It’s the height of the Depression. Dashiell Hammett has just published The Thin Man; the Cardinals are brawling their way through the World Series; John Dillinger has recently been gunned down in a Chicago alley. Into this combustible mix arrive, from Paris’s Left Bank, a pair of obstinate, late-middle-aged Jewish women, who haven’t set foot in the country for thirty years. One rather stocky, close-cropped, and intoxicated by syntax; the other diminutive, fond of big hats, obsessed with food. Over the next seven months, they will bring their improbable literary roadshow to the breadth and depth of the country, from Charleston to Minneapolis, Dallas to the San Joaquin Valley. And they will be treated like Hollywood royalty wherever they go.
In the annals of American celebrity, Gertrude Stein’s barn-burning 1934–35 lecture tour, accompanied by her lifelong partner, Alice Toklas, may be in a class of its own. Indeed, it almost cries out for attention, as the literary biographer Roy Morris Jr. reveals in his brisk new book, Gertrude Stein Has Arrived. Of course, by the 1930s, there was a long tradition of ambitious literary types crossing the ocean to bring their shtick to Middle America. Young Dickens had done it in 1842 (when he was dismayed, in apparently equal measure, by slavery and lack of copyright protections); W.B. Yeats virtually invented his American reputation on a strenuous but highly lucrative lecture circuit in 1903–4. Morris himself has devoted a previous book to Oscar Wilde’s grandstanding tour of North America in 1882, when Wilde was just twenty-seven years old.
Gertrude Stein, however, was hardly a young European on the make. To the contrary, the aging expatriate writer had been famous for years; her remarkable art collection and her avant-garde Paris salon were sufficiently illustrious to be name-checked in Life Magazine and in Jazz Age best-sellers. Yet her own “Cubist” literary works were unread and, increasingly, unpublished; critic Edmund Wilson, an avowed modernist himself, had concluded that, sometime around 1912, “Gertrude Stein had abandoned the intelligible altogether.” By the start of the thirties, Stein and Toklas had resorted to selling one of her early Picassos to fund the private publication of her books. (Gallingly, her protégé Picasso did have a market for his challenging work.)
But then, as Stein approached her sixtieth year, she decided to hammer out a sort of ghost memoir of her companion. And she did it very much with the market in mind. Crucially, the book was full of gossip about their Paris entourage, delivered in a lapidary, witty style unlike that of any of her previous works; it also dwelled on the years before the war, when she and her brother, an astute art collector with whom she had arrived in Paris in 1903, had been at the very center of the Paris avant-garde. While costing her some friendships—Matisse objected to his wife being likened to a horse—the ploy was wildly successful. Almost immediately, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was snapped up by Harcourt, Brace, serialized in The Atlantic, and reviewed in almost every US paper. Finally, the country’s most conspicuous modernist had a book that people could actually read.
At this point, Stein’s agent inevitably urged her to cash in with a lecture tour of her long-forsaken native country. What is perhaps more surprising is that she and Toklas took him up on the offer—and then managed to pull it off. In Morris’s agile telling, the odd couple’s sensational debut begins almost the moment they step off the boat, when a group of jaded newshounds are surprised to discover that the Toklas of the Autobiography actually exists, while Gertrude parries them with lines worthy of Hammett himself. (“Why don’t you write as you talk?” one asks her. “Why don’t you read as I write?” she answers.) Over the following months, Stein’s lectures will fill halls in some thirty-seven different cities; the journey culminates in her hometown of Oakland, California, where, as she famously discovers, there is no there.
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The missing “there” turns out to be not much of a loss. There will be a party with Charlie Chaplin and tea with Eleanor Roosevelt; an altercation with “Great Books” advocate Mortimer Adler (Stein strikes him on the forehead to conclude an argument); a squad-car tour of Chicago’s gangland neighborhoods. In a deal he will come to regret, Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, will promise to publish any future book Stein writes. And Four Saints in Three Acts, her once-languishing experimental opera (written with Virgil Thompson) will travel from Broadway to Chicago to largely positive reviews. In Beverly Hills, even the reclusive Hammett shows up to engage Stein in a “long discussion of serious literature.”
Along the way, Toklas, with her strange little mustache and quiet but ubiquitous presence, develops a curious magnetism of her own. At the endless dinners they are served, she takes careful notes of dishes like turtle soup and Oysters Rockefeller (later memorialized in her bestselling Alice B. Toklas Cookbook). At lectures and parties, she occasionally tosses off gnomic pronouncements like, “Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her ten years to understand.”
Apparently, no matter whom she was speaking to, Stein could turn the most perplexing monologue into a riveting performance. Did Oklahomans in the Dust Bowl really want a lecture about the “making” of her interminable, thousand-page modernist novel, The Making of Americans, a work that hardly anyone had read? How many people were persuaded by Stein’s insistence that commas were “servile” and needed to be avoided at all costs? Yet on the evidence Morris turns up, audience after audience found her likable and amusing: “Her speech, her accent is like that of your next door neighbor,” the Daily Oklahoman reports.
All of which suggests something deeply paradoxical about Stein’s reputation today. For all the rollicking humor and offbeat anecdotes, Gertrude Stein Has Arrived doesn’t make much of a case for her literary genius; even her observations about America seem rather run-of-the-mill next to her buoyant but eviscerating wit and her sheer stage presence. (Stein’s subsequent and little-read memoir about the lecture tour, Everybody’s Autobiography, on which Morris’s book amply draws, doesn’t offer much in the way of Tocquevillian insight.)
On the other hand, it was precisely this gravitational pull, her uncanny way of drawing around her so many of the extraordinary writers and artists of her time, that had made her long reign in Paris so important. “The truth is,” the legendary journalist Joseph Alsop wrote after listening to her “monotonous” first lecture in New York, that with Stein “there is never a dull moment.”
Editor’s note: By the way, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with illustrations by Maira Kalman will be published next March and is available for preorder.
Hugh Eakin is a 2018–2019 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar.
For the literary, there are new books coming out just now from Leslie Jamison, known for her eclectic and lyrical reportorial journeys; Ben Lerner, whose first novel Leaving the Atocha Station was something of a hipster sensation; and the novelist Zadie Smith (stories this time). Ta-Nehisi Coates, best known for the book-shaped letter he wrote to his son about growing up black and for testifying before Congress on reparations, a subject on which he wrote an agenda-setting essay in The Atlantic, has written a novel! It immediately shot to the top of bestseller lists. 75-year-old poet Fanny Howe, who has had a puckish career strewn with genre-hopping creation, has written a summative book that is bringing out the belaurelers. There’s a lovely piece in Commonweal considering her as a Catholic writer. Midwestern booksellers have just concluded their annual book fair—more on that shortly—and while there we saw our erstwhile boss, printer-publisher David Godine, who it turns out has managed to sell his publishing house, noted for its finely built books drawing on typographic and printing traditions, without joining the frenzy of consolidation. Mazel tov, David. And the Chicago Public Library has become the largest library system to eliminate fines, which they say drive poorer patrons out of the system.
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Photo: Carl Van Vechten (1935), Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress