Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company
by James R. Mellow
Praeger, 528 pp., $12.95
Reflection on the Atomic Bomb: Vol I of the Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein
edited by Robert Bartlett Haas
Black Sparrow Press, 164 pp., $4.00 (paper)
How Writing Is Written: Vol II of the Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein
edited by Robert Bartlett Haas
Black Sparrow Press, 161 pp., $4.00 (paper)
Beginning with her own The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 and Everybody’s Autobiography in 1937, there have been longer and shorter versions of Gertrude Stein’s biography, in greater or less detail, over lo! these forty years and they still keep coming. In 1957 there was Gertrude Stein, Her Life and Work, by Elizabeth Sprigge, in 1959 The Third Rose, Gertrude Stein and Her World, by John Malcolm Brinnin, and in 1963 What Is Remembered, by Alice B. Toklas. Last year there were four biographies of Gertrude Stein for children. And now, on the hundredth anniversary of her birth, there is the largest and most elaborate of them all, by the art critic and historian James R. Mellow.
No doubt the new information in later books which most changes the color of the story is that Gertrude Stein was a lesbian. Since the death of Alice B. Toklas in 1967, biographers and memorialists are free to make as much or as little of that fact as they please. So are critics, who can interpret a great deal of Gertrude Stein’s work as more or less camouflaged accounts of lesbianism. I find all this depressing and diminishing.
An early story of hers, Things as They Are, which is overtly lesbian and largely autobiographical, gets more attention than I think it deserves, because of the content. When I was writing about it. in sporadic consultation with Miss Toklas, I treated it, briefly, as a formal exercise, of interest only because it leads up to the much more important story, Melanctha. That way of treating it was in part discretion or good manners but also true to what I thought of the story, and still think. Now everybody knows better and believes what escaped me entirely, that Melanctha itself, though a heterosexual story, is covertly about lesbianism still. Allowing that an unhappy affair of her own was a major source for her knowledge of the passions in the story, and for the intricate conflict of temperaments described, one may recognize other sources, such as Flaubert or her psychological studies at Harvard, and see the resultant story as a drama of universals, with nothing specifically lesbian about it.
One interest from one biography or memoir to the next is the differing point of view of the narrator. After writing about herself from the point of view of Alice B. Toklas and then from the point of view of “everybody,” as a public figure, Gertrude Stein has been described and her story told variously by friends and enemies, poets and journalists, professors and at least one composer. Charmed Circle is by a man whose primary interest is in painting and painters. It could have been a history of the Stein collection of paintings, or of her life with painting and many painters, and it does include a good deal of both, much more than usual. Mr. Mellow’s visual imagination is so strong that he conceives the story as a very …