is known to the contemporary world for his contributions to
modern American poetry, with such intellectually complex and
imaginatively transformative works as Thirteen Ways of Looking
At A Blackbird, Peter Quince At the Clavier, The Idea of Order
At Key West and The Emperor of Ice Cream. Born in Reading,
Pennsylvania, and closely associated with the city of Hartford,
Connecticut, where he led a quiet life as an insurance executive,
his name ranks among such contemporaryies as William Carlos
Williams, ee cummings and Gertrude Stein as an iconic figure
and shaper of mid-twentieth century poetry in America.
Less well known, however, is Stevens' origins in the modernist
milieux of early 20th century New York City.
Or the curious fact that his wife Elsa, with whom he had
a somewhat chilly relationship by most accounts, was the model
for what we now know as the Mercury Dime, which was in circulation
from 1915-1945, until today's Roosevelt dime took its place..
First, there's the matter of his relationship to the radical
ideas of the pre-1920s New York scene. Biographical accounts
note that Stevens, who was a lawyer by training, came to the
Big Apple just a year or so after the great "Armory Show."
which featured the likes of Marcel Duchamp, and his famous
cubist painting Nude Descending A Staircase.
With an interest in the fermentation of the cultural scene
in 1915, Stevens fell in with Walter Pach, one of the people
who organized the Armory Show -- and through Pach, the famed
cultural supporter Walter Arensberg. In fact, the young lawyer
was soon ensconced in Chelsea, and meeting with Duchamp and
other literary and artistic avante garde figures regularly.
With good French at his disposal, Stevens absorbed the latest
modernist aesthetic thinking of the time, including cubism,
dadaism and surrealistic writing styles -- and applying them
to American themes, as in his poem 'I Place A Jar In Tennessee':
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
All over Minnesota,
Walking in the snow,
The male voice of the wind in the dry leaves
Of the lake-hollows.
Meanwhile, as Stevens' poetic output grew, he had gone back
to his home town to court to marry a local girl -- which brings
us to the curious tale of Wallace Stevens and the Mercury
Her name was Elsa -- a woman who he had his eye on for some
five years back in Reading, and one of the most beautiful
girls in town. The daughter of Howard Irving Kachel, a man
who died a mere two years after she was born, Elsa attended
high school for a year before going to work in a piano store,
where she sold sheet music by playing for the customers.
After their marriage, Stevens brought his young wife to live
with him at 441 W 21st St in Manhattan. While he pursued his
artistic passions, Elsa became lonely in New York City --
and, by numerous biographical accounts -- disdainful of her
husband's poetry, which she called affected and possessing
of a mocking tone. In fine psychological literary analytical
style, critics allude to Wallace turning to an 'interior paramour,'
addressing his increasingly modernist, hybrid form of European
Intellectualism with the American Idiom to her.
Meanwhile Elsa spent considerable time back in Reading, traveling,
or otherwise away from their New York City home. But she was
in Manhattan enough, it seems, to attract the attention of
their landlord -- the sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman, a
former student of Saint Gaudens who was commissioned to create
a design for the 'Winged Liberty Dime."
Captivated by her beauty and in search of a model for the
commission, he chose Elsa.