The Wallace Stevens Society†
John N. Serio
THE SEEDS OF THE WALLACE STEVENS SOCIETY were planted in the late 1960s when William T. Ford, a librarian at the University of Chicago by day and a law student by night, started The Wallace Stevens Newsletter. Four issues of the eight-page newsletter appeared: Vol. 1.1 (Oct. 1969); Vol. 1.2 (April 1970); Vol. 2.1 (Oct. 1970); and Vol. 2.2 (April 1971). These usually contained one or two brief essays on Stevens' poetry, book reviews, news about forthcoming events, abstracts of recent dissertations, a current bibliography, and poems paying tribute to Stevens. After completing his law degree in 1972, Ford moved to Los Angeles, but without a university connection, he could not continue the Newsletter.
In 1975, soon after Holly Stevens sold her father's letters, manuscripts, and library to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, Ford received a phone call from Robert H. Deutsch, an English professor at California State University at Northridge, asking if he would be interested in reviving The Wallace Stevens Newsletter now that the Stevens material was located nearby. This led to the founding of The Wallace Stevens Society and the beginning of The Wallace Stevens Journal.
The first meeting of the association was held at the Huntington Library on May 8, 1976, and Deutsch was selected as chairman of an executive council charged with formulating the rules and regulations of the society. The formal articles and bylaws of the society, initially called The Society for the Study of the Poetry of Wallace Stevens, were adopted on January 25, 1977, most likely in Northridge, Calif. Signatories included Deutsch as president of the society and chairman of the executive council; Herbert Turman as secretary-treasurer; and Charles Kaplan, Mary Klinger, George Drury Smith, Ann Stanford, William Walsh, and Warren Wedin as executive council members. Most of these individuals were colleagues of Deutsch's at California State University at Northridge, the original home of the society and journal.
The express purpose of the Wallace Stevens Society is to disseminate, for educational purposes and without profit, knowledge of the poetry and life of Wallace Stevens. The main vehicle for doing so is The Wallace Stevens Journal. Other means include sponsoring programs at annual conferences, cooperating with other literary societies, and keeping members informed about impending events. From the very beginning, the society was recognized as an educational organization by the Federal government and granted tax-exempt status. In 1984, soon after the administrative and editorial offices moved to Potsdam, N.Y., the society was incorporated in the State of New York as a not-for-profit, literary organization.
The first issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal appeared in the spring of 1977, soon after the official formation of the society. Deutsch served as editor and Ford as associate editor. They were assisted by a panel of consultants that included A. Walton Litz, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Joseph N. Riddel. Originally, the journal was scheduled to appear quarterly; however, the first volume saw only three numbers: Vol. 1.1 (Spring), Vol. 1.2 (Summer), and Vol. 1.3/4 (Fall/Winter). Thereafter, the journal became biannual, at first with the spring issue combining numbers 1 & 2 and the fall issue numbers 3 & 4, but then in 1984, after the society's move to Potsdam, N.Y., the spring issue simply became number 1 and the fall issue number 2.
Deutsch served as chairman of the executive council, president of the society, and editor of the journal from 1977 until his death in December 1983. During these years, membership in the society hovered around 200, evenly divided between individuals and institutions, and issues of the journal averaged forty-eight pages. In 1984, John N. Serio of Clarkson University, an associate editor since Ford's departure in 1979, was selected to replace Deutsch as president of the organization and editor of the journal. Under Serio's leadership, the society was reorganized: the executive council was replaced by an advisory board, and the panel of consultants was replaced by an active editorial board that reviewed articles submitted for publication in the journal. Over the years, distinguished Stevens scholars have served on the editorial board, including Litz, Pearce, and Riddel, mentioned above, as well as Milton J. Bates, Jacqueline V. Brogan, Robert Buttel, Eleanor Cook, Frank Doggett, Alan Filreis, B. J. Leggett, George S. Lensing, James Longenbach, Glen MacLeod, Marjorie Perloff, Joan Richardson, Melita Schaum, and Lisa Steinman. In addition, Serio appointed an art editor to contribute or select cover images, a poetry editor to review poems relating to Stevens for publication, and a book review editor.
In 1983, Clarkson University initiated a program of giving every incoming first-year student a personal computer, the first college in the country to do so, and Serio used this new technology to manage the society and to produce the journal. Armed with the database management capabilities that this new technology offered, Serio launched an aggressive membership campaign. Within a few years, membership in the society more than doubled, and currently it stands at nearly 500 members with worldwide representation. This increased interest in the Wallace Stevens Society, sparked in part by the growing recognition of Stevens as a major American poet, also led to the enhanced reputation of The Wallace Stevens Journal. Beginning with the fall 1983 issue, which he guest edited, Serio used the personal computer to typeset the journal. Given the software at the time, this was no mean accomplishment, but it led to full control over the production of the journal by the editor and resulted in greater accuracy and reduced costs. In 1988, Serio described the process whereby he used the personal computer to produce the journal with high-end but inexpensive photocomposition, and the article received the Outstanding Journal Article Award by the Society for Technical Communication (1989).
Deutsch established the format of The Wallace Stevens Journal that has endured for over thirty-five years. Each issue features a distinctive cover, usually an original artwork exemplifying a passage in a Stevens poem, often by well-established artists such as Kathryn Jacobi, Jerry Uelsmann, and Carl Chiarenza. Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame contributed a cartoon about Stevens to the spring 1991 issue. Following the main section of scholarly articles are shorter sections of poems, reviews, and news and comments in the fall issue or a current bibliography in the spring issue. Material and essays in the journal range from previously unpublished primary sources, such as letters or manuscripts, to important historical documents, biographical essays, critical and theoretical articles, influence and comparative studies, and primary and secondary bibliographies. Prominent scholars, including Charles Altieri, Milton J. Bates, Michel Benamou, Jacqueline V. Brogan, Eleanor Cook, Margaret Dickie, Albert Gelpi, A. Walton Litz, Samuel French Morse, Alicia Ostriker, Roy Harvey Pearce, Marjorie Perloff, Joseph N. Riddel, and Helen Vendler, have published in its pages. Acclaimed poets, such as Marvin Bell, Robert Creeley, Jorie Graham, X. J. Kennedy, William Meredith, Robert Mezey, Robert Pinsky, William Jay Smith, William Stafford, and John Updike, have contributed poems. Hailed by A. Walton Litz as "the best of the single-author journals," The Wallace Stevens Journal has become the major periodical outlet for new Stevens scholarship, and issues now average well over 120 pages. In 1990, the Journal was honored by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals when Serio received the Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial Achievement.
In 1991, the Wallace Stevens Society initiated a poetry series by publishing and distributing free to members of the society the work of contemporary poets, especially those who have had difficulty finding a publisher for their second book. Between 1991 and 2003, the Wallace Stevens Society Press published Eve's Primer by Dorothy Emerson (1991); A Morning Pose, by Robert Noreault, with drawings by Hugh M. Neil (1994); and Inhabited World: New & Selected Poems 1970–1995 by John Allman (1995). The series ended with a critical work, The Poetry of Delmore Schwartz, by Robert H. Deutsch (2003).
Another way in which the society fulfills its mission of sharing new knowledge about the poetry of Wallace Stevens is by sponsoring programs at national and regional conferences, such as the Modern Language Association convention, meetings of its regional affiliates, and the American Literature Association convention. In particular, annual programs at the MLA have showcased the work of the society. As early as December 1977, the society sponsored a two-part program on thematic elements in the shorter poems that attracted an enormous audience with its list of top Stevens scholars including Benamou, Buttel, Doggett, Litz, Morse, and Vendler. In December 1978, in anticipation of the approaching Stevens centennial in 1979, the society arranged an MLA program of contemporary poets honoring Stevens that included Michael Benedikt, Alfred Corn, Robert Fitzgerald, Barbara Guest, Richard Howard, William Meredith, Muriel Rukeyser, and William Jay Smith. Holly Stevens, the poet's daughter and editor of his letters, as well as Peter Brazeau, a scholar working at the time on an oral biography of Stevens, also participated.
These convention programs have played an important role in Stevens studies, for they have initiated new directions in Stevens criticism. In addition, the society has extended its international reach by helping to mount and publicize international conferences on Stevens, such as the one at the University of Connecticut in 2004, another at Oxford University in 2005, and a third at NYU/ Gallatin School in 2010. Plans for additional international conferences, including one in Paris, are underway.
These programs have become launching pads for special issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal. For example, many of the participants in the centennial program as well as John Ciardi, Robert Creeley, Karl Shapiro, Robert Fitzgerald, W. S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Richard Ellmann, and Robert Penn Warren contributed to the 1979 Commemorative Issue. Other program topics have led to the following special issues:
Stevens and Postmodern Criticism (Fall 1983)
Stevens and Women (Fall 1988)
Stevens and Politics (Fall 1989)
Stevens and the Structures of Sound (Fall 1991)
Poets Reading Stevens (Spring 1993)
Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop (Fall 1995)
Approaching the Millennium: Stevens and Apocalyptic Language (Fall 1999)
Stevens in Late 20th-Century Culture (Fall 2000)
Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, and James Merrill (Spring 2001)
International Perspectives on Wallace Stevens (Fall 2001)
Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound (Fall 2002)
The Poetics of Place in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (Spring 2003)
Celebrating Wallace Stevens: The Poet of Poets in Connecticut (Fall 2004 & Spring 2005)
Wallace Stevens and British Literature (Spring 2006)
Stevens’ Erotic Poetics (Fall 2006)
Wallace Stevens and France (Fall 2008)
Wallace Stevens and the “Less Legible Meanings of Sounds” (Spring 2009)
Wallace Stevens and Henry James (Spring 2010)
Stevens, Freud, and Psychoanalytic Theory (Fall 2010)
In a number of instances, these programs have led to book publication as well, such as Stevens and the Feminine, edited by Melita Schaum (U of Alabama P, 1993); Teaching Wallace Stevens: Practical Essays, edited by Serio and B. J. Leggett (U of Tennessee P, 1994); Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic, edited by Eeckhout and Edward Ragg (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008): and Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism, edited by Lisa Goldfarb and Eeckhout (Routledge, 2012).
In 2010, after more than twenty-five years of celebrated leadership, Serio stepped down as president of the Wallace Stevens Society and editor of the journal; he remains a highly valued and active Honorary Editor. His many accomplishments during his tenure—which are in addition to regularly publishing the journal and organizing scholarly panels sponsored by the society—include several significant editorial projects that have done a great deal to advance knowledge of the life and poetry of Stevens: a text-searchable CD-ROM of the first twenty-five years of The Wallace Stevens Journal; a free, online concordance to Stevens’ poetry (with Greg Foster); Wallace Stevens: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography (U of Pittsburg P 1994); Teaching Wallace Stevens (mentioned above); Poetry for Young People: Wallace Stevens (Sterling Pub., 2004); The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (Cambridge UP, 2007); and Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (Knopf, 2009). Serio’s final act demonstrating his unflagging commitment to the journal was to arrange for its transition to the portfolio of The Johns Hopkins University Press, where it proudly joined such top-notch publications as Callaloo, Diacritics, Modern Fiction Studies, New Literary History, and Shakespeare Quarterly, to name but a few.
With the Spring 2011 issue, the journal welcomed its third editor: Bart Eeckhout of the University of Antwerp, author of the critically celebrated Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing (U Missouri P, 2002), editor of the journal’s silver jubilee issue devoted to International Perspectives on Stevens, and co-editor (with Edward Ragg) of the special issue on Stevens and British Literature as well as two volumes of essays, Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic and Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism (all mentioned above). Under Eeckhout’s direction, the journal has expanded its editorial board to include, besides distinguished scholars such as J. Hillis Miller, Krzysztof Ziarek, and Bonnie Costello, specialists hailing from France, England, Ireland, Poland, and Belgium. The journal now includes two associate editors and new editors for book reviews, art, and poetry. All the individuals serving in these capacities are well known to readers of the journal as excellent and productive Stevens scholars or as talented poets and artists.
Under Eeckhout’s direction, the journal still largely follows its original format. Each of its biannual issues, which are now generally around 120 to 160 pages, features a distinctive cover, usually an original artwork exemplifying a passage in a Stevens poem. A main section of scholarly articles is followed by shorter sections of poems, reviews, and News and Comments in the fall issue or Current Bibliography in the spring issue. Eeckhout plans to augment the book reviews, which are for many Stevens scholars, as both authors and readers, the most meaningful coverage of new work on Stevens. The journal will also include two new occasional features, inaugurated in the Spring 2011 issue: an Editor’s Column, intended to address informally topics of interest to Stevensians; and a Visitors Gallery, designed to present different kinds of creative work alongside scholarly contributions. Scholarly submissions are subject to a double-blind peer review; contributions to the new Visitors Gallery will undergo a form of peer-review process tailored to the occasion.
Although one does not have to be a member of the society to publish in the journal, a robust and active membership is essential to ensuring the continued success of the society’s mission. The society has increasingly utilized the Web to engage a broad, international population interested in Stevens scholarship. The Society’s website, <www.wallacestevens.com>, includes a link to subscribe to the journal (which includes membership in the society), links to Stevens resources and media, as well as news on forthcoming programs, conferences, and special events involving Wallace Stevens. Most notable among the website’s resources are the free online concordance to Stevens’ poetry (which receives steady use and interest) and an online list of the all the articles published in the journal. The recent redesign of the website and introduction of a Wallace Stevens Society Facebook page (please “like” us) have also improved the Society’s media image and its ability both to incorporate multimedia materials and to reach out to a younger generation. The society also regularly communicates via an extensive e-mail list of individuals interested in Stevens—about 1,000 people—to generate interest in the society, the journal, and the events it sponsors.
†A version of this essay
appeared in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1999
Ed. Matthew Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. 369-71.