Mother

Wendy Steiner

  • Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures by Renate Stendhal
    Thames and Hudson, 286 pp, £14.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 500 27832 6
  • ‘Favoured Strangers’: Gertrude Stein and Her Family by Linda Wagner-Martin
    Rutgers, 346 pp, $34.95, August 1995, ISBN 0 8135 2169 6

Gertrude Stein knew how to make herself happy. Sometimes she was heroic, as when she delivered medical supplies to soldiers during the First World War by toddling over enemy lines in an old Ford. And in World War Two, she was honoured by the French Resistance for transmitting information during the Occupation. ‘Gertrude Stein, safe, safe, is safe’, came the press release from liberated Culoz. But Stein’s fearlessness was tested much more in everyday situations where she did not hesitate to please herself. She loved to eat and her body showed it. At 12, her mother noted, Gertrude was five feet tall and weighed 135 pounds, and the ratio did not improve with time; nevertheless, she went on to participate, somewhat to her friends’ dismay, in nude bathing parties. ‘She had none of the funny embarrassment Anglo-Saxons have about flesh’, wrote Mabel Dodge Luhan. ‘She gloried in hers’.

In her thirties, Stein ‘married’ Alice Toklas, who was an avid and accomplished cook, but Stein’s love of food was just a part of her intense physicality. Throughout her life, she took prodigious walks, window-shopping her way across Paris for hours at a time, and in her sixties tramping as much as sixteen kilometres a day over the Vichy countryside. In an early fit of depression, she hired a boxer to spar with her. ‘Give me one to the jaw,’ she barked, ‘one to the kidneys.’ The talented people in Stein’s circle were drawn to this physicality, and often inspired by it. After painting his famous portrait of Stein in 1905-6, Picasso filled canvas after canvas with large androgynous women, their arms about each other’s waists. Stein’s Caesar head and massive body became instant icons of the Modern, and though she often went about in shapeless robes and sandals, Pierre Balmain and Yvonne Davidson were pleased to dress her. ‘She accepted herself as she was,’ wrote Lincoln Steffens. ‘She was large; she dressed as a large woman ... You felt ... her self-contentment and shared her self-composure, but, best of all, the prophetess gave you glimpses of what a Buddha can see by sitting still and quietly looking.’

This is the pattern of Stein’s extraordinary legend; she pleased herself, and others came round. When she wrote in a final exam for William James, ‘I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today,’ James understood, and gave her the highest grade in the class. She eventually graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude, published original psychological research, and spent five years at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Then, disaffected, she decided to drop out and join her brother Leo in Europe. ‘Gertrude, Gertrude, remember the cause of women,’ her friend Marian Walker expostulated. Stein replied: ‘You don’t know what it is to be bored.’

For Stein, the personal was not the political, but the aesthetic. The ‘Mama of Dada’ and the ‘Mother of Modernism’, she anticipated several of the major developments of 20th-century art and literature, realising in aesthetic form many of the ideas of William James, Bergson and Benjamin. With her repetitions and outrageous banalities, she is a clear forerunner of Andy Warhol, and though she didn’t become really famous until she was in her fifties, her fame has certainly lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Alone among the literary avant garde she has entered popular idiom and not only with a ‘Rose is a rose is a rose, is a rose.’ ‘Lost Generation’; ‘Pigeons on the grass alas’; ‘Remarks are not literature’ are all hers. ‘What is the answer?’ she asked on her deathbed and, getting no answer: ‘In that case, what is the question?’

There is no better account of the exhilaration of living in early 20th-century Paris than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein presents the grand adventure of her writing, collecting, conversing and ‘daily living’. Paris was where she discarded her stays, literally, allowing her body unfettered freedom. A discreet lesbian but hardly a closeted one, she wooed and won Alice Toklas in 1908 and the two lived together, in a more stable marriage than most of her friends achieved, until Stein’s death almost forty years later.

Virtually everyone in the arts and culture passed through her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, where her scientific interest in people expressed itself in endless conversation. According to Pavel Tchelitchev, ‘she liked to take a chair and sit in a person’s life.’ Young painters and writers flocked to see her. Some, of course, were not as charmed as Tchelitchev, and Stein herself was not entranced with every young man who used her hospitality for professional advancement. Her feud with Hemingway was rancorous, though carried on with better humour on Stein’s part than on his. ‘Play Hemingway!’ she in structed her dog Basket: ‘Be fierce!’

It was the pictures that first drew strangers to the apartment. Gertrude and Leo, along with their brother Mike and his wife Sally, owned more contemporary paintings and drawings than the Paris galleries; Leo and Gertrude bought more Cézannes than the Luxembourg Museum. Alfred Barr said that between 1905 and 1907 Leo was ‘possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th-century painting in the world’, but the shortness of his ascendancy is significant. Gertrude sat for Picasso, and from that found herself in sympathy with the whole ensuing development of Cubism. Leo did not. When he and Stein divided their household after Toklas moved in, Leo took the Renoirs and Gertrude the Picassos. Along this divide one can chart the break between 19th and 20th-century art.

The courage it took for Stein to depart from her brother’s better-educated and rather overbearing taste was considerable. ‘It is very difficult now that everybody is accustomed to everything to give some idea of the kind of uneasiness one felt when one first looked at all these pictures on these walls,’ she wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Yet she went on discovering new artists and using her limited funds to buy their work. Even after several paintings had had to be sold, a 1938 inventory showed 131 large canvases, of which 104 were by Picasso.

The area in which Stein was most daring and self-indulgent, however, was her writing, and like Cubist painting, it achieved notoriety before it earned respect. When the New York Armory Show brought avant-garde painting to America, the Chicago Tribune ridiculed it by ridiculing Stein:

I called the canvas Cow with Cud
And hung it on the line,
Altho’ to me ‘twas vague as mud
‘Twas clear to Gertrude Stein.

By the mid-Thirties, when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published to wide acclaim, and the opera Four Saints in Three Acts became the hottest ticket in New York, her writing and her persona had gained wide acceptance. But the vast majority of her works still remained, as her early critics called them, Steinese.

Stein liked to explain the public’s difficulty with her work by comparing herself to Picasso, whose art was not immediately appreciated. For her, the true artists Picasso and Stein stood against the compromisers Braque and Joyce. ‘Braque and Joyce, they are the incomprehensibles whom anybody can understand,’ she wrote dismissively. And yet the opposition has shaken out differently with the passage of time. Picasso and Joyce, whatever difficulties they present, are the beloved geniuses of Modernism. On the other side – the side of uncompromising rigour and intellectual opacity – stand the figures of Duchamp in the visual arts and Stein in writing. It is a rare person who would not rather discover Modernism (and Post-Modernism) via Picasso and Joyce than via Duchamp and Stein.

For me. Stein’s genius lies in her total being: the friendships, the independence and self-confidence, the inspired connoisseurship, and the brilliant literary inventions. Few people have combined so many achievements with greater ease and satisfaction, and for this and for all that she dared. Stein is an unforgettable figure. Renate Stendhal, who has translated Stein into German and edited Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, shows how important Stein’s example has been for women writers: ‘I have observed the impact of her inspiration, leading from a first uncensored thought to a daring utterance, to rediscovering one’s innate sense of play, to embracing the full peril and pleasure of one’s creativity. After almost a century, Stein continues to be present as a role model, teacher, mentor, muse.’

Stendhal’s handsome ‘picture-reader’ does all it can to enhance the Stein legend. It takes us from her Biedermeier childhood in America and Europe, through her student years poring over microscopes in corsets and mutton-chop sleeves, to avant-garde soirées in Pans and sunny afternoons in the French countryside. There are family pictures, and there are portraits of Stein by Picasso, Man Ray, Jo Davidson, Alvin Langdon Coburn. Félix Vallotton, Francis Picabia, Jacques Lipschitz, Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton. Francis Rose and Elie Nadelman. With Coburn, she is monumental, with Man Ray domestic, with Beaton wistful and, later, desolate.

Stendhal’s intelligent introduction provides what for Stein critics has become the equivalent of the AA conversion narrative: an account of how the incomprehensible Stein went from ‘a sphinx holding up a mirror to my incapacity’ to a rewarding and readable author of texts ‘evocative, risqué and rich in colour’ Virtually everyone who writes about her seems to start from scratch, and although this can be frustrating when one already knows her work, it is impressive to see how reliably Stein elicits the pleasures of literary discovery. Stendhal is good in particular at describing her contradictoriness: she had ‘the challenging gaze of a general, the inviting body of a wet nurse, the lust for life of a child tyrant’.

For the past fifteen years, Stein criticism has been dominated by feminists, who have unearthed a vast amount of new information and broadened the picture of ‘the mother of us all’. They have had another effect as well, which is especially evident in Linda Wagner-Martin’s ‘Favoured Strangers’: Gertrude Stein and Her Family. Here the inspiring, if slightly cartoonish, legend of Stein as a genius spinning idiosyncrasy into gold is replaced by a depressing pseudo-realism. ‘Shadowed with tragedies. Stein’s life shows her resilience, her imaginative courage.’ Stein is a survivor who uses her art ‘to disguise her continuing pain’. In this account. Stein’s life is a baleful melodrama. Her father Daniel made the family unhappy with his ‘rash enthusiasms, his quick anger ... and his unbending will’ – presumably unlike the other patriarchs of his day. The children, poor things, felt forced to spend hours in educational pursuits in order to please him. He may even have been a child-abuser, ‘approaching’ his daughter Bertha. And Gertrude may have had similar ‘experiences’ with her Uncle Sol, though the details and documentation are not supplied. ‘All Stein wanted was to be a loved child, but as she grew older, the concept of love became tainted with the threat of sexual harm.’

The hard times continued. At Radcliffe and then Johns Hopkins Medical School, Stein received letters from her sister-in-law Sally reminding her that bright Jewish women should marry smart businessmen. The trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 was a warning of the dangers of same-sex attraction. Medical school was a scene of sexist harassment, with Rabelaisian professors of women’s medicine, as it was then called, and ignorant male journal editors who rejected her research. Stein emerges from this narrative a victim of the patriarchal mores of her day – frightened, abused and oppressed. Even the famous ‘You don’t know what it is to be bored’ turns out to have been not a gesture of self-affirmation but a pathetic attempt to put on a brave front. For Gertrude had fallen in love with the unreciprocating May Bookstaver, and she only ‘pretended that she did not care to take up any practical work. In reality, all she could think of, and yearn for, was her beloved.’

Stein’s humour is systematically deflated, and in the process, Modernism suffers a sea-change. It may indeed be that a deeper melodrama underlay the gleaming Modernist surface, but it is very hard to exchange an intoxication with language for coded melancholy. The heroine of Stein’s magnificent ‘Melanctha’ and the other women in Three Lives all become ‘victims in some way of prescriptive heterosexual culture’. We might perhaps overlook the fact that ‘Melanctha’ registers Stein’s reaction to Flaubert and to Picasso as well as her observations – both scientific and experiential – on the unfortunate disjunctions in power and empathy between people. But it is still the case that Melanctha brings about her own unhappiness by her infidelity and cruelty to Jeff Campbell and her subservience to other lovers of both sexes. She is a victim in the sense that she suffers a sad fate, but ‘prescriptive heterosexual culture’ does not begin to explain her suffering.

Wagner-Martin also manages to turn the ebullient Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas into an expression of personal tragedy. She claims that the ‘marriage’ between the two women was dying, and that Stein tried to work through the situation in her ‘own’ voice in Stanzas in Meditation and in Alice’s voice in the Autobiography. The latter was thus ‘only half of a paired work that described the life, and perhaps the death, of the women’s marriage ... Alice’s anger inscribed every page of both autobiographies.’ Yet Wagner-Martin never shows where the anger is ‘inscribed’. There is no textual support for the claim, and in the absence of footnotes, one cannot even discover the source of the information that Toklas and Stein were breaking up. The idea that Stein was writing in Toklas’s voice is surprising as well. The Autobiography is full of recognisably Steinian discontinuities, repetitions, jokes and banalities. Moreover, if Stein wrote it to placate Toklas, she was surely unwise to describe it, as she later did, as the writing of Mammon rather than God. We might ask, too, why Stein, given her later outspokenness, never presented her family life in such a troubled way. Indeed, her whole bearing and demeanour denied victimhood. As Wagner-Martin herself notes, Leo’s long psychoanalysis ‘depended on picturing himself as the frustrated child of an uncaring mother and a domineering – if not castrating – father. Gertrude, by contrast, had found it difficult to recognise herself and her family in Freudian schemata.

The main trouble with Favoured Strangers is that it pays so little attention to the way Stein saw herself – as an artist first and foremost, and one who achieved huge satisfaction in her aesthetic freedom. Instead, it presents her as a damaged being whose art was a code for feelings too socially unacceptable or too painful to be expressed openly. Every work becomes a collection of sexual puns – a thousand ways of saying ‘orgasm’ and getting away with it – and though Stein undoubtedly did play with double entendres, the dogged deciphering that goes on in this book implies that understanding her writing entails cracking a code. The results are sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing. For example, the letters Stein wrote during World War Two are a political code: ‘we are all very active, vegetables and all are xtremely [sic] occupying.’ Tender Buttons (1911), the hermetic little portraits of rooms and food and objects, suggests ‘the terrors of contemporary life’ and the ‘impossibility of any reader’s knowing another’s intimate life.’ This is as good a guess as any – that a text that is so difficult to understand must be about the impossibility of understanding – but Wagner-Martin does not leave it at that. Stein’s ‘focus on the objects, food and rooms of the implied subject – a living space, a house – connected Tender Buttons with the metaphor of the house that she had used earlier to connote sexual satisfaction’. One might as well see Picasso’s Cubist still-lifes as allegories of his sex life. And if a strained biographical reading is not good enough for Picasso, why is it good enough for Stein? What is the pay-off in reading some of the most extraordinary verbal inventions of the century as a teasing cover for unelaborated sex or pain?

The information Wagner-Martin supplies about Stein’s family is often new and thought-provoking. But if Stein were to read it, would she not be moved to repeat: ‘You don’t know what it is to be bored’? For there is too much of the dutiful feminist lock-step about this biography. We learn that Leo had ‘a classic male-dominated marriage’, whereas Gertrude had ‘a union based on mutuality and sharing’ – a highly debatable verdict on Alice’s role. The cause of women is not furthered either when, after summarising the extraordinary achievements of the Stein siblings, the author tags on the lame sentence that ends the book: ‘And Alice Toklas, Nina Auzias [Leo’s wife] and Sally Samuels, the three women who remained to preserve their memories and their collections, were no small part of the Stein story.’

Stein wrote not only Toklas’s but Everybody’s Autobiography, and now it seems that everyone is writing hers. She pleased herself, and so, no doubt, do they.