FALL 2009



Wallace Stevens 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,
Cerise sopranos,
Walking in the snow,
Answer, humming,
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 Dime.

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.




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