Esthétique du Mal by Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens, Ésthetique du Mal (Cummington: The Cummington Press, 1945). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Pictured above is the title page of a first edition of Wallace Stevens’s Esthétique du Mal.  Wallace Stevens, a Pulitzer Prize winner, published the poem in July of 1945 as a stand-alone work, which notable literary critic Harold Bloom calls a “major humanistic polemic” in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate.  By this point in Stevens’s life, he was well established as a prominent poet as well as abstractionist thinker, and his status as a revered intellectual is reflected in the expensive production of Esthétique.  Artist Wightman Williams provided pseudo-geometric illustrations to accompany the poem.  The Cummington Press in Cummington, Massachusetts printed only 300 copies of this “ordinary” iteration of Esthétique du Mal, which makes use of Centaur font on Italian Pace paper for the pages with text, and green Natsume paper for the binding[1].  This particular volume is number 239 out of 300.

Several disparate elements in this edition give us fascinating information about the reception of Stevens’s work.  That the Cummington Press presented Esthétique as a stand-alone poem suggests that Stevens had enough literary clout to warrant the packaging of his poetry in a solitary volume, and speaks to the publisher’s faith in the poet’s popularity.  Furthermore, the use of French in the title of the poem, as well as instances scattered throughout the text of the poem itself, implies the level of intellectualism in the reader of Stevens’s work – a passing knowledge of French would have been expected in his audience.  Finally, the publisher acknowledges The Kenyon Review, a literary magazine that ostensibly held the rights to the very first publication of Esthétique du Mal in fall of 1944, also implying a certain kind of literary readership.  When considered in conjunction with the expensive binding and illustrations of the poem, we can assume that this rendition of the poem was meant as a novelty or collector’s item for fans of Wallace Stevens.

[1] When the binder ran out of green Natsume paper, it substituted rose Natsume paper.  The editions bound with the rose Natsume paper are rarer.


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