I’m always fascinated when I learn about a famous writer visiting Pensacola – no matter how brief the stay. As a writer living across the bay from the city, I’ve found a vibrant writing community but rarely hear of any famous writer having lived here. Much to my delight Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Wallace Stevens visited Pensacola in 1919 — a neat fact I discovered in my quest to read 52 American writers in a year.
Stevens, a noted modernistic poet, never quit his day job, rising to Vice President of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company in Hartford, Conn. Though his first poetry was published in 1915 and his first book in 1923, the bulk of his poetry was written after age 50. His business brought him to Florida for more than 20 years.
Early on, he described his anticipation to see Pensacola in a letter to his wife written on January 17, 1919, while riding the train from Jacksonville to Houston.
“Summer never completely fades out in Northern Florida, but, of course, it is very different from Southern Florida which is four hundred miles away. Tomorrow morning I change cars, I believe, in Pensacola and have several hours to spare.”
Sounds like Stevens was looking forward to the stop.
And, of course, my imagination envisions Wallace Stevens’ train lumbering through the pine forest, crossing the Apalachicola River, rumbling through quiet marshes, nearing the beach and crossing the bay, to reach America’s first settlement, bustling Pensacola.
I wonder what Wallace Stevens did with his hours here. Did he walk Palafox Street and visit glamorous San Carlos Hotel, lovingly called The Gray Lady? Did he walk the waterfront looking at hurricane damage from two years prior? After all, he was in the
insurance business. Whatever Stevens encountered, it helped cement a love affair with Stevens and Florida that lasted a lifetime.
Of course, I also wonder if he sampled gumbo – maybe at the San Carlos. Perhaps the chef served the popular “gopher” turtle gumbo made with turtle meat purchased at the grocery store on the corner of Intendenica and Palafox.
Or perhaps Stevens dined on the train and ordered seafood gumbo. That is, if he rode the L & N, which featured a platter for the seafood lovers served with Seafood Gumbo, Julienne Potatoes, Cole Slaw, with shrimp and tartar sauce.
Though I can’t locate the original L & N recipe, here’s a recipe from Dairy Keen an award-winning fast food restaurant in Utah, where you can dine on gumbo as miniature trains clatter by on rails overhead.
By the way, just like gumbo, Stevens’ poetry has layers of flavor, secret ingredients, that sometimes I couldn’t quite comprehend. But I envy his perfect meter, rhythm and rhyme. Maybe that comes from riding all those trains across Florida.