The legend of Wallace Stevens' mutually exclusive lives as poet and insurance lawyer has become such a standard approach to commenting on his poetry that one resists giving it up. Not that anyone literally believed in it, but it was such an alluring way to define certain aspects of 20th-Century romanticism that it was close to irresistible. And whether the anecdotes centered in it were accurate in every detail, they were sure-fire entertainment to catch the consciousness of still another student generation.
Now Milton Bates has suggested a revision of that legend, tactfully pointing out links connecting Stevens' work with his public as well as his private life. So far as biography in the standard sense is concerned, the facts are fairly well known by now: the Presbyterian boyhood in Reading, Pa., the years at Harvard where he edited "The Advocate," the New York experiments in journalism, the marriage that began with passion and declined into a formal relationship, and finally the Hartford insurance lawyer with his membership in the Canoe Club and his handful of drinking cronies.
In themselves they are hardly enough to sustain a full-length biographical study, but by using them as parallels rather than contradictions during Stevens' developing career as a writer, Bates is able to demonstrate a subtly influential relationship that adds to one's reading of the poetry and the critical essays.