Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Wallace Stevens, Street Fighting Man

I had always believed that Wallace Stevens, poet and insurance company executive, led a life of exemplary dullness, all but devoid of incident. But then I came across a passing reference to the time he punched Ernest Hemingway on the jaw...
 It happened in Key West, where Stevens was on a visit. 'He came again sort of pleasant like the cholera,' noted Hemingway, clearly no friend of the man from Hartford. 'First I knew of it,' writes Hem in a letter to Sara Murhpy, a wealthy friend, 'my nice sister Ura (Ursula) was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ”All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.” So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door haveing [sic] just said, I learned later, ”By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’
 Stevens, according to Hemingway, took a swing at him but missed, and Hem struck back. 'Was very pleased last night to see how large Mr. Stevens was and am sure that if I had had a good look at him before it all started would not have felt up to hitting him. But can assure you that there is no one like Mr. Stevens to go down in a spectacular fashion especially into a large puddle of water in the street...' Stevens, however, did manage to land what Hemingway calls his 'Sunday punch' on Hem's jaw, breaking his hand in the process.
This unedifying incident ended with Stevens limping away to recuperate, telling his wife back home that he'd hurt himself falling down stairs. According to Hemingway, the poet apologised 'very handsomely' to Ursula, and the two men quickly made up. Note that at the time of the brawl Hemingway was a fit and muscular young man in his 30s and Stevens was a 56-year-old sedentary office worker. Stevens seems to have borne the younger man no ill will, however, and often told the tale of  'that time I punched Hemingway'.
 Will I ever be able to read The Idea of Order at Key West again without getting an intrusive image of Stevens' fist making contact with Hemingway's deserving jaw?

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