THE WHOLE HARMONIUM by Paul Mariani

THE WHOLE HARMONIUM

The Life of Wallace Stevens
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KIRKUS REVIEW

The life of a venerated, enigmatic poet.

In 1943, after Marianne Moore first met Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) at a literary conference, she remarked to William Carlos Williams that Stevens “is beyond fathoming.” He was “so strange,” she added, “as if he had a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose….” That secret remains hidden even in this well-researched life by veteran biographer Mariani (English/Boston Coll.; Gerard Manley Hopkins, 2008, etc.), who mines Stevens’ correspondence, lectures, and poetry to chronicle his personal and aesthetic evolution. Aspiring to be a poet, Stevens nevertheless acquiesced to his father’s advice to train as a lawyer; after failing to get a permanent position in a legal firm, at the age of 29 he took a job in the insurance business, which, “given his personality and the difficulties he had working with people,” proved a better fit than a law career. The following year, after five years of courtship and despite his father’s vehement opposition, he married Elsie Kachel. He would come to decide his father was right: Mariani portrays Elsie as shy, possibly agoraphobic, and, as Stevens saw her, cold and spiteful. The poet spent much time on the road for work, often extending business trips to frolic with friends; at home, the couple did not share a bedroom. Mariani does not reveal affairs, but he quotes Stevens extolling “Cuban señoritas” in Florida. Stevens’ early poetry, marked often by “comfortable tranquility,” obscured the poet’s ferocity, “the angry man, the raging bull piqued by the picador.” One business associate expressed sympathy for his daughter, “her father being what he was.” Stevens, acutely sensitive to critics, found easy publication in literary magazines and with book publishers. Praised by such influential poets as Williams and Moore, he won accolades, prestigious awards, and honorary degrees, and his reputation has grown since his death in 1955. Though Mariani delivers plenty of biographical details, he doesn’t entirely open up his subject’s “brilliant, funny, haunting, musical, dark, and often consoling world.”

A solid, if not fully revealing, biography.

Pub Date: April 19th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4516-2437-3
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2016




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