A Literary Life
Age Range: 1879 - 1955
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A carefully, if narrowly, drawn map of the battle lines in poet Stevens’s aesthetic and personal struggles. A British specialist in modern and American literature, Sharpe (Lancaster Univ.; T.S. Eliot: A Literary Life, not reviewed) focuses on the place of Stevens (1879-1955) as an American intellectual revolutionary in the spirit of Bradford and Emerson. Stevens rejects the Old World culture represented by Hawthorne’s fictional patron Major Molineux, Sharpe contends, in order to be the sole arbiter of the world he sees. Stevens’s complex work is a dialogue between the newness and nothingness of America and the history and conventions of Europe. The author relates this same fear of petrified convention to Stevens’s rejection of contemporaries like Pound and Eliot, whom he saw as overly public, avant-garde, and political. Younger poets like Robert Lowell admired Stevens, but “echoed Pound’s earlier suspicion that Stevens failed to take the poetic vocation seriously.” Sharpe doesn’t accept the popular image of Stevens as a prim poetry-writing executive (Hartford insurance) who dismisses and distances himself from poets as impoverished dandies or “extraordinary madmen.” Instead, he reveals, through biography and journal entries, a pained and private man who had strained relationships with his parents, wife, and daughter. He could write friendly letters to physician William Carlos Williams (another professional who doubled as a major poet), but put the visiting Williams up in a hotel. His public readings were rare and torturous. Sharpe’s Stevens is a private warrior. In his journal entries, “Stevens implied that poetry and war involve a confrontation with things as they are for which the imagination proposes alternative arrangements—the poet and the soldier are both interventionists.” Never popular, Stevens best survives in academe and in his influence on even more painterly and less philosophical postmodernists. There may have been a powerful story here about art vs. the artist, but Sharpe’s impressively scholarly study will interest only devotees of modern poetry.

Pub Date: Dec. 13th, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-22069-3
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1999


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