a rebellious

by Karren Alenier

Scene4 Magazine -"Paul Bowles" - Karren Alenier - January 2011

January 2011

Paul Bowles was born December 30, 1910, and died November 18, 1999. He lived most of the years of the 20th century and was certainly a product of the Jazz Age, which he contributed to with his musical compositions and in the way he lived his life as a rebellious American who expatriated to Morocco and moved outside the norms established by the white middle class of which he was an offspring. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was the model for how Bowles lived his life, which for him was a dual path of music and literature. In this short history written against brief snapshots of worldwide events, one can see the tremendous influence Stein had on the multi-talented Paul Bowles.


By 1910, the year Paul Frederick Bowles was born, Stein had written, though not published, her seminal work The Making of Americans, a novel that took inspiration from her family's immigrant roots and turned the novel as a genre on its head as it progressed from a recognizable narrative to an experimental deconstruction. While Stein was an assimilated Jew, Bowles did not know until he was a young adult that his mother and her family were Jews working to escape their family heritage.

In American history, 1910 marked the performance of Frederick Shepherd Converse's The Pipe of Desire, the first opera by a United States composer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. By the end of that year, the Met had also presented the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini's American opera La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). Certainly Paul Bowles' parents, who lived in the greater New York City area, were aware of such programs at the Metropolitan Opera House and by 1917, Claude Bowles (Paul's father) had purchased his first phonograph and classical music recordings. Paul, at the age of six, bought his first record "At the Jazz Band Ball" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

A precocious child, Paul could read and write by the age of two. At three, he wrote his first short story, "The Fox and the Wolf." At four, he wrote his first poem and started keeping a diary. By 1925 (14-15 years old), he had finished his first crime stories based on a character he called "The Snake Woman." At the age of 17 (spring of 1928), his poem "Spire Song" was published in the international literary magazine transition, a magazine publishing the finest avant-garde writers of the day, including Gertrude Stein, James, Joyce, and André Breton.

By 1925, Gertrude Stein had managed to achieve publication for Three Lives (The Grafton Press, New York, 1909 & John Lane the Bodley Head, London, 1915), Tender Buttons (Claire-Marie, New York, 1914), Geography and Plays (The Four Seas Company, Boston, 1922), and The Making of Americans  (Contact Editions, Paris, 1925). Like most experimental writers, Stein had trouble getting published. With publication of "Melanctha: Each One as She May," a novella that is part of Three Lives, Stein made her first contribution to the Jazz Age by depicting an educated and complicated Black woman, who lives in Stein's fictitious town of Bridgepoint. Bridgepoint (a stand-in name for Baltimore) is also the anchor American town in The Making of Americans, where Melanctha is mentioned in the Martha Hersland section of the nearly 1000-page novel.


Stein put a lot of weight on place. She said, "America is my country and Paris is my hometown." She told Paul Bowles to go to Tangier, Morocco, and starting in 1947, he spent a life time there and from there, he found his voice as a fiction writer, writing about the cruelty of the North African desert (The Sheltering Sky published in London and New York in 1949) in a way that no other writer had before.

Bowles made his first contact with Gertrude Stein by letter in December 1930 when he asked her to send him some of her work for a student literary magazine he was guest editing. While Bowles ran away to Paris in April 1929, months before the U. S. stock market crashed, he did not meet Stein until his second trip to the City of Light in April 1931. However, by 1930, he had become a student of Aaron Copland and so he left Paris at the end of April 1931 to join Copland in Berlin.


After a visit in August 1931 with Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas at their summer house in southern France, Bowles traveled with Copland to Tangier where Bowles finished his Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, which then premiered December 1931 at Aeolian Hall in London, England. Therefore, by the end of 1931 as 2,293 banks had suspended operations and Britain, in debt to foreigners by triple its gold reserves, became the first major power to go off the gold standard, Paul Bowles, on very little financial resources, was making his way around Europe and North Africa and, astonishingly at the age of 21, was able to have his first musical premier in a significant cultural center of the Western world.

Stein who famously advised many artists, including Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, about their careers told Bowles to quit writing poetry because, based on his surreal poem "Spire Song," it was clear to her that he was not a poet. She also insisted on calling him Freddy. Laid up in a hospital in Turin after skiing in the Italian Alps during 1932, Bowles corresponded with Stein and from that correspondence, he wrote the art song "Letters to Freddy."


Stein died in late July 1946. By July 1947, Bowles had received an advance from Doubleday to write a novel and so he left New York and went to Morocco. By August of that year, he was working on The Sheltering Sky. Throughout the 1930s and up to his departure for Morocco in 1947, Bowles had been writing incidental music for theater and ballet involving such artists as Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, John Houseman, Phillip Barry, and Tennessee Williams. During this period, Bowles also wrote the first two of his three operas: Denmark Valley (1938, incomplete or lost portions, never performed) and The Wind Remains (premiered 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and conducted by Leonard Bernstein and with choreography by Merce Cunningham). From 1942 to 1946 insisting that he be allowed to also review jazz concerts, he worked as a music critic for The New York Herald Tribune. Virgil Thomson, the senior music critic at The Tribune and Stein's partner for their two operas (Four Saints in Three Acts, 1934, and The Mother of Us All, 1947) offered Bowles that job.

One can only imagine that if Stein had not been restricted by living in Nazi-occupied France during World War II (May 1940 to December 1944), followed by her death in the summer of 1946, the path of Paul Bowles might have taken other turns away from writing novels and short stories. After all, despite the advance from Doubleday, the big publishing house rejected The Sheltering Sky saying it was not a novel and so Bowles was published by John Lehmann in London, followed by the small press New Directions in New York. Throughout his life, Bowles was consistent in saying that he followed whatever advice Gertrude Stein gave him.

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



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©2011 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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