Modernism, capable of reaching into the darkest recesses of the imagination, on the other.

Stevens relied on both sides of his personal coin; indeed, he was made whole by them. As he once explained, "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job." Indeed, it was the very droning regularity of Stevens's day-to-day existence that freed the poet within him to soar. "Few poets," observed one recent critic, "have dared to live a life so unabashedly humdrum."

Even if the poetry itself could be, for the most part, intellectually imposing and challengingly abstract, Stevens was primarily a poet of ideas and the metaphysical. An enormous man physically, he liked wrestling with enormous concepts, wrapping his often meditative and philosophical verse around weighty themes: being versus knowing; the inability of the mind and logic alone to offer a clear window into the world; the spiritual malaise of modern existence; the restorative and hopeful powers of the imagination; the death of Christianity; and happiness on earth, however found, as its own joy and reward. Yet, if his poetic voice wasn't as lyrical as a nightingale's, it was always provocative:  evocative, probing, often exotic, and, at times, even whimsical. Convinced that poetry was "an experiment in language," Stevens let his words- sometimes made up for the effect of their marker sound- shimmer like the Impressionist paintings he so loved.

Despite the complexity of Stevens's writing, both as a poet and as a critic, his writerly ambition was startlingly simple: to understand and accept what it is to be human and to see the world with fresh eyes. As he once explained, "[Poetry] is the way of making one's experience, almost wholly inexplicable, acceptable." And though he never reached the heights of popularity enjoyed by such contemporaries as e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, and Carl Sandburg, it is Stevens whom Harold Bloom, the pre-eminent critical voice of the late twentieth century, has deemed "the best and most representative American poet of our time" and "a vital part of American mythology."
The second annual National Book Awards, for outstanding works by American authors, were made at the Hotel Commodore. Left to right are: Edward A. Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who presented the awards; Wallace Stevens, the poetry award, for "The Auroras of Autumn;" Newton Arvin, who won a special citation for his first novel, "The Trouble of One House;" and Saxe Commins, Random House editor, who accepted the plaque for Nobel-Award Winner William Faulkner, for "The Collected Stories of William Faulkner."
Wallace Stevens, second from left, receiving the National Book Award for poetry...
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading on October 2, 1879. His father, a lawyer, was an avid reader with an extensive library, and he encouraged his son to share this passion for books. Stevens attended parochial schools until he was twelve, then entered Reading's public system, where he excelled as a student and wrote for the high school paper en route to Harvard's Class of 1901. In college, he found his literary niche. He contributed poetry to both of the university's literary magazines, eventually becoming editor of the Harvard Monthly, until a reversal in his father's fortunes forced him to leave school in 1900, at the end of his third year.

Stevens might have left Harvard without a degree, but he had discovered his mission: to write. Settling in New York, he became a reporter for The New York Evening Post, but then found journalism less fulfilling than the poetry he crafted on his own time. If only he had the time-and the money-to pursue it completely. But he didn't. At the insistence of his father, he opted for practicality and the law.
Stevens enrolled at New York School of Law in 1901, and was admitted to the bar in 1904. After a few years in private practice, he entered the insurance industry in 1908, eventually relocating to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1916, and a desk at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Unpoetic as it may have been, Stevens found his work as a surety claims expert fascinating and fulfilling. He was promoted to vice-president in 1934, and remained with the company until his death. Which, in essence, is the rather uneventful story of Stevens' working life.

Stevens published nothing during his first years as a lawyer, but he immersed himself in New York's artistic community, regularly attending the theater and museums, and befriending such experimental poets as markerMarianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. He published his first poems-four in the prestigious magazine Poetry-in 1914. He published his two breakthrough poems "Peter Quince at the Clavier" and "Sunday Morning" the next year, and followed up, in 1916, with his stunning, Buddhist-influenced play, "Three Travellers Watch a Sunrise."

Harmonium, his first book-length collection, appeared in 1923, and contained many of his most admired poems: "Peter Quince," "Sunday Morning," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," and "The Emperor of Ice Cream." Though largely ignored by the critics, other poets acknowledged his brilliance. On first reading Stevens in the late teens, Hart Crane pronounced, "There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." The collection contained some of Stevens's most personal and accessible poetry.  Locked in a long and difficult marriage, he used his poems as metaphors for his unhappiness. Interestingly, the birth of his daughter in 1924 led to his one extended fallow period. The responsibilities of fatherhood weighed on him. "The extreme irregularity of my life," he wrote to Moore, "makes poetry out of the question, for the present, except momentary violences."  

Still, those momentary violences never fully abated. Stevens would work out poetic ideas in his mind as he walked from his home to the office in the morning-he had never learned to drive-then shape them at home when he returned. He published his second collection, Ideas of Order, in 1935. Now in his mid-fifties, Stevens built many of the new poems around getting older and dying.

Over the next twenty years, Stevens's reputation increased with each of the ten volumes of poetry that followed, most notably The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937); Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1942); the two National Book Award winners, Auroras of Autumn (1950) and the seminal Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1954), which was honored with the Pulitzer Price for poetry, as well. Stevens also published a collection of his literary criticism, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination in 1951, and two additional collections of poetry came out after his death, Opus Posthumous (1957) and The Palm at the End of the Mind (1972).

Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1946, Stevens received poetry's most prestigious achievement award, the Bollingen Prize, four years later. Shortly before his death, Harvard offered the Harvard dropout (though he had received an honorary degree in 1952) a professorship. Stevens declined. He still had work left to do at Hartford Accident and Indemnity.
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