Scene4 Magazine-inSight

August 2009

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

The Steiny Road to Fame

Karen Leick's Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity, a book published in May 2009, immediately grabbed the Steiny Road Poet's full attention as soon as she opened it's blue cover.  While this is a Po-Mo review, several things excited the Poet about this book. It dispels the popular notion that Gertrude Stein became a household name after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It puts into context during the early part of the Twentieth Century the critical role that newspapers played in making prominent authors of Modernism (for example: Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf) known to the general American population. What, you say, Dear Reader, ordinary Americans regularly read about Gertrude Stein and her modernist confrères at breakfast? And except for a couple of words such as contextualize and binary, Leick has written this book in the English most anyone can understand and certainly Stein herself would have advocated.  


The bad news is that Routledge, the publisher of this 242-page volume has priced this book at $95. The Poet counsels that Leick's book is worth reading, even if you can only spare time for the first chapter of twenty-three pages, because it brings to mind what is happening now with print newspapers and the Internet. Go ask for the book at your library and see if it can be obtained through interlibrary loan. This is not to say that Leick discusses the current day media revolution of pared-down newspapers (for example, the Washington Post recently quit producing its weekly Book Week section) and saturated social networking websites such as, Facebook, and Twitter. However, Leick's discussion about the power that newspaper critics and columnists had on the success of books entering the market makes the Poet muse on current day forces affecting the life of books (albeit print or electronic). What's more, Leick makes it clear that Stein was savvy about what press could do for her as an author, even if the commentary was derogatory.


The Steiny Road Poet got a taste of Stein's history with American newspapers when she heard "The Return of the Native: Gertrude Stein's 1934 American Tour," a lecture by the American art historian Wanda Corn March 25, 2007, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Corn called Stein, the People's Modernist, and although Leick doesn't use this moniker for Stein, Leick reinforces this idea throughout Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity. What the Poet had not realized when she heard Corn's lecture, but is an important organizing point for Leick's book, was that Stein's name and titles of her work started appearing in American newspapers in the 1910s and continued through the decades until her death in 1946.  


While modernism became associated in the latter half of the twentieth century with intellectuals, academia, and literary snobbism, during Stein's time as a published author, modernism and the authors associated with this literary movement were regularly discussed in the American news including print and radio broadcasts. Although most people who paid attention to the news had heard of Stein's first published poetry collection Tender Buttons (1911), few had read the book, but most had seen lines quoted from this experimental work. Leick reports that in 1914 the Chicago Tribune in an article entitled "Public Gets Peep at Extreme Cubist Literature in Gertrude Stein's 'Tender Buttons'" printed 19 poems from the collection. While most published comments about Tender Buttons were not complimentary, copies of the book were hard to obtain (only 1000 copies were printed). Leick also counters that while detractors made fun about work that they had not read in its entirety, there were many admirers and newspapers like the New York Evening Sun that covered both sides (p. 44) as in this example:


"The worst that has been said of …Tender Buttons is that it is a farrago of nonsense… The defense offered by her admirers is …she has found an entirely new use for words, arranging them indeed without too nice regard for sense, but with clear and telling emotional intent. To this argument her critics have no answer, except her prose means nothing to them. They are obliged, however to admit that it is at least new." (June 13, 1914)

The Poet gives Leick high marks for her copious newspaper quotes because the Poet feels that Leick has chosen the quotes carefully and introduced them well. So many times, the Poet's eyes leap right over blocks of quote passages because the author has overzealously provided too much text. However, each time the Poet arrived at a blocked quotation, she spied key words that arrested her from skipping past.


One thread of Leick's book explores hoax. Incredulous critics thought Stein was playing some sort of game on the public. In 1914 a reporter asked Stein if Tender Buttons was a stunt (p.49). Stein's answer was that stunts "are invariably the product of one mind reacting on the work of another or the caricature of a thing somebody else has created." And this was before two formalist poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke (Ficke who studied under William James was a Harvard graduate like Stein and Bynner) and successfully executed a literary hoax whose goal was to spoof free verse. In 1916, they published through a legitimate editor Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments under the pseudonyms of Anne Knish and Emanuel Morgan. However, the joke turned on them, because critics said their spoofs were better poems than their formalist work (pp. 49-52).  


After The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (and, duh, The Autobiography was definitely a stunt in reaction to her literary agent insisting on a memoir which was all the rage at that time) was published serially in the Atlantic Monthly, critics questioned whether Alice B. Toklas was a real person. What's interesting is that while the public was primed for literary hijinx, and Stein did embellish on some things like how she met Carl Van Vechten (the man who promoted her in the United States and who later became her literary executor—she said they met at the riotous premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring), Stein got away with telling the public that Alice Toklas was her secretary. Leick points out that the public regarded Stein as grandmotherly despite her mannish haircut. According to Leick, because the media saw Stein as a good-natured grandmother, they never once forced Stein to answer any questions about the true nature of her relationship with Toklas.


Another aspect of Stein the Poet had paid little attention to but which Leick gives numerous details was Stein's aspirations to break into film. Initially Stein said the media of film didn't meet her requirements for achieving the present moment (she said the film audience, like theater audience, lagged behind in receiving what was being delivered from the screen) and she had also declined a lunch invitation from film magnates, the Warner Brothers. In the spring of 1935, she had ruled out film after seeing herself in a Pathé newsreel which had been made early in her lecture tour. Pathé, a French company, is the oldest name in the film industry and was bought by Warner Brothers in 1931. So while Stein wasn't opposed to promoting herself and her work in the new media of film in 1934, she was probably unprepared for the shock of seeing herself caught on celluloid. However by March 1940, only two months before Hitler invaded France, the Chicago Tribune had published that Stein had written to a friend in Chicago that she wanted to appear in a film based on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In any case, none of her film ideas starting in 1936 panned out.


Granted that Leick's study concentrates on how Americans received and responded to Stein and that Leick had to make choices about how much she would say about certain topics. That said, the Steiny Road Poet was disappointed to get only a few details about the White House visit Stein and Toklas paid to Eleanor Roosevelt. What did they talk about and how did the American public view that privileged visit during the height of the Depression? Throughout the book, the portrait of Stein's friend Bernard Fäy, the man convicted of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II and sending numbers of Jews to their death in concentration camps, was exceedingly rosy. In the chapter about the 1930s, Leick says that Fäy "expressed his admiration for Stein's character" and "celebrated her down-to-earth honesty and integrity" (p. 149). Granted that he is said to have protected Stein and Toklas during World War II and Stein supported Fäy even after he was thrown in prison, Fäy was a much more disturbing association than was Stein posing in 1934 for an advertisement of Ford automobiles. (Stein typically owned Ford cars.) Leick mentions Henry Ford's anti-Semitic document Protocols of the Elders of Zion and "numerous articles about the threat of 'International Jews' in the 1920s" (p. 174-175). Also one detail Leick mentioned about where Stein and Toklas sat out WWII was incomplete. Leick wrote they "endured the war at their summer home at Bilignin" when in fact they had to move from that rented house during the war and went to Culoz, a town right on the railroad which put them in closer contact with the Germans. It was in this house that German soldiers billeted themselves for a brief stay without noticing, "the women were American, lesbian, and Jewish" (p. 197).

One additional bothersome point that Leick made early in her introduction concerns critics who present the "mistaken idea that modernists like Stein intentionally isolated themselves from the mainstream" (p.3). Among the critics Leick mentions is Barbara Will. From Will's book Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of "Genius," Leick quotes only one passage (p. 3-4) that seems to indicate that Will had not considered Stein's deep interest in popular culture. In fact, Will talks about the complexity of Stein playing to audiences who are intellectuals versus ordinary people in her chapter entitled "From 'Genius' to Celebrity: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody's Autobiography." Will states that Stein "finally became a household name" through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (p. 138). Perhaps to this point, Leick takes exception, but as the Steiny Road Poet knows (having used this detail in her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On) when Stein arrived in New York in 1934, she was bowled over by how many ordinary people (even the corner grocer) knew her by name. After all, her name was posted on a Broadway theater marquis for several months as her and Virgil Thomson's smash-hit, campy opera Four Saints in Three Acts enjoyed 60 consecutive performances and was referred to in major department store display windows (for example, Gimbels ran a display entitled "Four Suits in Two Acts"). Also she was interviewed on the radio so her name and her voice was heard ubiquitously.  

The Poet does not believe that in the 1920s that the same corner grocer knew who Gertrude Stein was, but maybe some of his book-reading clients who followed the book review and gossip columns in the newspapers did. Also, Will's appreciation of Stein's relation to mass culture takes on a wider view of Stein than does Leick's. Will states, "In ending my analysis with this text [Everybody's Autobiography], I argue that it represents for Stein an important occasion for reflection upon the shrinking importance of the high/low cultural dichotomy—particularly of the high modernist values of privacy, aesthetic autonomy, and authorial inwardness—in the face of an emergent popular culture of postmodernism" (p. 138).  


Here the Poet feels obligated to separate postmodernism from its root modernism. Modernism might be best thought of as what changed with how World War I was fought—tanks and airplanes. Also there was the new thinking: Einstein's theory of relativity and Freud's theory of the unconscious. In other words, a shakeup of the status quo. A new way of seeing and experiencing reality was what writers Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marcel Proust, Stéphane Mallarmé, Franz Kafka, Jean Cocteau, Rainer Maria Rilke offered as well as painters Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian—the list is long with writers, painters, composers, etc. And while modernism pushed the boundaries, it remained chained to the past with its linear thinking. Postmodernism also pushes the boundaries and offers new technology and ideas, but it traffics in fragmentation, discontinuity, and ambiguity. Postmodernism is all about nonlinear thinking. Thus, Stein who was an early modernist, writing her groundbreaking, chaotic novel The Making of Americans before Joyce and Proust wrote theirs, is now considered a postmodernist. She was and remains ahead of her time and ours.

For as much as Stein said she was a genius, she still had her failings and faults. Leick points out, "Her anti-intellectual pose, so refreshing in New York, New England, or the Mid-West, was used by Californians as evidence that she was not capable of making important and obvious distinctions between writers, artists and culture" (p. 182). So in the territory of her childhood home, critics and columnists did not treat her well. None of her spontaneous standup comedy lines worked in California. Leick suggests that Stein's series of humorous articles about her impressions of America (many were published before she arrived in California) may have been part of the "hostile reaction to Stein" (p. 183) and these were followed after she left the United States by a series of essays she wrote on money that demonstrated that she did not fully appreciate what happened to people in the Depression (p. 189). And darned if we Americans are so there now on the issues of money! Leick ends her study of Stein by saying that the public forgot about Stein after her death, that a "caricature of her became institutionalized," and that her work "became normalized first in the academy and, subsequently, in American culture generally" (p. 198). The Steiny Road Poet thinks that Leick's use of the word normalize which means made to conform to a standard is an unfortunate choice and that while the Poet believes Leick's book offers an engaging study of American reaction to Stein and her work, the Poet advises the reader to think outside of Leick's box.

Karen Elizabeth Leick holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Northwestern University. She writes and lectures regularly on modernists Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf. She is an Assistant Professor of English, The Ohio State University. Lima, OH.

Photos courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library


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©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

August 2009

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