Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all poetry legends featured so far.
POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Poet Wallace Stevens converted to Catholicism before he died.
The idea of someone converting to another religion is a pretty commonplace situation.
And someone converting while on their death bed is even MORE conventional.
And yet, in the case of award-winning poet Wallace Stevens, his conversion was treated quite unconventionally…
Stevens was an interesting fellow in that he became a world-renowned poet after spending most of his life as an executive for an insurance company.
Stevens worked for The Hartford insurance company and did not come out with his first book of poetry until he was 44 years old, in 1923.
And he did not become a SERIOUS poet until 13 years later.
From the late 30s up through his death in 1955, however, Stevens was a prolific writer of poems and soon became one of the most acclaimed Modernist poets of the 20th Century, winning the National Book Award in 1951 and 1955 (the latter posthumously).
In any event, at the end of his life, Stevens came down with stomach cancer. He was admitted to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, CT, and in April of 1955 (he would die in August), Stevens was baptized as Catholic by Father Arthur Hanley.
This was witnessed by over a dozen people. It pretty clearly happened.
However, circumstances dictated that it was effectively concealed for decades after the fact.
The first problem was that Stevens did not wish for his family to learn about his conversion.
In his recent book, The Good Life
Despite the peace that Stevens found in the weeks before his death, his conversion made everyone around him nervous, even the clergy. Stevens asked Father Hanley, Sister Bernetta Quinn, and others who knew about his conversion to keep the matter from his family. He was afraid that his wife would come to the hospital and become hysterical. This reflected class prejudices. Converting to Catholicism for a Hartford patrician was like becoming “honorary” shanty Irish. That was simply not done. It could get you thrown out of the country club.
Whether you agree with Colson’s reading into WHY Stevens kept it hidden (I think Colson over-exaggerates a tad), the main point is that he kept it hidden.
The second problem is an extension of the first. Because he kept it from his family, his daughter Holly refused to believe it happened. Ms. Stevens controlled her father’s literary estate, and she exercised that control in a peculiar fashion – if someone wanted access to her father’s papers, they would have to agree to not talk about her father’s conversion.
Finally, on St. Francis’ side of the issue, they ALSO wished to keep quiet. The Bishop of the archdiocese both:
A. Did not want to cause a big argument with Stevens’ family
and, more importantly…
B. Did not want people to think that St. Francis was in the business of converting Protestants to Catholics on their death beds, especially, as Colson notes, in the heavy Protestant area of Hartford.
So for decades, it was as if Stevens’ conversion never took place (it was not like his family gave him a Catholic funeral). It was only in the late 1970s/early 1980s that independent researchers dug into the situation and discovered the truth of the matter, and today, most all historians agree that Stevens did, in fact, convert.
The legend is…
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.