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A JAMBOREE OF HOODLUMS: Wallace Stevens on Miami

Nathaniel Sandler

In the sea, Biscayne, there prinks
The young emerald, evening star,
Good light for drunkards, poets, widows,
And ladies soon to be married.

-opening stanza to “Homunculus et la Belle Etoile” by Wallace Stevens (1919)

It is no secret that Wallace Stevens—the great American modernist—was deeply fond of Key West. Much has been written about his time in America’s southern most island, where he spent vacation nearly every winter for much of the 1920s & 30s. According to historian and executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar Arlo Haskell, his first two books—Harmonium and Ideas of Order (which famously includes “The Idea of Order in Key West”) are quite certainly influenced by his time there. His poetics were unquestionably molded by the tropics, and he also spent time in Cuba. Stevens was in Florida working in his capacity as an insurance agent, but used the time to visit Key West as an add on, mostly using it as an excuse to get himself besotted with drink. Haskell explains, “I do think they were called ‘fishing trips,’ but I don’t think there was much fishing involved.” His time in the Conch Republic is perhaps typified by a drunken public argument with Robert Frost, and what can only be described as a Key West Holy Grail moment: getting into a full blown fist fight with Ernest Hemingway. He was punched several times and the one lick he got in on Hemingway broke Stevens’ own hand. Some time not long after this, Stevens, began to find Key West, “unfortunately rather literary and artistic.”

Haskell interprets this as an early rejection of gentrification, a feeling not unfamiliar to South Florida, but Wallace’s response to Key West and eventually Miami could be said to be the prototypical response that tourists, short-timers and even some Miami residents themselves have about their hometown. In fact, Stevens lays out the emotional blueprint for a familiar reaction to Miami.

Through his letters, we can track Stevens’ relationship with the city at a formative time in its pioneering periods. When he arrives in April of 1916, he puts his feelings on paper in the first lines of a letter to his wife, “This is a jolly place—joli. It is alive. It is beautiful too.” He goes on for two pages to describe his clearly bustling feelings for the city.

In 1919, he composed the poem “Homunculus et la Belle” which begins with an invocation to Biscayne, the bay, and all the manners of life which feed from its aura.

Stevens—in his work—is expanding a repertoire to include tropical bliss, but we know around this time he is beginning to question the city and its offerings. From a letter to his wife written in January of 1919 from Jacksonville:
Yesterday I was in Miami. After finishing I walked for several hours and in the evening, before train-time, sat in the open-air at the park listening to a brass band concert. They have strawberries and corn on the cob etc. But, really, it sounds better than it is. Who wants corn on the cob all the time? And then the wind blows incessantly.

Agreed. Corn on the cob all of the time, isn’t great for digestion, Mr. Stevens. It seems the nascent Miami was becoming too run of the mill and despite the translation to his poetics, he obviously preferred the drink down south in Key West. On his next trip in 1922 he fell in love with Long Key. In 1923 he visited Havana for the first time. Both places seemed wild and new to him.

In a 1926 letter to the scholar and patron Harriet Monroe, he had basically given up on the place claiming, “Miami, which used to seem isolated and a place for exotic hermits is now a jamboree of hoodlums,” an insult that might be dated, but wouldn’t be entirely out of place today. In 1934, he misses the same Monroe in Miami and sends her a letter suggesting “Coral Gables is the purest pastiche” and recommends she visit Long Key or Key West, as they are, “the real thing.” Two years later he claims to be fortunate, “in knowing Miami long before its present development was even seriously thought of.”

Stevens’ last substantive reference to the city comes in 1943, where he tells fellow poet Samuel French Morse that “Miami Beach is a bit like the land of Oz,” a feeling many still have when drunk on Ocean Drive. Here he pushes Morse towards his “particular Florida [which] shrinks from anything like Miami Beach,” in a bit of adventurer bravado.

So, why does this matter? This is not an academic investigation, but a reminder that a philosopher poet whose name will forever be synonymous with twentieth century literary genius is basically the same as a modern day tourist of Miami: chewed up by the city’s charms and spit out by its heedless inhabitants. The great modernist and one of America’s most treasured poets was simply intoxicated with the tropical morass, but, shortly thereafter, he decided the place wasn’t what he initially thought it was. Wallace Stevens did Miami first, the archetypal South Beach tourist. He put into place the basic ingredients of visiting, falling in love with the scenery, a raised eyebrow and some disillusionment at what it has become.

Nathaniel Sandler is a writer and the Founding Director of Bookleggers Library.