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A Very Difficult Author

Gertrude Stein in Pieces

by Richard Bridgman
Oxford, 410 pp., $12.50

Four Americans in Paris: The Collections of Gertrude Stein and Her Family

a catalog with seven essays and two word-portraits
Museum of Modern Art, 173 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Gertrude Stein on Picasso

edited by Edward Burns
Liveright, 122 pp., $17.50

Gertrude Stein and the Present

by Allegra Stewart
Harvard, 223 pp., $4.95

Gertrude Stein Talking: A Trans-Atlantic Interview

by Robert Bartlett Haas
Uclan Review

The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World

by John Malcolm Brinnin
Little, Brown, 427 pp., $6.00 (republished in 1968 by Peter Smith, $7.50)

Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Work

by Elizabeth Sprigge
Harper, 277 pp., $5.00

Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work

by Donald Sutherland
Yale, 218 pp., $3.75

This has been a Gertrude Stein winter, beginning with the exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Four Americans in Paris and a nationally broadcast television show entitled When This You See Remember Me, going on to three sizable books that include studies of her work, with at least one more yet to come, and probably two.

The TV show, produced by Perry Miller Adato for National Educational Television and the British Broadcasting Corporation, is a ninety minute affair still visible occasionally at the Museum of Modern Art, where it turned away long lines for several weeks. Indeed, so widely popular has it been, and so generally admired by professionals, that it will probably be made available later for distribution in schools and colleges. For the piece does give information and has charm.

Its species is that of the homage to an artist no longer living, a genre less common to our television than to the French, where I remember from ten years back a fine tribute to the poet Max Jacob. The evocation was done through still photographs of the subject at various ages, cinematic takes of still-surviving spots where he lived, and interviews with persons who had known him well, the whole held together and made into a composition by means of a spoken text.

The views of Miss Stein’s chief Paris addresses and of the country house at Bilignin, plus interviews with the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, the poet Georges Hugnet, and “Jenny” Bradley, widow of Miss Stein’s literary agent, conversations between Janet Flanner and the painter Maurice Grosser and myself on the terrace at Bilignin, plus bits of Melanctha acted out on camera and of Four Saints in Three Acts played and sung, all give a certain amplitude to the present show. In Stein’s case, moreover, the sound of her own voice reading and some footage of her playing actively with a dog (Basket II) enable the tape to present as remarkably vivid a person now dead these twenty-five years.

The exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art of twenty-eight pictures by Picasso and ten by Juan Gris, recently purchased by American collectors from the Gertrude Stein Estate, has been enlarged by others known to have belonged formerly to Gertrude, to her brother Leo, and to her brother Michael and his wife Sarah. Gertrude’s own pictures dominate the show, partly because the collections of Leo and of the Michael Steins, having been long since sold off, were not always easy to trace down or to borrow, and partly because so many of Gertrude’s were by Picasso.

Michael and Sarah during their lifetime owned far more Matisses than Gertrude ever owned Picassos. But Matisse in this show tends to be represented by a multitude of small sketches and drawings, and only a few of his larger paintings. Also, the Juan Gris pictures are not, I think, advantageously hung. In any case the Picassos do stand out, and we do know the Modern Art for a Picasso-oriented museum. So let me not be querulous, but grateful rather, for a show of pictures all acquired sincerely by the members of one close family from painters who were friends sincerely and, for most of these friends’ acquisition time, young. No large amounts of money were ever involved either, because when prices got out of bounds the Steins stopped buying.

The result of all this youth and passion and sincerity (I insist the word has meaning here) and of its deployment in a time (well before World War I) when modern art scholarship was unknown and modern art prices were still innocent (for the big boom began only with cubism, about 1911)—the result is a show with the perfume of bushes loved and flowering. No chalk garden this, no series of illustrations to a curator’s thesis. And if a slight odor of money hangs around as if lodged in the cracks and by now characteristic of the premises, in this exhibit for once the dominant savor is of spices and sweetness miraculously persistent.

There is no question that in both of these shows, the TV one and the museum one, the personality of Gertrude Stein is a major presence. Alive or dead she has always been a star attraction, still is. Her writing is another matter. Some of it, especially the autobiographical, is easy to take. Other parts, the children’s poetry side of her, can still be fun if you like children’s poetry. The abstruse works like Tender Buttons have long made serious enemies among serious writers. And the novels, whether monumental like The Making of Americans, or simply dense like Lucy Church Amiably, Ida, and Mrs. Reynolds, have long discouraged readers.

The play Yes Is for a Very Young Man and the conversation piece Brewsie and Willie, when presented as a play, did make some stir. And the operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All have had a wider repercussion. For Gertrude Stein had theories about playwriting and a penchant for opera, and sustained interest on her part for the stage as a literary medium did help her give life to stage works.

But a novelist is what she believed herself to be. That is what she prepared herself for by reading virtually the whole of English narrative literature. The novel is the terrain of her earliest success, Three Lives, and of her most sustained single effort, The Making of Americans. It is also the chief literary form, along with the portrait sketch, through which she practiced character analysis, a skill she had learned in some depth from her studies at Harvard with Hugo Münsterberg and William James.

For examining Gertrude Stein’s long novel there seems to be a new pinnacle, high and possibly dangerous to inexpert navigation, like a partly exposed iceberg, known as the Katz manuscript. Leon Katz is a professor of drama at Carnegie-Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, who during his graduate student days began to study the notebooks that Gertrude Stein kept from 1901 to 1911, a period that comprises both The Making of Americans and A Long Gay Book. The latter overlaps the novel and just precedes Tender Buttons, of 1910-12, thus making it exactly contemporaneous with the eclosion of cubist painting, to which A Long Gay Book runs parallel, in some cases possibly preceding in time the dissociational techniques of Picasso and Braque.

Professor Katz is currently editing these notebooks for publication, and he has already edited and written a preface to Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings (to be published in June by Liveright). The first of these is a story written very early (1903) but later incorporated into the long novel. Q.E.D. is the lesbian narrative published after Miss Stein’s death, under the title Things As They Are, which itself is overlapped by the beginnings of the long novel, Three Lives having also intervened before the novel was resumed. Included too are another section from the novel, or notes for it, and the reprinting of a rare pamphlet by Donald Gallup, “The Making of The Making of Americans.” All this apprentice work of Stein is of value, has life in it. And Professor Katz’s preface is powerful salesmanship. But it is not the “Katz manuscript” itself, which peers out from odd footnotes in the other books like a sudden searchlight.

This manuscript is a doctoral dissertation (Columbia, 1963) entitled “The First Making of The Making of Americans,” based on newly examined material (the notebooks) and arriving at a quite different judgment of the book from any I have previously met, excepting of course for Gertrude’s own, which held it (with Clarissa Harlowe) to be “the other great novel in English.”

Katz’s high opinion of it is expressed in the above-mentioned preface; I have not seen his dissertation. But it is clear from the preface and also from his essay “Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein” in the museum’s catalog of Four Americans in Paris that we have among us a Stein scholar who can speak not only with authority about literary aims and qualities but also with some understanding about the aesthetics of modern art. Actually his treatment of the relation between her work and cubist painting is the closest to believable of any I have met. And his attribution of a source for the painting style of the head in the Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein is brand-new. He ascribes it not to African art, as Gertrude did in her book on Picasso, but to the pre-Roman Iberian sculptures exhibited at the Louvre in the spring of 1906, an influence which was to bring him, with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, “to the threshold of cubism.”

Books about Gertrude Stein tell many of them the same stories, quite often quote the same remarks and letters. Reading them all, after the autobiographies of course, gives a rounded portrait; and for a full view all are needed. But for understanding her work itself only three are significant—those of Donald Sutherland, of Malcolm Brinnin, and of Richard Bridgman. One expects the further publications of Leon Katz to enlarge this number, for they promise brilliance. And Donald Sutherland’s memoirs, scheduled for early appearance, may help too, though essentially they deal more with Stein’s household than with her writing. For the present Bridgman’s Gertrude Stein in Pieces is the newest among serious studies of that.

Any examination of Stein’s abstruse prose and poetry, it seems to me, is valuable in proportion to the number of lines elucidated. In this view Professor Bridgman’s book (he works at the University of California in Berkeley) ranks high, very high. But there is a difference between merely explaining and explaining convincingly. Many a writer has tried to crack Tender Buttons, with the explanations coming out almost as obscure as their originals, or offering at best a one-man, one-meaning view of phrases that may well be based on layers of meaning covered up by double-entendre.

The least convincing to me is Allegra Stewart’s attempt in Gertrude Stein and the Present to explain Stein’s choice of words in Tender Buttons through Indo-European philology, a subject of which Gertrude knew little, and Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (an opera libretto written for Lord Berners but never set by him) in terms of Jungian psychology, though she admits “there is little direct evidence that Jung influenced Gertrude Stein.”

More convincing are Stein’s own answers to direct questions in Gertrude Stein Talking: A Trans-Atlantic Interview by Robert Bartlett Haas, in three issues (summer 1962, spring 1963, and winter 1964) of the Uclan Review (University of California in Los Angeles). But even here, when asked the meaning of


Rub her coke.

she dismissed it as an early attempt to make “sound pictures,” which she later “gave up as uninteresting.” I do not find this answer satisfactory. Also I wonder why no one has ever reached out in public, at least to my knowledge, for the meaning of the title Tender Buttons, of which the literal translation into French will easily get anyone a laugh. Nor does even Bridgman essay that one, though he is fascinated by the work (who isn’t?) and devotes twelve pages to it. He does not doubt, moreover, that “the book will yield its meaning as readers grow more familiar with it.”

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