Wallace Stevens: Ultimate White Man

Wallace Stevens was the ultimate white man. "Ultimate" has two meanings: "best" and "last." Stevens was ultimate in both senses.


He was the ultimate in that he represents the pinnacle of hundreds or thousands of years of thinking by white men, moving from Platonic essentialism to self-referential post-modernism.


He was the ultimate in that he was the last. Thanks to multiculturalism and feminism, white men can no longer be what they used to be.


Best White Man

Stevens' poems express the situation of a modern person confronting life, having discarded faith in essentialism, gods, and the immortal soul. He addresses what it is to be a human mind addressing what it is to be a human mind.


His poem "Sunday Morning" concerns a woman rejecting the idea of imperishable heaven in favor of the natural, perishable world.


Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself.


"The Idea of Order at Key West" concerns a woman who makes her own world by singing it.


She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.


In "Asides on the Oboe," Stevens writes:


The prologues are over. It is a question now,
Of final belief. So say that final belief
Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.


The title of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" speaks for itself.


A natural rejection of essentialism is the culmination of western thought. Certainly most western thinkers weren't intending to lead western thought toward post-modernism. But that's the direction that even religious thinkers, such as Descartes and Newton, took us. Some thinkers, like Nietzsche, moved us toward post-modernism intentionally. Most, such as Copernicus, unwittingly laid the groundwork for it. Stevens' expression of the modern take on human life, the monumental achievement of white male thought, makes him the paragon of western thinkers, the ultimate white man.


Even his medium, poetry, expresses this culmination itself. The logical proofs of Plato, Anselm, and Descartes are beside the point in a universe where reason is a human tool rather than a divine faculty. What remains is the created expression of an idea, a poem. Furthermore, it is a poem constructed by the poet's own rules rather than according to a conventional structure (such as rhyme and meter).


Last White Man

Stevens is also the last (OK, one of the last) white men to write as if it's perfectly normal to be a white man. It's typical, nearly universal, for a dominant race, culture, or gender to consider itself normal. White men have traditionally thought of themselves simply as people. Those who advanced white male thought for centuries saw themselves as advancing "human" thought. Stevens aimed his poems unreservedly at the educated (white male) elite. His concern is cerebral. It is free of any whiff of multiculturalism, feminism, or activism.


A hallmark of traditional white male thought is to disregard the body. Consider Descartes's assessment that the body is a complicated machine that takes its orders from the soul via the pituitary gland. The body is the location of race and gender, but if your worldview only seriously considers other white men then, then race and gender are not explicit to your identity. They're implicit.


Walt Whitman, for example, doesn't count as a white man in the classic sense. He was too aware of his own body and sexuality. Being gay made him unable to take his sex for granted. It put him ahead of his time.


The cerebral focus of the classic white man is no longer possible. Today, a white man is either conscious of his own ethnicity, gender, flesh, and privilege or else a throwback. If he is self-conscious, he is not a white man in the classic sense, one that thinks of himself simply as a person and of his thoughts as human thought. If he is not self-conscious, he can't be current in thought and expression, let alone on the vanguard as Stevens and the great thinkers before him were.


Today a white man either has a new consciousness of self that makes him different from the white men of Stevens's time and before, or he's such a cultural throwback that he can no longer represent the progress of thought that Stevens did. There can never again be a white man like Stevens and the great white men before him. Richard Rorty, for example, is a white man who articulates the anti-essentialist position brilliantly, but he has the modern liberal's awareness of his own gender, culture, and function in a political and economic system that makes him unlike the classic white man of western history.


Even Stevens' job qualified him as a white man in good standing. Poet by night, he was a vice president at Hartford Accident and Indemnity by day. You can't hardly get more white-man than that.


Ultimate White Man

Wallace Stevens represents the conclusion of thought by elite white males before that thought changed its nature and meaning. Perhaps some day we'll be so far from the tradition of western thought that his poems won't make sense to us. (Frankly, plenty of them don't make sense to me as it is.) But for now we're close enough to his time and place that his poems are still inspiring.



A poem is a whole with each part integral to it. It is a disservice to a poem to quote lines from it. The transgression is especially insulting when those lines are chosen for being explicit, and thus least poetic. My disservice will be turned into a service if you go now and read these poems in their entirety.


Stevens said "The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." If you're like me, you'll have to read many of his poems and reread them several times if you're going to get what you can out of them. Here's a link to 6 poems. "Of Modern Poetry" expresses the self-referential post-modernism that this rant talks about.


January 2004


PS: There's some quote that I can't get my hands on, it's like Rorty quoting Dennett saying that Stevens expresses what it feels like to be an anti-essentialist, or Dennett quoting Dawkins saying that. If someone can point me to that quote, I'd be grateful. —JoT