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
PEELED PENCIL, CHOKE
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.”
My own experience with it over a fifty-year period is of sporadic enlightenments far from systematic. So far indeed that I sympathize with Allegra Stewart’s effort to find a passkey outside mere intuition in rereading it. But no Rosetta stone has yet turned up comparable to what the notebooks have done for Katz, and through him Bridgman, toward opening up the early fiction and the approaches to Tender Buttons presented in A Long Gay Book.
Thanks to Katz and Bridgman the identity of all the characters in this fiction is now virtually complete, including Gertrude’s self-identification with several. The pains of adolescence, too, her augmented sufferings as a passionate young woman, unmated till well past thirty, and her long and relentless struggle learning to write are shown to have been far more intense than euphoric later statements about her early years ever admitted.
Ethics-minded and moralistic from her intellectual training and middle-class upbringing, and long resistant toward acceptance of the lesbian vocation (though indulging, we presume, in its practice and certainly tormented by amorous emotions not only toward certain women but also, I have reason to believe, toward her brother Leo, with whom she lived for many years domestically), in 1907 she relaxed into a home life with Alice Toklas that seems to have been profoundly satisfactory from the beginning.
Bridgman discerns from her writings that about the year 1924 Alice wandered briefly, but was welcomed back. It was also around that time that Gertrude’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway was at its height, a friendship marked by strong sexual attraction (there is no doubt of it) on both sides. And Alice’s wandering may have been aimed at arresting this. In any case, Hemingway was pretty soon out of the picture. He regretted this, had no doubt the fault was Alice’s. And Alice herself admitted years later to Donald Sutherland that she had “had to get rid of him.” As she admitted to me regarding the break with Georges Hugnet, which had been ordered in my presence, that she “only wanted to protect Gertrude.”
The truth is that whatever her early adventures with women may have been, and her (frankly stated to me) complete lack of sexual occasions with men, also in spite of her genuinely beatific home life with Miss Toklas, Gertrude Stein was often attracted by young men and in some cases vastly attractive to them. One who knew her in Princeton—he was twenty-five, she sixty—said he had “had a hard-on for three weeks.” Hemingway at the time of his break was twenty-six or twenty-seven, she fifty. The French poet Georges Hugnet, to whom she wrote love letters and whose poems Enfances she translated (Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded) was twenty, she fifty-six at the time.
There were four major occasions that I know of when a break seemingly engineered by Toklas became permanent. The earliest ones were with Leo Stein and with Mabel Dodge, both breaks sexually motivated I strongly suspect. The later ones with Hemingway and with Hugnet I have no uncertainty about. And I find it a little surprising that Professor Bridgman, with his sharp flair for erotica, should not have come upon evidence of these dramas in Miss Stein’s work. But he was looking, I think, for lesbianisms; and it is certain, moreover, that he has not seen the letters to Hugnet, which are in Paris.
As for his lesbian findings, these seem to reach their saturation point in the works written during 1915 and 1916 in Majorca, especially in that long celebration of the daily life called Lifting Belly. And among the findings are bits of a secret vocabulary. In this lexicon the word “cow” means the female sex organ. (As a Wife Has a Cow: a Love Story is made up almost wholly of conjunctions and prepositions expressing connection.) The name Caesar, says Bridgman, means the male organ, or its female surrogate; and certainly this pair of terms can open for us many a touchy passage. I should like to suggest too a word that occurs in an earlier Spanish period which seems to mean high sexual delight or, still more precisely, the sexual effluvia. The word is Susie, as in Susie Asado (asado being the Spanish word for “baked”), which shortly becomes “Toasted Susie is my ice cream.” A good deal, in fact, of the long Majorcan winter seems to have been passed before the fire. And I remember from another Spanish context somebody “having had it with a spoon.” A heated spoon, no doubt.
One is grateful to Bridgman for having opened to closer inspection Stein’s rich erotic vein, as one is grateful for his having pursued throughout her whole life’s work evidences of the early training in experimental psychology, in philosophy, and in scientific method. For she was a relentless worker, an inveterate analyst both of human nature and of the literary elements, of things like paragraphs and sentences, of grammar and the parts of speech. And lest we tend to confuse her insistent garrulity with mind-wandering or with mere jabber, let us remember that for the author of Tender Buttons spontaneity was a discipline.
Professor Bridgman makes a point of this, though when penetration fails he tends to suspect weakness in the writer, not in himself. He even goes so far as to condemn sizable works that both Sutherland and Katz admire wholeheartedly, without so much as mentioning their contrary opinions. He considers The Making of Americans, for instance, as having long before its end become “a ruined enterprise.” But “Gertrude Stein,” he says, “strained to finish what she had started,” even though she had long since abandoned her initial hope of “writing an epic work on the formation of the American character.” How many a long work fails to realize its aim! Does Paradise Lost “justify the ways of God to man”? I doubt it. Sutherland admits the abandonment of first aim, but concludes that the work “has the essential quality of a masterpiece, the continous presence of active mind applied to something alive.”
For Katz “the culminating section of the book” is “the consummate artistic performance of the first period of her writing” and a turning point in her stylistic orientation. “The last chapter of The Making of Americans,” he says,
was set down in less than a month, and was written in a torrential rush which spelled out with clarity, with control, with utter integrity, and with the most moving command of her fantastically complex and subtle material the inner life of her hero from the beginning of consciousness until death…. In a style cleaned and denuded of all echoes and imitations of other writers’ manners, using only words which bore the impress of her own discovery of their full meaning and of her own conviction of their pregnancy, the chaper moves, like a rolling river, to the great dirge over the death of David Hersland….
To share even piecemeal, fragmentarily, the scope and certainty of the vision with which The Making of Americans is concluded is, it appears to me, to begin to see the distinction that informs the lifework that followed this novel. After the novel was finished, the portentous subject, the effort to achieve the grand manner, even the terms of formal intellectual discourse are all discarded, and her writing settles into a life-long, smiling, personal pageantry of the nearby and the trivial. There are stops and starts, there are redefinitions of the writing problem, there persist the experimental games of worrying metaphysical terms to the limits of their endurance to discover how much of them remains usable after they have been shoved into their most ridiculous postures. All that activity happily continues for the rest of her life. But beneath all of it, informing it and giving it its inevitability, lies the settled and visionary certainty for which the struggle and the concluding achievement of The Making of Americans served as the spring-board.
…Her unique art subsequently emerged as an endlessly full hymn of pleasure in the actual, a nonselective tribute to the uniform splendors of existence.
Bridgman’s chapter on Four Saints in Three Acts embodies another arbitrary estimate. Gertrude called it “a perfectly simple description of the Spanish landscape.” Sutherland, himself an adept of Spanish matters, as well as of Miss Stein’s writing, says it is “perhaps her most full and personal expression.” And he came to it ignorant of its music and staging, purely as reading matter. Bridgman, on the other hand, considers that on account of these added ornaments it “occupies a more important position in Gertrude Stein’s canon than its intrinsic worth can justify.”
Let me correct a bit his examination. Bridgman says “Thomson commissioned” the libretto. Far from it; I had only to mention a libretto and veto a few suggestions about subject matter, and she started writing. He says further that “who the second pair of saints is is not altogether certain.” But it is quite certain. Gertrude meant them to be Settlement and Chavez, and their musical roles were written with this fact in mind, in spite of Saint Plan having more lines. He doubts that Stein had read St. Teresa’s writings, although Gertrude stated that she had done so, probably during her pre-World War I stay in Avila, where this saint dominates both city and country and easily makes anyone wish to know her.
He interprets the words “if to stay to cry” as “this passionate woman [being] uncertain about her commitment to the holy life.” Let us add this thought if need be, but the overt meaning refers to the fact that on arriving at Avila in an April rainstorm, Gertrude took a dislike to the place and wanted to move on; but Alice loved it and cried to stay.
The phrase “very nearly half inside and half outside [outside the house and not surrounded]” is an incomplete quotation and probably refers less to her “ambivalence” than to her being practically always “on the go,” except for the periods she would spend in retreat at a convent outside the city. “Saint Teresa half in and half out of doors” goes along with this, as does “the garden inside and outside of the wall,” a literal description recognizable by anyone who has seen walled Avila.
That “Gertrude Stein lacked information about St. Teresa” I doubt, since there is not much known about her that cannot be learned in a ten-day visit to her home town. It is rather, I suspect, that Professor Bridgman himself lacks both information about the saint and familiarity with her city. Also he exaggerates the observation about St. Teresa being photographed “having been dressed like a lady and then they taking out her head changed it to a nun and a nun a saint” into an “experience” of St. Teresa. But the reference is not mystical at all, for actually the images of this saint almost always show her as a nun, whereas it is pictures of her “as a lady” that we lack. But Gertrude imagines the opposite, as with soldiers killed in a war or young women who have assumed the veil. The family brings some earlier picture, in ordinary clothes, and the photographer, by “taking out” the head, puts it into uniform. As simple as that, and as touching for any family’s memory book.
He insists on “her yearning to be done with the uncongenial commission,” as is evidenced in lines like “How much of it is finished.” There was no commission; no money was involved; and I used no pressure, not even a promise of performance. For Gertrude to have spent four months on a work that bored her is unthinkable. And if it had bored her, I would have been the first to know, after Alice of course. But it did not, as we all three were aware. Far from it.
Regarding the famous aria “Pigeons on the grass alas,” in Bridgman’s view “anti-supernatural,” he is quite wrong, for this is one of the few moments in the opera that Gertrude really explained to me. It is St. Ignatius’s vision of the Holy Ghost and it represents a true vision. It begins with “ordinary pigeons” which are “on the grass alas,” not doves against the sky as they maybe could be wished to be. But it goes on to a “magpie in the sky on the sky,” exactly as one sees these birds in Spain, hanging there trembling, exactly as in many a primitive Spanish painting too, where the magpie, flat and seeming almost to vibrate, does represent the Holy Ghost. And the succeeding declaration, “Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy,” may indeed, as Bridgman suggests, be “an authorial statement stimulated by the religious context”; but when I treated it as a proof of true vision, as a heavenly chorus heard chanting in some heavenly lingo, Gertrude was ever so pleased.
I could give more examples of careless readings, of subtle word-plays interpreted as doodlings, or the belief that Gertrude neglected St. Ignatius because she disapproved of his “institutional bias.” But St. Ignatius’s Act 3 is twice the length of the other two and contains four times the drama—a ballet, a storm, a revelation, a miracle, a view of the Last Judgment, and a procession that is both a funeral and a wedding. Three of these events were put there knowingly by Gertrude; the other three, the storm, its quieting, and the Last Judgment, were so interpreted by Maurice Grosser with the librettist’s full consent. I am afraid the good professor, wise so often in his fine book Gertrude Stein in Pieces, fell down a bit on Four Saints when he gave me chief credit for its fame. Does he think I would have spent time rescuing a text so silly that it bored its own author?
Well, professors will be professors, even the most enlightened, and regularly pontificate when knowledge fails. All the same, Richard Bridgman has written a fine book and one that by the sheer number of obscure lines convincingly explained represents a major mile in the long journey yet to be accomplished of completely elucidating this very difficult author.
P.S. I wish I could say as much for the picture-book Gertrude Stein on Picasso, which offers little not elsewhere available. Aside from photographs of Miss Stein, her last dog, several other friends, and her studio, there are abundantly reproductions of pictures by Picasso (some in color, some not) that have at some time belonged to her.
The text consists of Miss Stein’s monograph on Picasso, frequently reprinted in the original French as well as in English and in several other languages; of her two word-portraits of Picasso, also still in print, I believe; of eleven short paragraphs from the notebooks (seven of them very short), plus an excellent essay on Stein and Picasso entitled “They Walk in the Light,” by Leon Katz and Edward Burns, who also has edited the present English version of Picasso. Whether that text required editing, save possibly for copyright purposes, I cannot judge; but surely the ascription of first publication in Portraits and Prayers, 1934, of If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso must have been made for some such reason, since Mr. Burns, who as general editor recounts his sources with care, can scarcely be ignorant of its inclusion, both the English original and its French translation, in Dix Portraits (Paris, 1928).
April 8, 1971