Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is regarded as one of the most influential American poets on both mainstream and contemporary poetry. After finishing his studies at Harvard University, Stevens worked for a short time as a journalist in New York City. He then graduated from the New York Law School in 1903. A professional in insurance law during the day, he read and wrote poetry during his free time from the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., where he worked from 1916 until his death, using the company's headed letter paper to conduct his business with the Cummington Press.
Stevens reached his creative peak relatively late on in life. His first volume, Harmonium (1923) was not a popular success and he put writing on the back-burner for much of the 1920s. Despite this quiet period, he was frequently in contact with eminent writers and had been friends with Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams as early as 1914.
More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the power of the imagination which he later referred to as his 'reality-imagination complex' - that perceived reality is the product of one's imagination. These ideas he put forth in memorable poems such as 'The idea of order at Key West' (1934) and in his seminal essay 'Imagination as value' (1949). In the early 1940s, Stevens began what is considered to be an enthusiastic and prolific period of creativity whereby he developed an increasingly abstract style, as did many artists during the decade. It is during this period that he wrote Transport to Summer including Notes toward a supreme fiction and Esthetique du mal which are the poems of focus in the following correspondence. Reviews of the UK publication of Selected Poems (1953) reveal his greatly improved literary reputation.
In 1951 and 1955 Wallace Stevens won the National Book Award, and in 1955 won the Pulitzer Prize. He was also offered and yet declined a faculty position at Harvard, choosing to remain Vice President at The Hartford.
The Cummington Press of Massachusetts was founded and directed by Katharine Frazier and Harry Duncan in 1941 and had grown out of the Cummington School of the Arts in 1939. Frazier oversaw all phases of the printing process until 1943, when due to ill-health, Duncan assumed management of the company.
At the heart of the Cummington Press was a deep belief in the merits and integrity of independent publishing. Initially the Press earned money printing local history items, Americana and Christmas cards until writers connected to the Cummington School of the Arts, notably Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish, recognised the outstanding quality of their printing and urged them to print the work of poets. In time this inevitably led to the creation of beautifully crafted limited edition books which used the finest tools and materials, expert binders, illustrators, wood-cut print makers and type-setters. They employed skilled craftsmen: Gerhard Wolf, Victor Hammer, Arno Werner and Gerhard Gerlach. The flip side of their beliefs meant that production was slow and costly and the printing press's mechanisms and output easily succumbed to the harsh snows of winter in Massachusetts. Indeed, external communication and transportation at times required skis. Detrators claimed that contemporary literature calls for a contemporary process of production, yet Harry Duncan believed that aesthetic quality and detail outweighed the results of mass production and reproduction.
Stevens' Notes toward a supreme fiction was issued in Autumn 1942, and helped to lay down a strong basis and confidence for the continuation of the Press. They were now motivated to print the best of contemporary literature, and at the same time became one of Stevens' major correspondents. A second edition of Notes was published by the Press in 1943; with Esthetique du mal in 1945 and Three academic pieces in 1947. The Cummington Press also published works by Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Rainer Maria Rilke, Samuel French Morse, Robert Penn Warren and William Carlos Williams, which illustrates the connection they felt with modern writers in order to invest such creative energy into printing their poetry. An alternative, yet highly significant, venture saw the printing of an elaborate edition of the Book of Job which stands alongside the finest of private press editions of this book, as well as being the first of three books published by the Press to be chosen by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for its Fifty Books recognition.
Originally based in Cummington, Massachusetts, the printing press moved with Duncan first to Iowa City, Iowa, and finally to Omaha, Nebraska in 1972 where Duncan taught Typography and directed the typographic laboratory at the University. Duncan died in 1997, and Cummington Press ceased production in the same year.