The `real' and `on paper' minds of a poet

Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923, by Joan Richardson. New York: William Morrow-Beech Tree Books. 591 pp. $21.95. Sometimes thought of as the insurance man who wrote poetry, Wallace Stevens may more accurately be described as a major poet who also worked in the insurance business.

A man who found it hard to express his feelings without recourse to diverse kinds of ironic distancing, Stevens wrote poems often criticized as cold, cerebral, and academic. Yet, increasingly, critics and ordinary readers have penetrated the polished surfaces of his poems to discover the humane and poignantly human voice of one of this century's greatest poets.

But if the poet at last grows palpable through his poems, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), the man himself, remains a prospect more forbidding than even his most recondite writings. The face on the dust jacket of his ``Collected Poems,'' despite its meditative look, still resembles that of an old-style boss calling some hapless underling on the carpet. Stevens could be rather disagreeable and was quite aware of it, noting of himself that he did not get on with either his superiors or his peers.

To write meaningfully of Stevens's life requires an understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between the inner and outer man. In her introduction to this first book of a projected two-volume biography of the poet, Joan Richardson states that the ``central intrigue'' of her study is ``the question of why Stevens considered there to be a distinction between the self he commanded `on paper' and the self he presented `in reality' . . . .'' It is evident, both from her expressed intention and from the scrutiny she brings to bear upon her subject, that she fully recognizes that a biography of Stevens must indeed be a ``life of the mind,'' and that she is deeply committed to bringing that mind to life.

Richardson, a professor of English at the City University of New York graduate school, combines a variety of perspectives in her complex and moving portrait of the poet's early years, from his small-town Pennsylvania boyhood to the publication of ``Harmonium,'' his first volume of poetry, in 1923. These were the years that Stevens's exposure to the Harvard of William James and George Santayana, of burgeoning Oriental studies, and of many attempts to revivify or replace those traditional religious beliefs threatened by post-Darwinian materialism. They were years in which Stevens tried to turn his literary gift to the practical world of journalism, only to abandon this for the greater security of the legal training that eventually led to his highly successful career in the insurance business. These were also his formative years as a poet, years in which he formulated his ideas on paper and tentatively measured himself against past masters and less-daunting comtemporaries. And these were the years in which he courted and married Elsie Moll, the beautiful home-town girl seven years his junior. He married her after a five-year courtship, during which the greater part of their contact took place on paper rather than in person.

Yet one feels a slight uneasiness in reading this book. Indeed, eventually one notices how the same handful of quotes from the same few poems are used over and over, even when not particularly appropriate. It seems, at times, that the biographer is forcing the key to fit the lock. Although Richardson employs a sophisticated combination of approaches, she is not always skillful in handling them. What this otherwise excellent book lacks is that final note of authority, the sureness of touch to be found, for instance, in Walter Jackson Bates's life of Keats (to which one of the dust jacket blurbs extravagantly compares this book). Whether or not Richardson achieves this authority in the forthcoming volume (which covers the period of his greatest poetry), the present volume stands as the best life of Stevens to date and as a richly suggestive and intriguing starting point for further endeavor.

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