Wallace Stevens: Hillbilly Deluxe

Twenty years ago, I was cavorting around the Kentucky backroads one day and happened upon the village of Mackville. While there I briefly visited with a lady, Mrs. Leonard Carpenter, the proprietress of the general store, who was in a guff because she’d moments before shooed away an idle youth—whom she referred to as a “nosey peckerwood”—from the shed behind her store. She allowed he was the eldest offspring of a whole family of idlers and little could be expected of the young man’s future. “You just can’t get above your raisin’,” dame Carpenter said. Raisin’ and rearin’ up happen to be an interest of mine concerning Wallace Stevens: his poems strike us as the work of a seasoned and urbane man; it is surprising to think he had a childhood, and perhaps more surprising to learn that
late in life he “dealt” with his childhood, as so many poets do, yet, characteristic of Stevens, his dealing was consciously impersonal and vague. I’ve been looking through Stevens’s letters, journals and some of the endnotes to the Library of America edition of his poetry and prose. Among the happier discoveries I’ve made
rooting around in Stevens’s life is the fact that his father was once the owner of a bicycle factory. In the summer of 1895 Stevens provided one fourth of a barbershop quartet, singing, not surprisingly, bass. As a law student in New York, Stevens took to walking around the city and its then outskirts; on one excursion he covered forty-one miles—in a single day! In 1936 at the age of fifty-five, clearly in possession of more than a petal from the flower of his youth, Stevens broke his hand in two places, after landing a punch on the jaw of one Ernest Hemingway, at some kind of artsy frat-party in Key West. Less happy is the fact that Stevens’s parents—for reasons I haven’t been able to unearth—disapproved of his marriage to Elsie Moll in September of 1909; in fact, they refused to attend
the wedding.

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Maurice Manning’s most recent books are The Gone and the Going Away, his fifth collection of poems, and The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, co-edited with Eleanor Wilner. A former Guggenheim fellow, Manning has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is a member of The Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at Transylvania University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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