August 10, 2016

“She Said She Said”: 30 Years Before the Beatles, Gertrude Stein Rocks America

book rev

Do your thing and I shall know you.

—Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

By Stuart Mitchner

When Gertrude Stein arrived in New York in October of 1934 after 30 years abroad, “her eminence on the American scene,” according to her biographer John Malcolm Brinnin, “was shared only by gangsters, baseball players, and movie stars.” 

And, in time, rock stars. Like the Beatles 30 years later, Stein was greeted by a mob of reporters asking leading, sometimes silly questions. She was interviewed on the radio, filmed for newsreels, swamped by autograph seekers, and invited to the White House along with her partner Alice B. Toklas.

“Gertrude Stein Arrives and Baffles Reporters by Making Herself Clear” was the headline in the next day’s New York Times. The news appeared writ large on the electric news feed moving around the top of the Times Building on Times Square: GERTRUDE STEIN HAS ARRIVED IN AMERICA.

The subhead of the Times story was typical of the prevailing attitude: “Expatriate Declines To Be Abstruse in Explaining Why Most of Her Writings Are.”

Again like the Beatles in February 1964, she charmed and disarmed a cynical, eager-to-ridicule press corps. She was funny, she bantered, she was lucid and engaging. To the obvious overriding question — “Why don’t you write as you talk?” — she replied, “Oh, but I do. After all, it’s learning how to read it. It’s a matter of perception. Youngsters with the least education get it quicker than those not set in their ways.”

And just as the mop-topped rock band from Liverpool was at first deemed too bizarre to be taken seriously, the coverage of Gertrude Stein played up details like her headwear, “a Stein hat, a hat as persistent as the repetitions which are a feature of her abstruse writings.”

The November 3, 1934 New York Times report of her first lecture to an audience she’d requested not to exceed 500 (“Gertrude Stein Speaks to Bewildered 500”) borrowed the phrasing of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Half a league, half a league, half a league more or less behind the distinguished lecturer from Paris, with a splitting headache and holding their breath, sat the five hundred. Forward the picked brigade; oh, the wild charge they made just because Miss Stein had said she wouldn’t address more than five hundred. Held fast by Gertrude’s spell, while verbs, nouns, periods and commas fell, straight on their ballroom chairs, bewildered but feeling swell, sat the five hundred.”

With the Beatles it was “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” With Stein, it was “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But while the Fab Four had come to the States out of nowhere, an overnight sensation, Stein arrived after decades of “word of mouth,” not to mention a book on the best-seller list and the cover of the September 11, 1933 issue of Time, where she was described as “a huge squat mountain on a distant border of the literary kingdom.”

To Be “Historical”

“I always wanted to be historical, from almost a baby on.” So begins “A Message from Gertrude Stein” in Carl Van Vechten’s edition of her Selected Writings (Random House/Modern Library). Taken from a letter to Van Vechten written a little over a month before she died, 70 years ago on July 27, 1946, it is, according to the publisher, “probably the last word from her pen.”

Right away she’s in character, choosing “historical” over “famous” and going on to mention how when she was “about fourteen” she used to say to herself “those awful lines of George Eliot. May I be one of those immortal something or other.” She’s referring to the lines about joining “the choir invisible. Of those immortal dead who live again.” By making “immortal dead” into “immortal something or other,” she avoids direct reference to death. For someone who took words as seriously as she did, someone with only a little more than a month to live, this was not an uncalculated move. Words were tangible things. They didn’t lie still on the page: they happened, they moved, they lived. Even her last message’s seemingly casual offhand “thanks and thanks again” is a Stein creation, an example of what F.W. Dupee defines as “Steinese” in his introductory essay to Selected Writings: “the peculiar literary idiom made familiar to a large American public by her admirers and nonadmirers alike. Gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated, this idiom became a scandal and a delight” that had “a formidable currency throughout the teens, twenties, and thirties.”

Ten years into the 21st century, a producer who reportedly doubted the box office potential of Woody Allen’s fantasy Midnight in Paris (2011) was under the impression that “nobody had heard of Gertrude Stein.” That anyone could be that out of touch with the Starbucks Cafe pantheon of literary celebrity is difficult to fathom and all the harder with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas having become icons of the Gay Rights Movement and with same-sex marriage, transgender, and transexuality issues very much in the media mainstream.

Gertrude Makes Alice

While readers of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 breakthrough novel The Sun Also Rises knew Stein from the epigraph (“You are all a lost generation”), another reason for her rock-star-level celebrity in 1933-34 was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which was written in six weeks, she says, “for money.” When it became a best-seller (“I had never made any money before in my life and I was most excited”), she bought “a new eight-cylinder Ford car” and an “expensive coat made to order by Hermes” for her white poodle, Basket, “fitted by the man who makes horse covers for race horses.”

While The Autobiography is Stein’s most accessible work, it’s also sometimes as gossipy-shallow as the diaries of Andy Warhol. Ernest Hemingway posthumously confronted it three decades later in A Moveable Feast, where he describes the demise of his relationship with Stein (“A Strange Enough Ending”), which happens when he overhears a bout of rough sex between Gertrude and Alice. By “becoming” Toklas, Stein performs a sexual tour de force, effectively possesses her lover, uses her, makes a book of her, for her, all the while publicizing herself, her brand, with incessant full-name references to Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein.

Stein Makes Matisse

In addition to the numerous inaccuracies and distortions Matisse found in The Autobiography, not the least the description of his wife with her “long face” and “firm large loosely hung mouth like a horse,” he might also have taken exception to the way Stein uses one of his paintings to define herself and her work. Referring to Woman With a Hat (La femme au chapeau), which was regarded as “an object of ridicule” by visitors to the 1905 Salon d’Automne, she writes: “People were roaring with laughter at the picture and scratching at it. Gertrude Stein could not understand why, the picture seemed to her perfectly natural. She could not understand why it infuriated everybody … it upset her to see them all mocking at it. It bothered her and angered her because she did not understand why because to her it was so alright, just as later she did not understand why since the writing was all so clear and natural they mocked at and were enraged by her work.”

The Word’s the Thing

One of the lectures Stein gave during her American tour is reprinted in Selected Writings for anyone curious about what the “Bewildered 500” experienced at the New York reading. The subject is “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans,” Stein’s 900-plus-page “widely feared and neglected” novel, which, as she puts it in the lecture, “was to me an enormously long thing to do to describe everyone and slowly it was not an enormously long thing to do to describe every one. Because after all as I say civilization is not a very long thing, twenty-five years roll around so quickly and four times twenty-five years make a hundred years and that makes a grandfather to a granddaughter.”

As the passage above shows, Stein’s appreciation for words as tangible objects is highlighted by her stress on the word thing. The lecture’s last paragraph begins “I felt this thing. I am an American and I felt this thing, and I made a continuous effort to create this thing in every paragraph that I made in The Making of Americans.” The closing sentence begins, “Think of anything, of cowboys, of movies, of detective stories,” and ends with “my first real effort to express this thing which is an American thing began in writing The Making of Americans.”

So a thing is a thing is a thing. It’s a word made for everyone from George H.W. Bush (“the vision thing”) to Dr. Seuss, who does it amusing justice when he names the Cat in the Hat’s crazy helpers Thing One and Thing Two. And like all good things, it can be traced back to Shakespeare, in Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing.”

A Thing Called Genius

Twenty years after Gertrude Stein’s death and 50 years ago this week, the Beatles attained what was arguably the pinnacle of their incredible career with the release of Revolver, where words and music, production values and mystique coalesce into, for lack of a better word, a thing called genius. In The Autobiography, Stein says that she only cared for music in her adolescence: “She finds it difficult to listen to it, it does not hold her attention.” But that was written decades before rock and roll put words and music and rhythm into alignment in a way that emphasized something like the repetitive force of style Stein defined in her own work as insistence. Quoted in Carl Van Vechten’s preface (“A Stein Song”), she explains, “Once started expressing this thing, expressing anything there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence.”

“She Said She Said,” from Revolver, is one of the most insistent songs John Lennon ever wrote, from the Steinese of the title to the emphasis on the word of words when he sings “who put all those things in your head/Things that make me feel that I’m mad.” In George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You,” another powerfully insistent song, “My head is filled with things to say.” And surely Stein and her readers through the years could relate to the line, “It’s only me, it’s not my mind, that is confusing things.” But for the last word, for Gertrude Stein, there’s Paul McCartney’s “For No One,” also from Revolver, “There will be times when all the things she said will fill your head — you won’t forget her.”