Jimmy Stewart and His Poems does not fall into a category of bestsellers known for their radical themes or controversial topics, such as Lolita or The Satanic Verses do. For one, it is not even a novel, but rather a collection of poetry (as the title suggests). For another, these poems, when viewed as a whole, fail to make any sort of passionate or convincing argument—indeed, it seems fair to say that no argument exists in this collection at all. Of the four poems included in Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, topics ranging from vacation trips to movie cameras to Stewart’s favorite dog are discussed, evidently with no common thread aside from the author’s consistently happy-go-lucky writing style. How he writes bears similarities to how he acts—as the inside flap of the book claims, “The book confirms what we all expected—that the real Jimmy Stewart is every bit as endearing as the film characters he’s portrayed.” With this in mind, then, it becomes clear that Jimmy Stewart and His Poems is less a collection of poetry than it is a piece of ephemera. It enjoyed success solely on the basis of name recognition—not as a Stephen King novel would do so, but because Jimmy Stewart is (or at least was) a household name for the vast majority of Americans. The content of the book itself is not important—only the name and face attached to it.
When considering a 32-page book, many of whose pages are filled with illustrations rather than text, the most logical approach to take may be considering what the book lacks rather than what it actually contains. It cannot be said that the book contains political themes; on the contrary, the poems collected in it are glibly apolitical. This is a theme somewhat at odds with the real-life Stewart, who was a vocal Republican during his lifetime, campaigning personally in support of figures such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. He also served as a flier in World War II, ultimately being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Reagan himself. It is not much of a surprise that Jimmy Stewart and His Poems avoids the topic of war, though it was something about which Stewart felt very passionately. This is not a collection in which a poem about war would make sense. Stewart had distinct personas based on various aspects of his life, with his film star personality being more widely appealing than his wartime personality. It is his film star personality that appears in Jimmy Stewart and His Poems—“the consummate Everyman,” as the book jacket accurately declares.
Stewart is not the only actor to publish a collection of poetry. A few other notable contemporaries who followed the same route are Suzanne Somers and Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy’s various collections, of which there are several, are heavily concerned with sentimental love poems and have been described as “simple” and “straightforward,” not unlike Stewart’s own works. Nimoy branched out further than Stewart, however, producing a greater output of poetry than Stewart’s underwhelming four poems. He also published two autobiographies and some books of photography. Like Stewart, Nimoy’s collections are “long out of print” and only available through various resale providers, while the autobiographies are still in print, as are most of his books of photography.
Alternatively, Somers published Touch Me, her one collection of poetry, in 1973, before she had gained fame as a star of “Three’s Company.” Another collection of love poems, though taking a more sensual route than Nimoy’s work, Touch Me was published into near-obscurity and only resurfaced when Somers grew into prominence as a TV star and later, as the author of “self-help books with lengthy titles.” This quote is taken from Jenna Krajeski’s New Yorker article “Touch This,” a review of Somers’ work which incorrectly states that it was published in 1980, not 1973. In 1980, rather, Touch Me returned for its second printing; it was during the fifth season of “Three’s Company,” and Suzanne Somers was a verified celebrity. The review is short and scathing, placing Somers in the realm of “famous people who write bad poetry” and seeming to give her no further thought. Another review of Touch Me on the “Awful Library Books” site says, “It’s awfully sweet and cute and charming; only a little bit nauseating.”
Whatever else can be gleaned from these celebrities’ bodies of poetry, a trend of nonfiction is clear. Each of these celebrities’ works, whether autobiographies, self-help books, or poetry collections (admittedly the most literary of the three, but still technically nonfiction), feature the celebrity in question speaking directly to the reader as that celebrity, unfiltered by any of fiction’s tropes or techniques. This seems to point towards the notion that the words and thoughts of famous people are somehow more valuable than those of the common masses.
Proof of this can be found through a study of the two covers, 1973 and 1980, of Suzanne Somers’ Touch Me—though near-identical, their minor differences speak volumes. In the 1973 edition, a photograph of Somers’ face is juxtaposed with a black background, and the words Touch Me: The Poems of Suzanne Somers are written in small black text across the bottom of the book. The 1980 reprint also features a photograph of Somers’ face, but this time, there is no room for a background; her head, complete with bangs cut in the recognizable style of her character on “Three’s Company,” takes up the entire cover. The same words are written underneath, but with this important difference—Suzanne Somers is the largest text on the cover, in an even bigger font than the title.
Comparatively, there are two existing covers of Jimmy Stewart and His Poems. The first features a large-headed caricature of Stewart sitting in an armchair with a cartoon dog—Beau, the subject of perhaps his most famous poem—at his side. The second has a tan background, at the center of which is a slightly touched-up image of an elderly Stewart beaming out at the reader. The cover featuring Stewart’s caricature is the one which shows up on most printings of the book, which is even more indicative of the subject matter than a photo would be. A caricature, among other things, suggests a happy-go-lucky, unrealistic, cartoonish portrayal of Stewart.
This theme of celebrity face-recognition is continued through Stewart’s appearance on Johnny Carson in 1981, almost a decade before the collection was published. In the clip, Stewart reads “A Dog Named Beau,” the final piece in Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, and sheds a few tears while doing so. This sort of publicity stunt gave viewers a decent idea of what a book of Stewart’s poetry would be like, while also endearing the actor-turned-author to an eager audience. The gray-haired, submissive Stewart on Carson’s stage is near-identical to the photograph featured on certain editions of the collection, and the Stewart caricature retains the essence of both.
A somewhat tongue-in-cheek review of Stewart’s collection was published in The New York Times by Daniel Pinkwater, titled, “AW SHUCKS.” It’s another short review, similar to “Touch This,” but is ultimately more forgiving of Stewart’s venture into the world of poetry. Pinkwater uses extreme paraphrasing to describe the already brief poems, such as, “The dog dies, and he misses him. It's a heartbreaker.” To the book jacket’s suggestion that Stewart is “‘every bit as endearing as the film characters he's portrayed,’” Pinkwater responds, “Well, you're not going to hear any argument from me.” The entire review feels slightly chiding towards Stewart and the quality of his verse, while at the same time admitting that many will likely find it charming.
In a typical essay of this sort, it would be worthwhile to examine the author’s other works to illustrate how they compare and contrast with the bestseller in question. However, Stewart never published another book in his lifetime. He was first and foremost a performer; therefore, some of his most notable performances can instead be analyzed in reference to Jimmy Stewart and His Poems. In a Slate article titled “The Darkness of Jimmy Stewart,” David Haglund has some interesting points of view on Stewart’s aforementioned conflicting personas. He refers to Stewart’s public image as “the Reagan-era icon of homespun American goodness,” in conflict with the “obsessed outcast” with “dark visions” which Haglund attributes to the Stewart of such disturbing classics as Vertigo and The Naked Spur. Haglund suggests that the only remaining Stewart, at least for those who grew up watching his films, is the intensely sweet, slightly stammering old man who writes in simple verse about the most insignificant or inane moments of his life.
Haglund also cites an interesting SNL skit broadcast in 1989, soon after the publication of Jimmy Stewart and His Poems. In it, Dana Carvey (acting as Stewart) described the inspiration for a nonexistent poem called “Old Rocking Chair.”
“I was holed up in a Mexico City slum,” Carvey said. “What few pesos I had, I'd spent on alcohol.” He emphasized that, to write good poetry, “you've gotta go through the PAIN."
This brings to mind a section of Krajeski’s biting review of Touch Me, in which she describes the “dramatic reading by Kristen Wiig” of some of Somers’ most regrettable verses (in the eyes of Krajeski), adding that “Somers’ poems incur laughter.” Again, this raises an interesting parallel between the poetry of two celebrities—namely, when their poetry is ridiculed by famous comedians. While Wiig’s reading is depicted as pure farce, the SNL skit is significant both to Haglund’s argument in the article and to one of the chief arguments of this essay—Stewart adopts a restrictive, inaccurate persona which disregards all other elements of his character.
Jimmy Stewart and His Poems enjoyed popularity about as long as the author enjoyed life. It had ten printings, the last of these being published in 1997—the same year as Stewart’s death. This seems indicative of the collection’s ephemeral qualities. It was only relevant as long as Stewart was alive and now exists on bookshelves as the reminder of a man long since deceased.
Stewart is remembered by many fans, arguably too often, as a real-life incarnation of George Bailey, the protagonist of It’s A Wonderful Life, the role for which Stewart is best-known. Bailey is presented as, or at least remembered as the endlessly cheerful, small-town everyman whose morals are just as strong as his will. However, in “The Darkness of Jimmy Stewart,” Haglund asserts that this reading of Bailey is just as inaccurate as the public’s misinterpretation of Stewart himself. “His [Bailey’s] defining characteristic, in fact, is a revulsion at the ordinary, a (repeatedly suppressed) striving toward greatness,” Haglund says. “The failure to realize these ambitions drives him nearly to suicide.”
However the public image of Stewart and his comparatively darker onscreen presence relate to the man himself is unknown, or at least arguable. In Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, the author seems eager to adopt the harmless, good-natured persona that his fans have assigned to him. “I’m sure I never said to myself, ‘Now, Jim—why don’t you sit down and write a poem,’” Stewart writes in the introduction of the collection. “It’s still a mystery to me, but I think probably it’s something that happened by accident—like a lot of things have happened in my life.” This is the portrait of an elderly man who has enjoyed enormous success in film and has received love from countless fans. These fans didn’t want any controversial or dark-themed poems. They wanted a cute, digestible volume of all of Stewart’s most appealing qualities, and they got it—with color illustrations to match.