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Wallace Stevens : A MYTHOLOGY OF SELF by Milton J. Bates (University of California: $26.95; 319 pp.)

October 13, 1985|John Espey | Espey is professor emeritus of literature at UCLA. and

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.

Bates traces Stevens' roles in a succession of chapters whose titles are largely self-explanatory. In "Burgher, Fop, and Clown" he examines the legend of the separate lives and finds it wanting. With "Pure Poetry" and "Restatement of Romance" he investigates Stevens' intensifying exploration of the imagination growing into "Supreme Fiction and Medium Man" and climaxing in "Major Man" and "The Intensest Rendezvous," with an estimate of Stevens' attitudes on death and religion.

Though Stevens' response to 19th-Century French poetry often has been mentioned, it has not always been satisfactorily defined. Bates performs an effective service here, emphasizing the importance to Stevens of his encounters with the group labeled the "Patagonians."

Bates is equally lucid on Stevens' brush with Marxism and his use of Nietzsche. Stevens' philosophical and religious views were tempered by his Harvard inheritance from Williams James, whose "Will to Believe" anticipated so much of Existentialism that for Americans reared in the Jamesian tradition the Gallic movement appeared close to reactionary.

Bates suggests plausibly that Stevens' final commitment to a religion in which he had little faith stemmed from this tradition, and he concludes this ably written study on a note that confirms one's belief in Stevens as a major and enduring voice.

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