Wartime letters of Wallace Stevens

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Walter Jongbloed ’16, for Prof. David Rosen’s course, “Modern Poetry”]

An Exchange of Letters between James Guthrie and Wallace Stevens: June 25, 1945 – Nov 23, 1945

photo 1Wallace Stevens, while living and working in Hartford CT, remained in contact with James Guthrie, founder of the British publishing company Pear Tree Press.  Guthrie was, aside from a publisher, an artist, endeavoring in prints and engravings.  The letters found in the Watkinson Library do not indicate how this interesting relationship began; however, between June 25, 1945 and November 23, 1945 these two men shared personal and profession aspects of their lives.  With World War II in progress between these dates, one can also witness the effect the War had on Stevens, or at least the feelings he was willing to write in his letters.  This series of letters reveal that both Guthrie and Stevens cared, in a professional sense, about the artistic work the other was producing.  In the first letter, however, dated June 25, 1945, Stevens reveals his desire for Guthrie to mail him one of his drawings.  Perhaps of more interest, though, Stevens reveals in detail the effect World War II was having on Hartford, CT.  He writes:

All during the war there have been very few visible signs of it here in Hartford.  Occasionally, on the street, one would see a long string of young men on the way to the draft board, but that was all.  We were intent on the war, yet it was far away.  At first, when someone that we had known was lost, there was an extraordinary shock; later, this became something in the ordinary course of events, terrifying but inevitable.  At the moment we are passing through a period of readjustment…From our point of view here at home, America has never been on the make, or on the grab, whatever people may have said of us elsewhere.  The Japanese war is likely to change all that.  This morning one of the people on the radio was talking about the necessity for having fortified outpost throughout the Orient.  I think most people would accept that idea quite naturally, and be willing to fight for it.

photo 2Certainly Stevens’ June 25th letter to Guthrie reveals the status of Hartford at this point in the War, yet it also presents a certain issue of immense interest.  What Stevens perhaps is alluding to is the idea of America as a world police.  Today the United States is constantly accused of policing the world; perhaps, Stevens found the turning point in history where this idea originated.  He does not explicitly say that he believes in this idea of fortified outposts throughout the orient, yet he does believe most Americans will fight for the idea of military precaution.  At the end of this letter, Stevens mentions a new publication containing his work.  He writes:

The Cummington Press…is going to print a small book for me during the next few months.  When it is published, I shall be glad to send you a copy.

Stevens wishes to send this book to Guthrie as soon as it is published.

After an exchange of two letters between Guthrie and Stevens, Stevens responds with a letter containing news on his recent book.  He writes about the status of his book:

When they were planning this new book they wanted to use color to some extent.  Accordingly, I sent them one of your books since green and blue were among the colors that they were considering.  Fortunately (I think) they concluded to do the text in black with initials and drawings in color.

This use of color Stevens mentions shows his desire for his poetry to be something contemporary and fashionable.  It is at this point where the relationship between Guthrie and Stevens becomes clear; Stevens values Guthrie’s work as a printer and his utilization of color in his publications; something he wishes to emulate.  Stevens evidently wants Guthrie’s artistic opinion of the book.

photo 4The Oct 18, 1945 letter was sent as Stevens held an executive position at a local insurance firm in Hartford.  In other words, Stevens was an insurance executive with upper-middle class standing.  His political opinions are somewhat unsettling:

More than ever there is a feeling that anything not a part of politics, not a part of sociology and not in a general way a phase of mass thinking has any right to exist.  What is going on in the world now is an extraordinary manipulation of the masses.  The manipulating forces are not apparent.  It can hardly be said that the politicians are manipulating forces because, as the great strikes demonstrate, the forces behind the strikes are defiant of the politicians.  The mechanism for this sort of thing has been perfected beyond belief…We have never exploited workers as they have been exploited elsewhere; it is still true I think that the man at the very bottom feels that there is a chance for him to be the man at the top.

Although the beginning portion of this message seems altruistic in that he upholds the importance of freethinking, the concluding sentences reveal his political opinions.  This paragraph, written by Stevens himself, provides a portal into the very mind of this poet and insurance executive.  From the passage above, what attitude does Stevens hold toward the lower class? Clearly he sees the lower class as exploited, yet it is obvious that he does not see this exploitation as bad.  In fact, he himself does not believe that there is a chance for the man at the very bottom to be at the very top, he just believes a man at the very bottom feels that there is a chance for him at the very top.  Perhaps Stevens believes that the poor will always think there is a chance for success, even if success is only a hope.  How does this dark ideology appear coming from an insurance vice-president?  Written in confidence to his close friend, this letter and the messages contained in it reveal a lot about his political opinions and his feelings toward the portrayal of his work in his about-to-be published book.

These letters, however, are just two in a series of around seven where both the realities of war in England and The United States are evident.  Certainly Stevens valued his dear friends opinion on the artistic appearance of his newly published book, while also hoping to receive some original artwork from Guthrie.  It is also possible, however, that these letters reveal a lesser-known side of Stevens; Stevens as an insurance executive.  Nonetheless, these letters are a classic example of documents preserved by the Watkinson Library in which a wealth of knowledge can be extracted to provide a richer understanding of modern poetry; specifically, the man behind the poems of, Hartford’s own, Wallace Stevens.

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