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Wallace Stevens and the Cummington Press Collection

Date range: 1941-1955

Medium: Archive

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is regarded as one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century. He was concerned with the power of the imagination, developing the notion (which he termed the ‘reality-imagination complex’) that perceived reality is the product of one’s imagination.

He reached his creative peak in the 1940s, when in common with many artists he developed an increasingly abstract style. It was during this period that he wrote Transport to Summer, which incorporated Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction and Esthétique du Mal, in which he argued that beauty is inextricably linked with evil. These poems are the focus of this collection.

The Cummington Press, Massachusetts, was founded by Katharine Frazier and Harry Duncan in 1941; it grew out of the Cummington School of the Arts where a group of students took up letterpress printing in 1939. Frazier oversaw all phases of the printing process until 1943, when ill-health forced her to give up active involvement in printing and Duncan assumed sole control of the press.

Following in the traditions of the private press movement, the press was dedicated to publishing the best of contemporary literature, employing the highest standards of design, materials and presswork. Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction was issued in Autumn 1942. A second edition was published in 1943, with Esthétique du Mal in 1945 and Three Academic Pieces in 1947.

The collection comprises 106 letters from Wallace Stevens to Frazier, Duncan and other staff of the Cummington Press sent over a ten-year period. There are also copies of eighty-five letters sent to Stevens in reply. They deal chiefly with the publication of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, Esthétique du Mal and Three Academic Pieces, and a private work concerning the Stevens family portraits.

The letters provide insights into Stevens’s life, his views on the presentation of his poetry, his influence on all aspects of the appearance of the books, and the minutiae of the printing and publishing process.

The collection also contains the original typed manuscript of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, a proof copy of sections of Three Academic Pieces, two newspaper cuttings relating to Stevens, and a printed list of family portraits.

Further information:

  • Catalogue available online via ELGAR.
  • See also Stella Halkyard, ‘[Foot]notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: Stevens, Frank Kermode, and the John Rylands University Library’, Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 30 no. 1 (2006), pp. 104-10; and Stella Halkyard, ‘Archive Corner 6: Wallace Stevens and the Painful Aesthetics of the Colour Purple’, PN Review, vol. 34, no. 1 (Sep/Oct 2007), pp. 12-15.


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