Two American Poets

Wallace Stevens & William Carlos Williams

From the

Collection of Alan M. Klein

Ghosts in the Collection

One of the stimulating aspects of collecting books is finding inscriptions by an author in a copy of his or her work, or finding an association between the first owner of a book and its author. 

In the case of Wallace Stevens, this catalogue includes books inscribed to his daughter, to his editor at Knopf, to co-workers such as his secretary and lawyers who worked with him at the hartford accident and indemnity company, to fellow poets and to key individuals who each played an important role in Stevens’s life. inscriptions by William carlos Williams in this catalogue include those to his wife, his motherin-law, his son and well-known members of the art world throughout Williams’s career: malcolm cowley, man ray, martha Graham and others. in each of these instances, the recipient of the book is someone whose identity can be reasonably easily ascertained and whose role in the biography of either Stevens or Williams is fairly well-known or can be readily appreciated.

But then there are circumstances which any collector knows are tantalizing and frustrating. a copy of a book has made its way decades later into the collector’s hands and there is no clear answer to the question, how or why was this book inscribed for its recipient? or even, Who was the recipient and under what circumstances did he or she encounter the author? one example in this catalogue is the first edition of Williams’s Selected Poems, published by new Directions in 1949 (see item #183), inscribed on its title page: “isabel Wyckoff / best luck / William carlos Williams. / July 25/51.”

Who was isabel Wyckoff and why did Williams inscribe a book to her in late July of 1951? a look at the indices of biographies of Williams, his Selected Letters and various other collections of his letters shows no references to isabel Wykoff or Wyckoff (Williams was a notoriously poor speller of names, even more so after his heart attacks and strokes). an on-line search shows a number of different isabel Wyckoffs who would have been alive in 1951, at least one in new Jersey and one in connecticut. there is even a town in new Jersey named Wyckoff. Paul mariani’s comprehensive biography of Williams places Williams in connecticut, by the shore, on July 25, 1951, recovering from yet another stroke, however, making a connecticut-based recipient most likely.

Who was isabel Wyckoff of connecticut in 1951? united States census records become publicly available 72 years after each census. the most recent census records publicly available are from 1940. they show an isabel Wyckoff living in hartford, connecticut, age 54, working as a public school teacher earning $2600 a year. She was born in connecticut and she shared an apartment in a house at 16 atwood Street with two other women,  one of whom was 45 and worked at a department store and the other was a 42-year-old practical nurse. the 1940 census record also shows that in 1935 Wyckoff was living in bloomfield, connecticut, a town near hartford. the 1930 uS census shows isabel Wyckoff, then age 44, living with her mother on Park avenue in bloomfield and working as

as a public school teacher. a small note in the Hartford Courant on July 5, 1922 makes mention that isabel Wyckoff of  Park avenue in bloomfield,  “. . . has gone to Wilton, maine, where she will have charge of a camp for girls. this is her second year at this place.” the 1910 census has her living with her mother and brother in bloomfield and her occupation as “teacher, Grammar School.” and connecticut records show Wyckoff graduating from the new britain State normal School, a teacher training school in another neighboring town to hartford, on June 23, 1908. according to Social Security records she died in connecticut in December of 1967. could this be the isabel Wyckoff – by 1951, 65 years old – possibly still active as a school teacher, for whom William carlos Williams inscribed a copy of his Selected Poems by the connecticut shore in late July? how precisely she and Williams encountered each other, whether she already had a copy of the book and used the opportunity to have Williams sign it, for instance, seems impossible to ascertain. Did they have a mutual acquaintance or, perhaps, was she, too, spending some time by the water that summer? 

One small coincidence regarding isabel Wyckoff of 16 atwood Street, hartford, connecticut in 1940: at least in 1940, Wallace Stevens walked past the street where isabel Wyckoff lived each work day. 16 atwood Street is almost exactly halfway between the headquarters of the hartford accident and indemnity company and Westerly terrace in hartford, where Wallace Stevens lived for the last 26 years of his life. and it is just a half-block off of asylum avenue, which is the street along which Wallace Stevens famously walked the two miles from his home to his office every day, composing his poetry as he went. ten years later, it seems that she had a book inscribed to her by William carlos Williams. 

Another ghost in this collection relates to two books bearing Wallace Stevens’s personal bookplate: a copy of the Knopf edition of Ideas of Order (1936) (item #25) and Transport to Summer (1947) (item #49). as discussed above, Stevens had these two distinct bookplates designed and printed for him by the expatriate artist and typographer victor hammer. how did these two books make their way from Stevens’s library into the possession of Gladys ely? ely signed each book, and in the copy of Transport to Summer dated her signature “January, 1948” – meaning that ely obtained this copy nine months after publication and only a few months after Stevens received the bookplates. Who was Gladys ely and why was she the recipient of these books from Wallace Stevens’s library?

We know from the dealer who later sold the books that Gladys ely was a published poet and a long-time teacher at the brearley School in manhattan. With this information, it can be ascertained that she passed away in 2009 at the age of 86, which means that she was only 24 or 25 years old when she received these books. Some investigation shows that she was a 1945 graduate of Smith college and that in 1941, ely graduated from the public high school in new britain, ct, a city nine miles from Stevens’s home in hartfo

ford, by coincidence the same setting for the teacher training school that isabel Wyckoff had graduated from in 1908. a review of uS census records and the new britain annual city directory shows that Gladys was born on January 30, 1923, and grew up in new britain, where her father was head of personnel at a ball bearing manufacturer. her high school yearbook, of which she was literary editor, describes “Gladdy,” apparently her nickname, as having “. . . an unusual flair for latin and writing poetry.” She was a member of the national honor Society and the Poetry club and was class Secretary. after graduating college from Smith, she obtained an m.a. from columbia university and taught in San Francisco, Seattle and new Jersey before settling at the brearley School in 1951 where she fulfilled the promise suggested by her yearbook notes by teaching english and latin for the next 36 years. her poetry was published in various periodicals over the following decades. a brearley faculty contemporary recalls ely as “extremely nice, an interesting, cerebral individual,” noting, “She was about the only person i talked to in the faculty lounge in breaks between classes.” 
But what was the connection between ely and Stevens in January of 1948? ely was clearly someone who would have known of Stevens and his work at that time. could her father have somehow become acquainted with Stevens and told him of his daughter’s interest in poetry? Perhaps, although they worked in very different professional spheres and it would seem therefeore unlikely that the senior executive at an insurance company would have encountered the head of personnel at a manufacturing company, despite their relative physical proximity. or that Stevens, not the most gregarious of individuals, would have passed on these books. however, it is possible to speculate that ely may have been acquainted with holly Stevens, Stevens’s daughter. holly, who was a year younger than ely, graduated from high school in hartford in 1941 as well and started at vassar in the fall of that year. could the poet’s daughter and the member of the Poetry club at new britain high School have had over-lapping social circles? by January of 1948, holly Stevens had dropped out of vassar, married, given birth to  a son in the spring of 1947 and separated from her husband.  it is conceivable that when ely was home for the holidays while getting her master’s degree at columbia, or on a winter break from one of the teaching jobs she held during this period, she received these books as a gift from holly, knowing of ely’s intense interest in poetry. and as ely had a birthday in January of 1948, perhaps they were a birthday present. as with isabel Wyckoff and her inscription from William carlos Williams, we will never know for certain how these books came to belong to Gladys ely. they stayed in her possession for the next sixty years.

In the way the world can work sometimes, one small coincidence should be noted regarding Gladys ely and her published poetry.  in September of 1958 her work made its only appearance in Poetry magazine, with four poems published in vol. 92, number 6 of Poetry. the featured selection of that issue was an “excerpt from ‘Paterson v’,

;,” by William carlos Williams, in advance of the publication of Paterson V that autumn.