A Review of The Contemplated Spouse: The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie

edited by J. Donald Blount

 

Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. xiii + 430. ISBN 1-57003-248-3.

 

This new collection of letters Stevens wrote to his fiancée and then wife, Elsie Viola Kachel, is a boon to the Stevens scholar as well as being a most fascinating study of imagination in love. Meticulously edited by J. Donald Blount, the letters detail the world Stevens created for himself and Elsie while they were engaged. During the five years before they married, when Stevens was working in New York trying to put together a sound financial basis on which to found a family, he dreamed of her and wrote to his dream. The book contains the 272 extant letters Stevens wrote to Elsie — twenty-five years of letters, the first of which was written in 1907 and the last, in 1935, after which the Stevenses were still to have another twenty-one years of marriage. Blount also includes Elsie’s collection of excerpts from Stevens’s letters, many of which she destroyed, and a helpful narrative of the relationship. The excerpts are often so short as to be uninformative, but she did seem to choose passages that directly dealt with her, as he saw her, and with the subtleties of their courtship.

The dust-jacket’s description of the volume is somewhat misleading, because it seems to imply that the letters are a continuum. But 279 of the book’s 424 pages are letters written before the marriage. The total of 272 letters seems a surprisingly small number, considering that Stevens lived in a world of words. The prenuptial letters tend to be long and fanciful; the connubial memoranda are short and practical. The woman Stevens married because “she was the most beautiful girl in town” seems to have slipped into the quotidian quickly. His missives, as written by a husband, are generally such as to be filled with instructions on how to run the house efficiently in his absence. “Bo-bo” changes into “Bud,” who is advised on spending money and told in underlined script to “Water the plants.” (March 20, 1916). Later still, she is addressed as “my dear” and, finally, simply as “Elsie.”

There is no photograph representing the lovely, lush beauty that Stevens courted. The woman on the cover is stern and solemn. And young Stevens, if he is indeed young in the photograph on the cover, already looks like a full-fledged businessman, probably carrying a briefcase we cannot see. There are photographs in the Huntington Library that show a frolicsome Stevens and a glowing Elsie — and then a lovely maternal Elsie with baby Holly. Elsie Stevens, after all, was the model of the winged Libertas that Adolph Alexander Weinman designed for the ‘Mercury’ dime and, perhaps also, of the striding Libertas that Weinman was to create for the half-dollar that was minted from 1916 to 1947. The chosen photographs seem to represent that part of the marriage that is least chronicled by the letters — responsibility, tedium, and the feeling that poetry and domesticity were incompatible.

The letters following the marriage show the quick adjustments that reality made to Stevens’s dream-world. He puts off visits and makes plans for Elsie’s vacations in Reading while he remained in their New York apartment. It is true that Elsie did not feel at home in New York; but it is difficult to tell whether Stevens is thinking of her welfare alone. Even before he and Elsie were married, he often postponed the delights of their being together by deflecting his attention to some small item of business that had to be dealt with immediately, all the while promising how wonderful things will be when they are able at last to be together. After their marriage, it seems that Stevens is frequently arranging for Elsie’s travel or, if she is already visiting elsewhere, suggesting that she extend her stay.

It is interesting to compare the unabridged versions of some of the letters with those in which Holly Stevens, as their editor, provided ellipses by which to signify excisions. But, in the passages that can be restored, there are no shocking revelations. It is true, however, that the letters sometimes seem more affectionate when read in their entirety. Holly, no doubt, wanted to present mostly what would be of interest to the readers of Stevens’s poetry. Still, the excised passages, even if not shocking, can be revealing. In some of the letters that Stevens wrote during their engagement, his desire for Elsie and his near obsession with her have been diminished by Holly’s editing, as this restored passage suggests:

 

Try to write me another long letter soon — about anything at all, you know. I like to see you dusting and that kind of thing — seriously. Do you wrap your head in a piece of white cloth? — Tum-ti-tum! Forgive me. You are the best of girls, and the dearest — and if I could, I should kiss that disdainful [.] (December 20, 1908)

 

Punctuation has been supplied by Blount; the thought is incomplete. But other letters in Holly’s collection leave out some endearments, as well as much description of what occurred at the concerts he attended alone and then described to her.

The mystery of the relationship is not resolved, but is increased by what is not here: Elsie’s presence. What the young woman would have made of all of Stevens’s literary and artistic references, his digressions into aesthetics, cannot be imagined. And, of course, their being together is not chronicled, but only their separations. Whether Elsie attempted to keep up with his literary flights of fancy, understood his allusions to artists, poets, musicians, one can only guess. She wrote him voluminous letters too. Perhaps, as the restored passage may suggest, she focused on the simple details of her daily life; and we know that Stevens took pleasure in her simplicity. She was his “Bo-Peep” in their Arcady. Was she amused or bored by the details of all his attendances at theater and at concert, with all the details of dress and programme? We do not know. The very few samples of her writings that are extant are direct and commonplace.

Blount’s editing is impressive. The collection is a delight not only to the Stevens scholar but also to those who like to read between the lines and to draw conclusions about this long-term relationship. Stevens was unusual among poets in that he had one wife and, as far as we know, no other sexual partners. Stevens did not even have many close friends; intimacy seemed beyond him. His muse was the interior paramour, no one in the world.

Despite his fine editing and extremely detailed documentation, Blount is not very convincing in his suggestions that there was a true rapprochement between the Stevenses toward the end of their lives and that Elsie was the true source of the poems. There is no genuine evidence of rapprochement, and Holly believed there was none. As for the inspiration, had Beatrice survived and married Dante, would we still have the Divine Comedy? I think so. The inspiration was the eternal feminine, which could have been invested in someone else. Or Dante could have devoted himself to St. Lucy. Stevens too was inspired by the eternal feminine of which it must have been difficult for Elsie to be the embodiment.

 

Janet McCann

 

 

 

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