Wallace Stevens Biography

(Modernist poet)

Birthday: October 2, 1879 (Libra)

Born In: Reading, Pennsylvania, United States

Wallace Stevens was an American modernist poet and essayist, noted for exploring through his works the conflict between reality and what man makes of it in his mind. Trained in law, he spent the major part of his life working for an insurance firm, eventually reaching the post of its Vice President. However, writing poems was a passion for him, believing that "one writes poetry because one must". Beginning his literary career with reporting for school newspaper, he started writing regularly while studying at Harvard University. However, it took him several more years before he could start contributing regularly to different journals, publishing his first collection of poems at the age of forty-four. However, its failure to garner much attention and the birth of his only child compelled him to put his literary ambition in hiatus for a decade. Eventually, he started writing once again, producing several long poems and publishing books in quick succession, leaving an unfulfilled ambition to rewrite Dante's Divine Comedy at his death.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 75


Spouse/Ex-: Elsie Kachel (m. 1909–1955)

father: Garrett Barcalow Stevens

mother: Margaretha Catharine Zeller

children: Holly Stevens

Born Country: United States

Quotes By Wallace Stevens Poets

Died on: August 2, 1955

place of death: Hartford, Connecticut, United States

U.S. State: Pennsylvania

: Stomach Cancer

Cause of Death: Cancer

City: Reading, Pennsylvania

More Facts

education: New York Law School (1903), Harvard University, Harvard College

awards: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
Bollingen Prize
National Book Award for Poetry
Robert Frost Medal

Childhood & Early Life

Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879 in Reading, a major city located in the US state of Pennsylvania. His father, Garrett Barcalow Stevens, was a well-to-do attorney and a senior member of the law firm, Stevens & Stevens. 

His mother, Margaretha Catharine nee Zeller, was an independent woman and a teacher. Born second of his parents’ five children, Wallace had an elder brother called Garret, and had three younger siblings, a another brother called John Bergen and two sisters named Elizabeth and Mary Katherine.

Nicknamed Pat, Wallace began his education at a private kindergarten before entering a grammar school attached to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. At twelve, he was enrolled in Reading Boys High School, where he showed early promise as a writer; reporting for the school’s newspaper and winning local essay competitions.

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Harvard Years

In 1897, on graduating from Reading High school, Wallace Stevens entered the Harvard University and began participating enthusiastically in its literary circle. By his sophomore years, he had started writing regularly for the Harvard Advocate, receiving multiple honors for his writings.

In 1899, he joined the editorial board of Harvard Monthly and assumed the board’s presidency and became its editor by the following year. He produced stories and literary sketches to fill up space. Simultaneously, he also published several of his own works in each issue of the Harvard Monthly.

Sometime during this period, he was personally introduced to George Santayana, at that time a professor of philosophy at Harvard University and was strongly influenced by him. Santayana's book, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, left a special mark on him.

In New York

In 1900, a shortage of family funds compelled Wallace Stevens to leave Harvard without graduating. Not at all sorry, he decided to work as a journalist and therefore moved to New York City, where he joined the New York Evening Post.

His job as a journalist allowed him to explore various parts of the city, later recording his observations in a journal. In the evenings he would either attend theatrical and musical productions or remained in his room writing poems or drafting a play.

In 1901, he decided to leave his job to pursue a fulltime writing career. Instead, on the advice of his father, he entered New York Law School, graduating from there in 1903. All along, he kept writing.

Early Career

In 1904, Wallace Stevens began his legal career in New York with a brief partnership with a former Harvard classmate. Thereafter, he worked for various law firms until he joined the American Bonding Company in January 1904. During this period, he did not publish any work.

By 1913, he had resumed writing poems, publishing two in Trend, a modest periodical, and four more in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry in 1914. Also in the same year, he was appointed the resident Vice President of the New York office of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri.

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In 1915, he published two of his most celebrated works, Peter Quince at the Clavier and Sunday Morning. It was followed in 1916 by his prizewinning play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise.

In 1916, he left his job to join Hartford Accident, an indemnity company, and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, remaining there for rest of his life. In 1934, he rose to the post of the Vice President, holding the same until his death.

Continuing to work successfully both as an insurance attorney and writer, Wallace Stevens published another play, Carlos among the Candles, in 1917, and the comic poem Le Monocle de Mon Oncle  in 1918. Sometime now, he thought of publishing his poems in book form.

As he started organizing his poems, he also began writing few long poems to be included in the collection. Among them, the most significant was The Comedian as the Letter C, possibly written in 1923.

In 1923, he had his first collection, Harmonium, published in an edition of 1500 copies. Comprising of 85 poems of various lengths, it failed to garner much attention, being ignored by most critics. Only around 100 copies of it were sold.

For next several years, Wallace Stevens concentrated on his legal career.  That his only daughter was born during this period was another reason for his unproductivity, as he found parenting “terrible blow to poor literature.”

From 1930 onwards, he began writing new poems sporadically. In the following year, a second edition of his book, Harmonium, was published. The edition included fourteen new poems and left out three weaker ones.

Gaining Recognition

In 1933, Wallace Stevens started writing steadily. He published his second poetry collection, Ideas of Order, in 1934 and produced an expanded edition of that same work in 1935. Prominent among the poems included in the collection was Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery, comprised of 50 verses.

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Publication of Ideas of Order earned Stevens the recognition as an important and unique poet. Inspired by the success, he published Owl's Clover in 1936, which was followed in 1937 by The Man with the Blue Guitar, a long poem divided into thirty-three brief sections, or cantos.

In 1942, he published Parts of a World, a collection of raw reality that was preliminaries to his later works.  Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, an extended poem consisting of 30 lesser poems, embodying his mature ideas about poetry, was another of his important works published in the same year.

In 1944, he published Esthétique du Mal, another long poem which accepts the inevitable deficiency and suffering of man, concurrently highlighting the beauty and necessity of the evil. The poem was included in his sixth collection, Transport to Summer, published in 1947.

In September 1950, he published one of his most celebrated works, The Auroras of Autumn, containing a long poem of the same name. It was followed in 1951 by a collection of essays. Entitled The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, the essays were previously published in different journals.

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, published in 1954 was the last work published in his lifetime. Thereafter, several of his works, poems, letters and essays, have been published posthumously.

Major Works

Wallace Stevens is probably best remembered for his long poem, The Auroras of Autumn. Written in 1948, the poem is 240-line long, divided into ten cantos of 24 lines each. Considered to be one of Stevens' more challenging works, it talks about a conflict between his imagination and reality.

His other important works include Anecdote of the Jar (1919), Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock (1915), The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1922), The Idea of Order at Key West (1934), The Snow Man (1915) (1921)2, and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1917) etc.

Awards & Achievements

Wallace Stevens had received numerous awards during his lifetime, including two National Book Awards for Poetry. In 1951, he received the first award for his 1950 collection The Auroras of Autumn and the second one in 1955 for Collected Poems of Wallace Steven.

In 1955, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. That apart, he also received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1950 (1949)3 and Frost Medal in 1951.

Personal Life &Legacy

In 1904, Wallace Stevens met Elsie Viola Kachel. Because she came from a relatively lower background and had worked as a saleswoman, milliner, and stenographer, she never received the approval of his parents. Nonetheless, they married in 1909 in a ceremony unattended by his parents.

In 1924, their only daughter, Holly, was born. After his death, she edited his letters and also a collection of poems.

On August 2, 1955, Wallace Stevens died of complications arising out of stomach cancer while undergoing treatment at St. Francis Hospital, Hartford and was buried in Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery. He was then 75 years old.

Wallace Stevens Award, carrying a $100,000 stipend, was established in 1994. It is given annually to recognize outstanding artistic achievement in the art of poetry over a poet's career


Born in a Lutheran family, Stevens is believed to have converted to Catholicism in April 1955. However, the deathbed conversion has been disputed by his daughter.

See the events in life of Wallace Stevens in Chronological Order

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