Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hemingway, Stevens, and literary letters

In the midst of my current run of reading writers' letters, I received the e-mail below from my friend Joseph G. Peterson, novelist and poet, and it was too much fun, too full of the pleasures offered by literary letters and biographical anecdotes, not to share. So with Joe's permission, here it is:
Last night, I was browsing over the beautiful Borzoi edition of Wallace Stevens's, "Selected Poems". I was reading the biographical timeline in the back of the book when I encountered this fascinating biographical detail:
1936: In February in Key West, a somewhat intoxicated Stevens insulted Ernest Hemingway and a fistfight ensued; Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway's jaw, but the two made amends and concealed the cause of the injury (Stevens claimed he fell down some stairs). In October; Knopf published a trade edition of "Ideas of Order".
It's interesting to note that Stevens was 20 years Hemingway's senior and two years earlier, in 1934, Stevens had been promoted to vice president of Hartford Accident at a salary that in 2008 would have been $280,000.

Can you imagine: 1) a similarly ensconced 55-year-old insurance executive at the high-point of his poetic career going mano a mano with a 35-year-old self-styled pugilist who just three years earlier wrote "Death in the Afternoon"? It seems too unreal to believe.

This raises the question, Levi, what parts of that fist fight are memorialized in Stevens's greatest poem? Can you see Wallace Stevens fresh from his battle with Hemingway, hand wounded, heart still beating furiously, warrior-like (no longer the insurance man) and saying to himself:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
How crazy to think that two of the most influential writers of the twentieth century should have come to blows in Key West. It makes me think too, that Stevens fled the wreck of that visit and memorialized it in that wonderful stanza from"Farewell to Florida,"
I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees like bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once . . . Farewell. Go on, high ship.
Typing this stanza down, by the way, reminds me of just how closely Stevens entwined his poetic language with that of both Eliot's poetry "Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones, The trees like bones" and of Yeats's poetry, "And that she will not follow in any word, Or look, nor ever again in thought, except / That I loved her once . . . Farewell. Go on, high ship".

But these are just "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season" written on a rainy Chicago morning.
Joe later informed me that his speculation was wrong, that the timing was all off, the poems written before the punch was thrown. But I told him that simply recasts Stevens as a prophet, a seer who knew--as surely many did--that one day Hemingway would need to be punched, and that he might just be the one called on to do the deed.


  1. I'll buy it. Insurance is, after all, the monetization of prophecy.

  2. Hemingway supposedly used the fight in "Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." One aspect of it, anyway. The story goes that Stevens asked Hem not to talk about the fight. He didn't want it to get back to Hartford.

    In Macomber, when he flees the lion and asks Wilson the hunter not to tell anyone, Hem writes this:

    "So he's a bloody four-letter man as well as a bloody coward ... "It's supposed to be bad form to ask us not to talk."