I Placed a Jar in Tennessee Wallace Stevens' “Anecdote of the Jar”

“I placed a jar in Tennessee” is the first line of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” a modernist poem written in 1918. Stevens’ canon of poetry typically explores the phenomenon of perception and the mind’s tendency to create its own reality.

Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.**
Wallace Stevens,1948Wikimedia

Stevens was born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His formal education included Harvard University and the New York Law School. Rather than practicing law, he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. Whether he intended or not, Stevens demonstrated the heroically improbable odds of being able to write by night while holding down a full-time job by day. (T.S. Eliot achieved the same feat, writing such masterpieces as The Waste Land and “Hollow Men” while employed as a banker for Lloyds of London.)

As with many American writers of the era (e.g., Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop), Stevens vacationed in Key West, Florida, a creative haven attracting snow bird authors drawn to the island for inspiration and genial company. Unfortunately, writers tend to possess outsized egos that often clash in proximity.

Robert Frost ca. 1910-1920, LOC, Wikimedia

Such was the case of Wallace Stevens whose envy of other authors and excessive fondness for drink often left him spoiling for a fight. Two examples stand out in the annals of modern American letters.

The first involved a feud between Stevens and Robert Frost. On the face of things, the fellow New Englanders would appear to have more in common than they did. Ostensibly, their disagreements were over aesthetics, Frost opting for concrete imagism, Stevens preferring philosophical abstraction, in verse. The blow-up occurred at the Hotel Casa Marina on the Key. Frost’s biographer, Lawrence Thompson, was on hand for the literary tug of war altercation:

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you’re too academic.”
“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you’re too corporate.”
“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about subjects.”
“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

Despite their being no definitive winner in the fray, the experience didn’t prevent an inebriated Stevens from tangling with literary heavyweight Ernest Hemingway, living on the island at the time. The story began when Stevens insulted Hemingway in his absence but in earshot of the novelist’s sister, Ura. Hemingway concludes the narrative:

1924 Hemingway in front of his residence in Paris – JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Wikimedia – public domain
This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said . . . “All right, that’s the third time. [W]e’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.” So headed out into the rain past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, “By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now. I’d knock him out with a single punch.”
So who should show up but poor old Papa, and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch fertunately [sic] missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only [thing] was that first three times [I] put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch. Bam, like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him.

As was his habit, Stevens often mixed business with pleasure, a fact perhaps accounting for the composition of the “Anecdote of the Jar.” For the uber New England Brahmin, wilderness like that found in Tennessee must have seemed primitive, even atavistic. Stevens grasps the human mind’s yen for order, in this circumstance, a symmetrical jar taming the wild landscape. If such is the case, then Tennessee functions as a philosophical trope, a backdrop for the mind’s operations. The relationship between the aesthetic and the philosophical concerned Stevens throughout his career. Furthermore, he is regarded by many as an epistemological writer for whom art and aesthetics offered means of discovering “truths,” if not an absolute “truth.” The relativity inherent in Stevens’ poems opens many avenues for interpretation.

One particularly intriguing analysis of Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” is provided in the abstract of a presentation titled “Like Nothing Else in Tennessee: Wallace Stevens’ Anecdote of the Jar, Elizabethton, Tennessee, and the Industrial Logging of Tennessee,” by Kevin O’Donnell, Professor of Literature and Language at East Tennessee State University:

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Wallace Stevens composed his now famous poem, “Anecdote of the Jar,” upon visiting Elizabethton, Tennessee – in Carter County, in the upper East region of the state – in April 1918. In the poem, the first-person narrator/ poet depicts an obscurely allegorical act of creation. The poet places a jar . . . on a hill. The jar, in turn, makes the “slovenly wilderness” surround the hill. The jar takes “dominion.” The hill is “no longer wild.” Much energy has been expended on discussions of the poem as an aesthetic statement. But what if we read it as a work of Appalachian literature? What does it mean, for instance, that Stevens was doing business, in his role as an insurance company executive, with a lumber company that was, just at that time, in Carter County, at the end of World War I, cutting some of the last great stands of old growth Appalachian hardwood cove forest? Does the poem say anything about the colonial relations between Northeastern/International capital markets and Appalachian natural resources exploitation? In my presentation, I propose to tell the story of Wallace Stevens in East Tennessee. I will present my new findings about what Stevens was doing in Elizabethton. And I will re-read “Anecdote of the Jar,” his canonical literary-modernist work, in a historical context, as Appalachian literature.

Unfortunately, I do not have the text of Professor O’Donnell’s presentation to assess his argument. He is obviously aware of the deleterious effects of outside commercial interests on Appalachian culture and history, especially with the exploitation, exacted by timber and coal industries. However, I’d be shocked to find that Stevens had concerns over Northern industries treating Southern Appalachia as little more than a colonial extension generating profits for absentee landlords.

Wallace Stevens (R) at the Casa Marine Hotel in February 1940 – Wikimedia

What I find more interesting about O’Donnell’s thesis is his contention that “Anecdote of the Jar” can be read as a species of Appalachian literature. If so, what are the requirements for a poem or poet being considered Appalachian? Does one have to be born in Appalachia or reside in the region for a specified time to qualify as Appalachian? While I admire O’Donnell’s effort to acquire as wide an audience, as possible for Stevens’ poem, to my thinking, Tennessee is a prop in Stevens’ elaborate thought experiment. Consider the opening lines. We first encounter a singular act of the poet who “placed a jar in Tennessee” and then recedes from participating in the poem as anything but an observer. This statement is not meant to diminish the role of the observer. On the contrary, the rest of the poem is a series of consecutive and cumulative observations by the anonymous speaker. What to make of his mind’s play between order and chaos? To what extent can we trust the speaker’s subjectivity? Is the poem itself indeterminate in depicting a true picture of things? The question most implied is whether a phenomenon exists when no one is present to witness it. Stevens gives much fodder to a later generation of Deconstructionist critics for whom words were slippery and unreliable, always changing meaning when changing context.

That’s why when I think of Stevens, I don’t envision a closet Marxist excoriating capitalist bosses (like himself) while championing the cause of the underdog proletariat. Instead, I see a masterful magician concealing sleights of hand while giving a sly wink in the mirror, surprised at being the only person in the room to get the joke.


** Poem “Anecdote of the Jar” taken from Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium, 1923 – Internet Archive

***Featured image: Alexa (Alexas_Fotos), Pixabay 


  1. This was a very interesting and enlightening analysis. I can’t help but wonder, given Wallace’s “excessive fondness for drink,” if perhaps he ingested the moonshine in the jar before setting it on the hill? A healthy dose of white lightening might have played a part in his ode’s distorted imagery.

    1. Note to above: While it may appear that I misspelled white lightning, I was referring to the lo-cal (lightening) version. And technically, one could say his poem is not an ode, but ode has a nice ring to it, so I’m sticking with it.

  2. Enlightening, informative, and thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed learning that there might be a connection between the poem and the vicinity where I live, and enthusiastically request that appalachiabare do a symposium on the question you raise about that connection: does it make it Appalachian?

  3. What a fun read! Poor ol’ prickly Stevens getting punched out by Hemingway. Marvelous poet though … And, yeah, I read him as you do.

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