Wallace Stevens

1879 –

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate from 1897 to 1900. He planned to travel to Paris and work as a writer, but, after working briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Times, he decided to study law. Stevens graduated with a degree from New York Law School in 1903 and was admitted to the bar the following year. He practiced law in New York City until 1916.

Though Stevens was focused on his legal career, he was also part of New York’s literary community. He had several friends among the writers and painters in Greenwich Village, including William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings. In 1914, under the pseudonym “Peter Parasol,” he sent a group of poems under the title “Phases” to Harriet Monroe as entries for a war poem competition hosted by Poetry magazine. Stevens did not win the prize, but Monroe published his work in November of that year.

Stevens moved to Connecticut in 1916, having found employment at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., where he became vice president in 1934. He had also begun to establish an identity for himself outside the worlds of law and business. His first book of poems, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf), published in 1923, exhibited the influences of both the English Romantics and the French Symbolists, and demonstrated a wholly original style and sensibility: exotic, whimsical, and infused with the light and color of an Impressionist painting.

For the next several years, Stevens focused on his business career. He began to publish new poems in 1930, however. In the following year, Knopf released a second edition of Harmonium, which included fourteen new poems, but excluded three of the decidedly weaker ones.

More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens spent his days behind a desk at his office, and led a quiet, relatively uneventful life.

Though now considered one of the major American poets of the twentieth century, Stevens did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Knopf, 1954), just a year before his death. His other major works include The Necessary Angel (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), a collection of essays on poetry; Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (The Cummington Press, 1942); The Man With the Blue Guitar (Alfred A. Knopf, 1937); and Ideas of Order (The Alcestis Press, 1935).

Stevens died in Hartford, Connecticut, on August 2, 1955.