Happy Birthday, Harmonium

Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium recently turned a hundred. When Knopf published this brashly youthful and original first book of poems in September 1923, the poet himself was hardly youthful, and he was known only to a few modernist cognoscenti from his poems in little magazines such as Poetry, Others, and The Little Review. Nor did Stevens look like a poet. A firebrand on the page, in person Wallace Stevens in 1923 was a portly, clean-shaven, forty-four-year old executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, working hard to support his wife in a comfortable house in Hartford. “I am far from being a genius — and must rely on hard and faithful work,” he had explained to her, referring not to his poetry, in which she had little interest, but to his legal labors with bonds and surety claims. Stevens, the unlikely modernist, had not sprung out of nowhere. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1878, to modest parents, both teachers. His father, from a farming family, had scrabbled a law degree for himself and practiced law, so he was able to send his son to a local private school and then to Harvard, where young Stevens met poets, wrote poetry, and became president of the Harvard Advocate. While knocking around New York City in low-level jobs in journalism and earning a law degree, he began making friends in avant-garde circles, and by 1914 he was getting to know William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. And so began the double life, even more doubled because of his marriage to Elsie Moll, a young woman from Reading who played the piano and sold sheet music at the local department store. Elsie was classically beautiful — her profile appears on the Mercury dime — but she was ill-educated,

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