Mariani’s excellent new book, The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, is a thrilling story of a mind, which emerges from a dispiriting story of a man ... Mariani persuasively numbers Stevens among the twentieth-century poets who are both most powerful and most refined in their eloquence.
While certainly valuable to the student, these pages of close reading are a drag on the book as a narrative ... While Wallace Stevens is certainly a major American poet, in Mariani’s pages he seldom comes across as a particularly interesting fellow, let alone a likeable or happy one.
The Whole Harmonium is an undramatic, literal-minded chronicle: essentially a long, strenuous paraphrase of Stevens’s writing, with thin strips of quotation laid on the gridiron of chronology ... All through the book he follows the trail of what Stevens said and when he said it, introducing people and ideas mainly through Stevens’s brief remarks about them. This seems sensible. It lends an idea of order and lets us hear the epigrammatic power of the poet who wrote that 'life without poetry is, in effect, life without a sanction.' But it reduces the biographer to a faithful servant plodding alongside his subject.
The Whole Harmonium tends to dissolve into a summary of Stevens’s letters and an expansive running commentary on his poetry. As a critic, Mariani is less penetrating than predecessors such as Helen Vendler, and he might have delved more deeply into the background of Stevens’s intellectual life. Hefty though the biography is, the office work Stevens engaged in every day for more than four decades goes largely undescribed. The result is a portrait of a man floating, detached—which may, in fact, be an accurate impression of how it felt to be Stevens.
While Mr. Mariani’s Whole Harmonium bills itself as 'The Life of Wallace Stevens,' it too is a literary life, focusing primarily on the 'places' of Steven’s poetry ... Alternating between close readings of Stevens’s poems and paraphrase of Stevens’s correspondence, which he casts—sometimes awkwardly—in the voice of the poet, Mr. Mariani provides only minimal details about Stevens’s home and office life.