from The Dark Horse, Spring & Summer 2014
In November 1979, Juliette Moran addressed a meeting of the Poetry Society of America on a panel celebrating the centennial of Wallace Stevens. Also speaking that day were such literary luminaries as Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom, but Juliette was neither a poet nor an academic. She was a chemist who, over a 40-year business career, had risen to the rank of executive vice president of a billion dollar company, GAF Corporation—one of the few women of her time to hold a top corporate job without benefit of a family connection.
She was invited to speak by her friend Judith Johnson, then president of the Society, who knew Juliette could offer unique insight into the mind of this great American poet who was also a successful executive. ‘I asked Juliette to write her Stevens essay because so much of business communication, and science communication, is coded and uses arcane terms or modes of thought understandable mostly to other practitioners,’ Johnson told me by e-mail. ‘I thought that aspect of Stevens’s writing, even of his modes of thought around his writing, reckoning assets and liabilities in any poem he wrote, would be at least not completely opaque to Juliette. I was pretty sure that those coded aspects of his thought were not dealt with by literary people, except in literary terms, and that thinking in business and scientific modes would unlock a further richness in his writing. Partly this comes from a stance I think I shared with Juliette, that there is no reason for a “two cultures” style gulf between poetry and science or poetry and business.’
Juliette’s essay takes this idea even further: She posits that despite all appearances to the contrary, there is no real gulf between Stevens the insurance executive and Stevens the poet. I think she makes a persuasive case for this point of view, and as her close friend of more than three decades, I think I know why. Like Stevens, Juliette was a public person with a penchant for self-concealment. In her private life, she was an ardent reader and lover of poetry and music. As an executive, she made tough choices without waffling or flinching. Stevens’s wordplay delighted her all the more because she could see the passionate heart behind the incisive legal mind.
Shortly before she died last October at 96, Juliette handed me a copy of the Poetry Society Bulletin with her essay in it (Winter 1980). She told me she was always proud to have gotten the most applause, and the most questions, of any of the panelists. Johnson, now retired as a professor of literature, used to assign the essay as ancillary reading to her modern poetry students, but other than that, as far as we can tell, it has completely disappeared from scholarly view. We are happy to remedy this by publishing it here. —Marcia Menter
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'Thus in the very act of dying he clung to what he himself had
called the delusive faculty ... '
— Wallace Stevens, 'Imagination as Value'
Some forty years ago, when I was starting my full-time working life, I read the following passage—Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, commented on by Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own:
'It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth .... [T]he poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog's chance ... a poor child in England had little more hope than the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born . . .' That is it. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.
I had passionately agreed with every other thought in Woolf's book, but these words were chilling. I looked around to see whether in democratic America there were some rebutting examples, and found Whitman—wifeless, childless, houseless Whitman. Closer to my own time there were many poets who, as descendants of Samuel Johnson, were earning their livings from some aspect of professional word-making: professors, clergymen, librarians, journalists. Frost 'rescued' from the farm, Eliot 'rescued' from the bank: they were all in the same quasi-academic, professional men-of-letters pattern.
It seems quite clear that in our country, from its beginning, the poet had to find a way to earn a living in a self-contained literary community outside of and opposed to the mainstream of society: the absent-mind professor and the parlor lizard versus the robber baron and the cowboy. Or, in W. S. Gilbert's more elegant terms, 'an ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical, out-of-the-way young man' versus 'a matter-of-fact young man, an alphabetical, arithmetical, everyday young man' (Patience, Act II).
This question of the relationship of economics, society and poetry has continued to intrigue me. But when I began earning my living in industry, a second, even more interesting question arose: How could business life in the modern corporation be so misunderstood? How had the men of letters managed to picture the kaleidoscopic world in which I found myself as the boring dead end of Gilbert's lyric?
Working in a corporation, I found myself captive to a closed world with its own history, geography, language, customs and rituals: a world which not only provided me with food, clothing and shelter but which made me rise to a relentless series of physical, mental and moral challenges. A world which would have, if I had allowed it, completely filled my days and nights.
Sometimes my colleagues and I were living an Elizabethan drama, with treachery behind every water cooler and blood on every office floor. Sometimes it was all drawing-room comedy, with the crackle of witty dialogue and the liveliness of parlor games. Sometimes it was the march of hollow men chained together as they wandered through the desert. Sometimes it was a wild exploration through a flowering jungle. Most often it was our own small Anabasis—a retreat through alien territory where, after much travail, we were finally able to cry out, 'Thalassa!'
No one who wrote books seemed to know anything about this world except as a faintly unpleasant joke or menace.
During my many years of thinking about the twin conundrums of the practical man versus the esthete, and the business organization I knew versus the ones I read about, I discovered Wallace Stevens, successful lawyer and businessman—and great poet.
The official literary biographical notices about his business career are clearly stated on the jacket of my copy of Harmonium, and repeated verbatim on every other one of the works which came out in his lifetime: 'Studied law at New York Law School, receiving his degree in 1903. In 1904 he was admitted to the New York Bar and began to practice in New York City. Since 1916 he has been associated with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, of which he became vice-president in 1934.'
It can be added that he stayed in that company until his death in 1955. He had been 39 years full-time with 'the Hartford', continuing to work some ten years after the normal retirement age of 65.
It is extraordinarily difficult to find out exactly what Wallace Stevens did during his waking hours after that point in his life when he recognized that journalism would neither supply him with sufficient money to leave his rooming-house existence nor provide him with the emotional sustenance which comes from being the acknowledged master of a craft.
His father, a lawyer, had urged him to try law. Economic compulsion finally forced him into it. After graduation in 1903 came several sterile years of working in small legal partnerships in the miscellaneous private practice of the day. In 1908 he joined the American Bonding Company of Baltimore, where he at last found work that gave him sufficient confidence to undertake marriage and the setting up of a household according to the standards of any lower-middle-class, no-longer-so-young man from Reading, Pennsylvania.
In 1913, one of his colleagues at the bonding company left to join the newly formed Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., a subsidiary of the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. In 1916, this colleague invited Stevens to join him. Stevens accepted and moved to Hartford. In the company publication of that year, we read the following record of his appointment:
Mr. Stevens will have charge of claim and legal matters in the Department. As a member of the New York Bar he specialized for a number of years in the Law of Suretyship, and in 1908 was induced by the American Bonding Company of Baltimore to devote himself exclusively to its legal matters in New York. On the merger of the American Bonding Company with the Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland, he went with the latter company as its law officer in New York. In these capacities he had unusual opportunities to gain the experience necessary for the efficient handling of claims arising out of suretyship, which in its beginnings as a business in this country may almost be said to have been a phase of the lawyer's profession.
The Company considers it of the greatest importance that its surety claims be handled in the usual broad and open-minded 'Hartford' way, without technicalities and without offense, in both of which particulars, however, surety claims present many pitfalls for the inexperienced. The Company believes that in Mr. Stevens, 'Hartford' agents will find a man peculiarly fitted to maintain the traditions and practices of the Company in this respect.
Stevens had as his primary responsibility overseeing the claims arising from the company's bonding insurance. This type of insurance covers guarantees of performance. For example, if a corporation has a contract with a builder for the construction of a new plant to be finished by a certain date, a performance bond may be purchased from an insurance company, so that if the builder has not met the terms of the contract, the insurance company will pay an agreed sum as compensation. All of us have heard of the bonded messenger and the bonded employees who handle money or other valuables, and the bonds which officers, trustees and guardians must have in meeting their fiscal responsibilities. Again, an insurance company has agreed to pay if a defalcation occurs.
Stevens apparently had no responsibilities for the selling of the insurance, which was done through thousands of local agents in the U.S. and Canada, or with the decisions to accept the bond, which was done with the help of a large group of engineers and other experts. His role began at the ticklish moment when a claim was being made under the bond. In his letters to his wife up to the early 1920s, we find that he was in the field negotiating settlements on these cases or working with the local counsel on the court suits which result when the insurance company and the surety holder cannot agree on the payment.
Stevens had up to this time spent his life essentially in three Eastern cities: Reading, Pennsylvania, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York. He was now suddenly traveling endlessly through the entire country. The letters come in quick succession from St. Paul, Atlanta, Miami, Albany, Omaha, Houston, Indianapolis, Chattanooga and Knoxville.
A May 16, 1920 letter from Erie, Pennsylvania sums up the situation:
I have been so hard pressed by the various twists and turns of the five cases that I am juggling at once in three or four different places that I feel like a Cuban chess-player trying to beat fifty antagonists all at a time.... These cases are by far the most difficult and dangerous I have ever handled for the Company and I am determined to do as nearly perfect a piece of work on them as can be done ... the telephone rang and I was underway for the day—floating on a Gulf Stream of talk with lawyers, conntractors, dealers in cement, lumber and so on. I have not had a poem in my head for a month, poor Yorick....
On his business trips, Stevens frequented commercial hotels and restaurants in small towns, traveled on coal-burning trains in Pullman cars, and endured weather extremes from southern summers without air conditioning to winter blizzards in Minnesota. It is remarkable how little he complained. We know that traveling made at least one positive addition to his intellectual life, since because of it he came to know that southern landscape which became a permanent part of his poetry.
Stevens did well in his work of settling claims and finally became the head of the department. He could then delegate others to go on the road for fact-finding and settlement missions while he remained in Hartford, except for the most important problems.
As the business grew, the number of policies and claims grew proportionately. An attorney who as a young lawyer just out of Harvard Law School worked for Stevens in the early 1950s tells me that by then, Stevens was administratively responsible for some fifty professionals—not only in the home office at Hartford, but in branch offices around the country.
The testimony of this now-mature lawyer is interesting to consider. He says that Stevens, then in his seventies, was the 'world's worst administrator', and that 'he could not understand ordinary people and their problems'. Yet he acknowledges gratefully that he was sent out by Stevens with the company's cheque book to settle claims on his own with no interference, a heady experience for a boy three months out of law school. His voice deepens into admiration as he talks about Stevens's 'great legal prose'. Stevens, he says, 'related to words, not people'. When asked about the poetry, he says they all knew about it but it never impinged on the work day: 'I always say that the poetry and the law parts of Stevens's mind were entirely separate, and that he was the only sane schizophrenic I ever knew.'
This is probably the general verdict and perhaps the one Stevens wanted. His colleagues and clients in the insurance world were to see only the craftsman of insurance dealing out firm, lucid and equitable relief in the narrow business of $500,000 claims for faulty machines. The readers of his poetry were to see only an intelligent sensitivity grappling with great philosophical themes, mankind considered sub specie aeternitatis, an homme-de-lettres who had recently stepped out of Mallarmé's salon.
Since the people who knew him in Hartford talk about the sardonic wit which is also evident throughout the poetry, it's possible that there was one central personality, quite integrated, which was indulging in deadpan humor at the expense of both sides—the business and the literary.
What made Stevens's business career so successful? He had not been considered outstanding in the Harvard of Santayana. He had failed in the yellow journalism of New York in the early part of the century. There is no indication in his letters or diaries that the rote learning of New York Law School inspired him with any desire to become an academic scholar of law, a judge, or a trial lawyer. He fails again as a general lawyer handling the variety of shoddy little personal and commercial problems that are brought to a small private lawyer such as his father had been. Suddenly he is hired to be a surety lawyer, and is sparklingly successful for the next forty years, kept in his job by a tough-minded firm long after the normal retirement age.
What qualities in Wallace Stevens made this change from mediocrity to eminence possible? We know he was a master of words, and a bond is a contract where very concrete specifics are promised by one party to another. The insurance company pays if the exact promise is not scrupulously kept. On the one side is the interest of the client, who has paid for a service to which he is entitled. On the other side is the insurance company, which must defend the interest of its other policy holders and shareholders in making sure it does not pay for claims that are fraudulent or excessive. In this light, one is less inclined to smile at the quaint language of that 1916 Hartford announcement about Stevens, and readier to recognize why the company and he agreed that an honest and equitable settlement must be achieved.
Consider the daily mountain of claims and counter-claims Stevens read in those endless memos, court papers and contracts. Everyone involved is, at a minimum, presenting his case from a partisan point of view. Many are liars and even criminals. Amidst these chaotic papers the facts must be found and weighed, and a wise decision reached.
The storyteller could take this welter of papers and draw from it tales that Kipling or Conrad would have relished, but we know that no equivalent to James Cain's Double Indemnity is to be found in Stevens. His colleagues saw that his equitable mind, looking at the tangled masses of contradictions, cared not for the emotions involved but only for the reality and the moment of decision. In Stevens's ability to disentangle the relevant facts under the laws of contract and to reach a lucid solution, they recognized an elegant legal mind running an exercise as constrained and shapely as a sonnet. The exercise required total unbiased honesty in a situation of confusion and irrationality; a lack of emotional entanglement was a plus. To successfully negotiate this jungle, Stevens used not just the talents and mind of the poet but the self-confidence necessary to poets.
The ability to earn a respectable living meant that Stevens could finally marry the woman of his choice. A comfortable house with a piano and a garden, French wines, and occasional vacations in Florida and Cuba also became possible because of that mind. The same mind, which he has characterized as rabbinical, informs the poetry:
It was the custom
For his rage against chaos
To abate on the way to church,
In regulations of his spirit.
How good life is, on the basis of propriety,
To be followed by a platter of capon!
'Winter Bells', Collected Poems (p. 141. Page numbers are for Alfred A. Knopf's 1974 reprint of the same publisher's 1954 Collected.)
And also in 'Farewell to Florida':
My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds ...
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold ...
Collected Poems (p. 118)
There appear to be at least three possible relations between a strong creative talent and the business world. The first is the totally negative one, as when Bloomsbury set out to rescue 'poor Tom' from being an efficient loan officer at a bank. The thought of one of their own being unable to do his work as a poet because of the bank, no doubt, was almost physically painful to them.
The other extreme is the talent lost to the world of trade, turning into Mistah Kurtz, or perhaps more agreeably into Sir Purun Dass, or, in real life, Rimbaud choosing the slave trade. These extremes are easy to understand. Hating business activities and struggling furiously toward some semi-literary way of earning a living describes the path of most 20th century American poets. Submerging all other talents and ambitions to an overwhelming urge to master some complex commercial fortress may be as common as the two others, if harder to identify.
Surely extraordinary poetic talent nurtured and published while enjoying an equally positive and effective business role is a rarity: an event only possible in a situation where the poet's temperament is detached enough to permit him to do his work well but without giving it the total and draining emotional commitment made by the usual successful senior manager.
In Souvenirs and Prophecies, her biography of her father's early life, Holly Stevens says, 'I cannot explain the great leap from the juvenile verses to "Sunday Morning".' She is talking about the 1915 poems published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry. Up to this point in her biography, Stevens has been writing increasingly accomplished but straightforward verse, from sonnets in the Harvard Advocate to the book of birthday lyrics he presented to his fiancée, Elsie Moll, in 1908. Suddenly in 1915 come the first poems which are in the unique Wallace Stevens voice, a voice which continues until his death forty years later.
It is possible to propose a theory of what changed a competent craftsman into that unique voice. In 1908 and 1909, the two turning points of the life of this man in his early thirties occurred: he joined the staff of a bonding company, and he married. By 1915, he knew he would be spending the rest of his life with these two realities and he knew exactly what they encompassed. I leave to others discussion of that marriage. For my purposes I need only point out that Elsie is described by her daughter as having a 'strong regard for privacy'. She could not overtly continue to fill her husband's poetry if it were to be published.
In the bonding business, Stevens spent his time with people who, though worthy, were both ignorant and scornful of poetry and totally accepted the absent-minded professor and moonstruck-poet stereotypes of the day. Had they thought the lawyer dealing with them to be a poet, negotiations would have been impossible.
Imagine looking at a lawyer and thinking about these lines from Elsie's birthday book:
My wings shall beat all night against your breast,
Heavy with music-feel them there aspire
Home to your heart, as to a hidden nest.
Souvenirs and Prophecies (p. 193)
It really won't do. And yet here is a man mad for literature, painting and nature, unable to have any dialogue on these matters in his nearest human relations, and spending his energies in the clever exercise of his mind without any emotional commitment except to craftsmanship. Think of the strains he had to internalize during those years with no one to talk to about any of it. That empty household with a wife at the piano. That working day of haggling over claims, and the mind alone with its accumulation of thirty years of nature, feelings and books. What a comic end for the romantic young poet—and this was a poet who had wit enough to recognize the comedy.
A few years of such a situation might be responsible for the Wallace Stevens we know. A screen covers the sensibilities of the living human being, and the poems are squeezed through the anonymities of Madame Ste. Ursule and 'Sunday Morning': 'the bride / Is never naked. A fictive covering / Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind.' (Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction).
By the time he reaches Hartford in 1916 it is quite clear to him that no one in his business life has ever heard of Poetry magazine, and that if they ever should, the verse he is now producing will give no unseemly clues about the writer. Furthermore, professional readers of the poetry have no great insights into it. Stevens the businessman must have been delighted to be the center of the 1919 controversy created by two well-known poets about his 'dandyism'. Imagine the pure pleasure of the first letters from Harriet Monroe, the first literary prize, the first request for a poem for an anthology—all coming relatively rapidly, and not a reverberation in the halls of the Hartford Insurance Company.
By the time Harmonium is published, the two strands of his life have been successfully coordinated: the Hartford life of increasing business responsibility on the one side, and the growing flow of literary letters, visits to New York, and literary society on the other. Neither side understands the whole man, yet both give him increasing admiration.
By 1934, when he becomes a vice-president and his published books begin to multiply, each of his two worlds has to recognize that the other exists. In a wonderful display of immaculate self control he manages to keep each world totally incurious about the other. Presenting a bland surrface to both, he fends off all efforts to penetrate the exterior of the work. Conversations with the occasional colleagues who fall on the poetry reassure them that there is nothing to understand. The explanations in the letters to editors and translators stick closely to technical matters, and give no clues to the real content.
If this analysis is correct, we could propose that the edifice Stevens built in his collected poetry owes its very language and shape to the creative tensions caused by his career with the Hartford Accident and Casualty Company. The poetry as we know it would not have come into being were it not for the insurance company.
I would further propose that the need I perceive for hermeticism in the published work provided much of the energy for the poems. Another part of that energy would come from the delight of knowing that the poetry publicly lays out the whole life and thought of the person in Hartford in such a way as to keep it essentially invisible.
Consider 'The Comedian as the Letter C'. The poet has told us that this work is a study in variations on the sounds of the third letter of the alphabet, and reading the poem out loud with that knowledge adds measurably to our understanding and enjoyment.
We also know that St. Crispin is a Roman martyr, a patron saint of shoemakers. In addition, the name has Shakespearean echoes concerning us, the happy few, who shall be remembered until the end of the world. If Crispin were a double figure, one part of whom supervised humble shoemaking while the other part was one of the select band of great poets who will endure as long as English resonates in the human ear, then he might constitute an autobiographical image of our poet. One could then read the beginning of the poem as a description of the unsuccessful wordmaker who was finally caught up with the demands and voyages of his surety trade—'until nothing of himself / Remained, except some starker, barer self / In a starker, barer world....' Our Crispin in Hartford has indeed become an introspective voyager contemplating 'the veritable ding an sich'.
No question that 'The affectionate emigrant found / A new reality in parrot-squawks'. I forbear giving an explication de texte of the 'Concerning Thunderstorms in Yucatan' section, but it could be similarly read as a description of the violent life in a surety claims department. Crispin's further lines could fit into a statement of what it is like to have chosen to be a married man in dull Hartford with its very solid reward—'Because he built a cabin who once planned / Loquacious columns by the ructive sea'—and still be jovial Crispin.
I can only conclude that a great classical poet born at the end of the 19th century with small bourgeois values in a Pennsylvania Dutch backwater managed to escape the sad fate predicted by Virginia Woolf, finding 'no doubt—a quarter here, Dix huitieme and Georgian and serene' (Lytton Strachey, Also, Enters Into Heaven)—in an insurance company.
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The Dark Horse
Editor: Gerry Cambridge
U.S. Assistant Editor: Jennifer Goodrich
U.S. Contributing Editor: Marcia Menter