Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in October of 1879. His family was Lutheran and had originally settled in the area as religious refugees. Due to his family’s wealth he was able to attend Harvard as a special, non-degree student for three years. It was his first ambition to become a writer and work as a reporter for the New York Herald Times. He was greatly influenced by the work of philosopher George Santayana.
Marriage and Early Career
Stevens returned to Reading in 1904 where he met Elsie Viola Kachel, a stenographer. The two were together for five years before they married in 1909. His parents objected strenuously to the marriage, as they saw her as too poor for their son. This conflict ended the relationship between Stevens and his parents. The couple had a daughter in 1924 named Holly. Although Elsie suffered from mental health issues, which eventually led to a physical separation, the couple never divorced.
Rather than pursuing writing he went to New York Law School in 1903 and was admitted to the bar a year later. While in New York Stevens became close with the painters of Greenwich Village, and poets Marianne Moore and E.E. Cummings. Stevens was dedicated to his law career and by 1914 he became the vice-president of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. The job was dissolved and moved to Hartford where he would spend the rest of his life.
It was also around this period that Stevens sent a group of poems to Harriet Monroe in an effort to win a war poem competition. His work was not selected but it was still published later that year.
Stevens first book of poems was completed while the couple lived on Farmington Avenue. It was titled, Harmonium, and was published in 1923. The influence of Romantic and Symbolist poetry on Stevens’ writing is clear in this volume. From the beginning his work was concerned with the imagination and its ability to transform the ordinary. He chose to spend the next years focusing on her business career but new writing emerged in 1930, as did a second edition of Harmonium in 1931.
The couple remained in the area until 1932 when Stevens purchased a house on Westerly Terrace which served as his home until his death. Financially he was very well off, earning what amounts to a three figure salary today, as an insurance executive. In 1935 his next collection, Ideas of Order, was published. It was followed two years later by The Man With the Blue Guitar.
Travels to Key West
One of the almost constant themes in Stevens work is Key West, Florida. He traveled there a number of times between 1922 and 1940. His first visit was in January of 1922 and he immediately thought the city a paradise. The influence of the area can be seen most poignantly in his first two collections: Harmonium and Ideas of Order. Although Stevens is now considered to be one of the most important poets of the 20th century, his work was not recognized till after his death. The volume, Collected Poems, finally brought him the acclaim he maintains to this day.
By the time the 40s were ending, Steven had already completed the bulk of his poetic output. In 1947 he published Transport to Summer. His career was still going relatively unnoticed but the volume was reviewed well.
Later Life and Illness
Stevens struggled with his weight for most of his life, often needing to be put on medical diets. In 1955, the final year of his life, his heath was continuing to deteriorate. He underwent a number of procedures for a variety of ailments. These included a severely bloated stomach and a gallstone.
During the his surgeries it was discovered that Stevens was suffering from stomach cancer. This was causing a blockage of his digestion. His daughter Holly was the only one told of his condition, Stevens remained ignorant of what was then a mortal diagnosis. Unfortunately, Stevens’ wife could not assist with his recovery when he returned home. This meant he reentered the hospital in late May.
Although still very ill, he was able to attended a ceremony to receive an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the University of Hartford. He later traveled to New Haven for an honorary Doctor of Letters. His health continued to worsen and he was readmitted to the hospital on July 21. He died on the morning of August 2nd 1955. His last competed work was The Necessary Angel, a collection of essays on poetry.