Book Review: The Whole Harmonium
The Whole Harmonium:
The Life of Wallace Stevens
by Paul Mariani
Simon & Schuster, 2016
When Adam Kirsch, writing in The Atlantic about The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani’s new biography of Wallace Stevens, quipped: “The story that Mariani tells in 400 pages could be reduced, in its essentials, to 400 words” – and then proceeds to tell it in 170 – that really should have been the end of the matter. Even the most patient and generous of readers might wonder what could possibly be the point of revisiting the life Joan Richardson chronicled in such detail in two volumes back in the 1980s. Stevens went to Harvard, married, worked at a Hartford insurance company for his entire life, and used a portion of his evenings, weekends, and vacations to write some of the most boring verse in modern American letters, exactly the kind of drearily syrupy stuff you’d expect a pinched and unpleasant middle-aged claims adjuster to churn out in his spare time.
In any artist’s biography, there’s the artist part and the biography part, and the dramatic payoff of the enterprise invariably arises out of the tensions between the two. We read a biography of Shelley and watch the fitful torment of his days spike all through his verse; we read the vast, intense verse of Octavio Paz and hear the powerful echoes of his life’s events rolling through it. We read the life-facts of Wallace Stevens, put them aside, and then read his poems. They synchronize every bit as neatly – and every bit as pointlessly – as a fingerprint and a passport photo.
Even as skilled a writer as Mariani, an English professor at Boston College, can do very little with this dismaying, placid agreement.
He does his best. But at every turn in telling the life story, he comes slamming into the fact that his subject’s life is the worst possible combination of dull and off-putting (when one talks about an essence of place, this would be Hartford). At any point in Stevens’ life, wherever Mariani turns, he finds the same boorish dyspepsia and is compelled to provide the always-damning quotes:
But his misanthropy went even deeper than that and helps explain why – in a city of four million, many of them immigrants – he felt so lonely. And if, by April, spring had finally arrived, robed in its brilliant violets and vermilions, yellows and whites, he also noted how pallid and sickly everyone looked, including the clientele at the Astor House Bar when he’d stopped there for a drink after work. Everyone looked blotchy, like bloodless bloated toads, “and many a good honest woman had a snout like a swine.”
And the results are little better on the poem side of the agreement, although here at least Mariani can indulge in his own purple flights of fancy, as when he works himself into a tizzy over the poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:
The poet, then, bent over the words upon his desk as he begins not an aria this time but a long tink-a-tunk serenade. Not an epic with trombone crescendo, but the poet with a guitar, a shearsman of sort, a tailor sewing together from various patches of text or textile a new sort of poem, this one in four-beat liens with anapestic variations, with an extra stress as needed. A man who “shares” with us his own history and genetic makeup and poetic proclivities, summoned now by an audience he does not know, can never know, to sing for them a song for their time which will at the same time enlarge them and make of the moment a heroic time. A man who will sing a green reality on the strings of his imagination, his blue guitar, his contemporary lyre and cithern and psaltery all in one, and yet sing for the ages …
There’s no denying the tink-a-tunk part …
The Whole Harmonium is shorter than either of Joan Richardson’s volumes, and it’s a punchy production from start to finish. Wallace Stevens fans who’ve always experienced a frisson over the fact that he could have a nine-to-five job and still win a Pulitzer Prize will get shivers afresh at the old familiar story of their beloved Bard of Hartford telling tipsy Jew jokes to select groups of well-wishers and jotting down fifteen lines of verse in his hotel room before taking the elevator to his expense account buffet. His long-time friend (and wife of one of his many proteges in the insurance racket) Margaret Powers used to refer to him as “that charming man” and “that charming person.” Readers disposed to see that charm now have a new book to search for it.