Meeting Wanda Corn
On March 25, 2007, the Steiny Road Poet had the deep pleasure of meeting and hearing Dr. Wanda Corn, a highly respected and well-published scholar of American art, speak on this topic: The Return of the Native: Gertrude Stein's 1934 American Tour.
TRANSATLANTIQUE STEIN, THE PEOPLE'S MODERNIST
What the Poet particularly loved about this lecture were the names Dr. Corn gave to Stein. TransAtlantique—Corn said ex-patriot did not really describe Stein because even though Stein lived in France, she grounded her work in America. The People's Modernist—because Stein wanted to be understood and used plain words, Corn said Stein, unlike James Joyce, was accessible, had family values, and reminded Corn of Eleanor Roosevelt. Although Corn didn't coin this image of Stein—grandmotherly—Corn discovered this view of Stein in the extensive research she did on Modernists when Corn was writing The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935.
In her Stein lecture, Corn showed many slides of American newspaper articles that were written during Stein's 1934-1935-lecture tour. The press expected Gertrude Stein to be a freak. Although there were phrases applied to her like "Obscurantist," "Apostle of Gibberish," and "Benevolent Viking," the bulk of the journalists discovered much to their surprise that she was a solid elderly lady, matronly, human, lucid, sincere, and rather grandmotherly with a winning smile.
SENSIBLE VERSUS WILDE
What put everything in perspective about Stein's lecture tour was how professor Corn provided a bigger lens on what lecture tours were like during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Prominent authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde commanded huge sums of money and spoke to enormous crowds. Although some of the audiences came in formal attire to these lectures, it was not uncommon for brawls to erupt. Corn said that Stein was clearly trying to avoid anything that resembled these tours, but especially Oscar Wilde's tour where he dressed in outlandish costumes for each lecture and made outrageous pronouncements.
Before Stein agreed to come to the United States for her lecture tour, she made these ground rules:
—The lecture should be relatively small. Stein would not speak to more than 500 people at a time. In spite of her having occasional cases of stage fright, her intent was to make intimate contact with her audience.
—She preferred her audience for the most part to be students or art societies. For student audiences she asked for $100 and for art societies, $250. Big name lecturers often commanded $1000 per lecture. Stein said she would rather pay for expenses out of pocket than compromise her lecture requirements.
—Stein would attend no society luncheons or dinners.
—She refused to be picked up in a taxi or limousine. Wherever she spoke, she preferred to walk to her lecture, even when it was a long distance.
—She refused to be introduced and asked only that a small table covered with a cloth and holding a pitcher of water be on stage for her convenience.
Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Her rules were meant to show that she was serious about her work and that she was intent on reaching people who would be serious about listening to her. She dressed in sensible clothes and shoes. Corn said the reports were that Stein was "not stylish but had style with her scarves and broaches, and two-piece [skirt and jacket] suites in nubby textures." What Stein succeeded in doing according to Corn and her research was to put a "kindly human face on Modernism."
THE MODERNIST FLIES, THE REALIST RIDES THE RAILS
While pointing out that Wilde's tour occurred over fifty years before Stein's and Stein's tour included many airplane rides, something that few lecturers even in the 1930s had access to, Corn also made it clear that Stein was up against a drastic change in how people viewed the world. Realism in the world of art represented by writers such as John Steinbeck was countering interest in Modernist style and proclivities. The Depression was in full tilt with its bread lines, marathon dances, and men riding the rails searching for work. So Stein's sensible low coast lecture tour seemed entirely appropriate for the mood of the country. The only thing Stein had not figured into her equation was air travel and that as the Steiny Road tells in Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On opened Stein's eyes to the Twentieth Century and a new perspective on what Picasso saw in his Cubist style of painting. And of course it made it possible for Stein to visit more parts of the United States than she had originally planned and cinched Stein as a Modernist who used the inventions that changed the world.
SEEING GERTRUDE STEIN IN 2010?
This year Stanford University professor Wanda Corn is a Senior Fellow at The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Her bio from the National Gallery says this: She is currently working on an exhibition on Gertrude Stein and the American avant-garde, and she is completing a book about Mary Cassatt and the decorative program of murals and sculptures for the Woman's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Steiny Road Poet had an opportunity to eat lunch with Dr. Corn who said that she hopes to have her Stein exhibit (perhaps called "Seeing Gertrude Stein") mounted by 2010 in museums in San Francisco; Washington, DC; and/or New York City. What she also wants to see is a full-blown celebration of Gertrude Stein, along the lines of what is happening this year in DC with William Shakespeare. The Steiny Road Poet applauds that ambitious plan and said she would do what she could to advance that cause.