The whole harmonium : the life of Wallace Stevens

by Paul L. Mariani

Hardcover, 2016




New York : Simon & Schuster, 2016.


"A perceptive, insightful biography of perhaps the most important American poet of the twentieth century, Wallace Stevens, by an accomplished biographer and poet who traces Stevens's lifelong artistic quest"--

Media reviews

Mariani’s is the kind of scholarly or critical, or perhaps better, uninquisitive biography that doesn’t say where or how Stevens met his wife, Elsie Moll, in 1904, but can’t do without a four-page discussion of ‘one of his signature poems, “Sunday Morning”’; that doesn’t stoop to explain what ‘surety claims’ are [...] but claims to hear ‘puns’ in such phrases as ‘barque of phosphor’ or ‘droning of the surf’ in the early ‘Fabliau of Florida’, or the ‘kaka: shit, merde’ within Stevens’s ‘envious cachinnations’ (which misunderstands, I think, the value, function and deployment of long words); that tackles his later years as though there was nothing in them but the composing and delivering of lectures. [...] Mariani has evolved a glissando paraphrase technique with which he skims through Stevens’s letters, poems and prose, mincing snippets of quotation and his own words in a nervous and unhelpfully unattributable way – almost in the hectic style of an unauthorised biographer not allowed to quote his subject. [...]
There is something very evidently life-affirming about Stevens that Mariani’s book doesn’t really convey. [...] [T]he signs of life in Stevens are not to be found there. They are solitary, and focused on things. They are the long walks he took as a young man in the Pennsylvania countryside and, when he lived in New York, along the New Jersey Palisades. They are ordering an expensive ‘alligator pear’ (the expressive term then for the avocado) in a restaurant. They are ‘the usual gifts of oranges for Holly from the Mays down in Jacksonville, and packages from Ceylon sent by Leonard van Geyzel, a gentleman planter whom Stevens had asked months earlier to gather local artefacts which only Ceylon could offer’, in Mariani’s culpably unexcited account. But this was precisely what excited Stevens; it was in fact what he lived for.
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What can another biography add to [Joan Richardson's and Peter Brazeau's]? Paul Mariani hopes to contribute a fuller representation of Stevens’s inner life. If the attempt fails, it is because the biography does not, or cannot, adequately convey the complicated feelings evident in the diction of Stevens’s poetry. Mariani’s stream-of-consciousness recital, as he ventriloquizes Stevens’s presumed thoughts while composing, wants readers to live within the poem as it comes to birth. That desire, however bravely conceived, produces strange pages that slip in and out of a cascade of quoted phrases evoking neither real Stevens nor real Mariani, but rather a hybrid “voice” mixing biographical “facts” and deduced “introspection” (with occasional interpolated critical observations). [...] “Has it all been a waste, then? Has it been a terrible miscalculation?” This maudlin tone in no way resembles Stevens’s own, which, even in grief, was not self-pitying but philosophical and ironic.
Mariani persuasively numbers Stevens among the twentieth-century poets who are both most powerful and most refined in their eloquence, along with Rilke, Yeats, and Neruda. [...] It takes heroic stamina to get through “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and other of the late long poems, which American literary culture coped with at the time by loading Stevens with every possible prize, honor, and encomium. Since then, his reputation has stood as a windswept monument, tended by professors. [...] [Mariani] has a prehensile feel for the roots and branches of literary modernism, exemplary taste in what he chooses to quote, and a real gift for exegesis, unpacking poems in language that is nearly as eloquent as the poet’s, and as clear as faithfulness allows.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Marcelocoelho
There is very little to tell about Stevens's famously uneventful life. Mariani fills the many pages of his book with very useful analyses of the most important poems written by Stevens. One would expect, however, a little more about Stevens's readings and friendships. Who is, for instance, Ramon Fernandez, so strikingly remembered in "The Idea of Order at Key West"? Paul Mariani was inable to answer this question, in spite of his deep researches in Stevens's correspondence.… (more)
LibraryThing member dasam
Wallace Stevens was a complex man who wrote complex poetry---and many criticize the man and the poetry as cold and intellectual. From my 1984 masters theses until today, I have found heart and passion and music in Stevens work. Paul Mariani's biography does a good job of revealing the same in the man and his work.

Yes, Stevens was often boorish, hard to get to know, and sometimes expressed racist and bigoted opinions. Mariani does not shrink from showing that part of the man. But we also see Stevens "at play" in the warmth of the Florida Keys as well as in his poetry.

The analysis and discussion of the poetry is good enough for a biography, allowing for the man to explain the poetry and the poetry to explain the man to some degree. Mariani concludes that Stevens "is among the most important poets of the twentieth and still-young twenty-first century," placing him with Rilke, Yeats, and Neruda. I would agree in terms of the 20th century while adding three women to the list: Wislawa Symborska, Marianne Moore, and E;Elizabeth Bishop---and I would leave out judgement on the current century except that Steven's influence certainly has grown wit time.

This is a good biography for both the experienced reader of Stevens and someone wanting to begin to live a bit with the music of Crispin and his poetic islands and cold snow.
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