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Was Gertrude Stein a poseur?

October 26, 2011

In an over-the-top attack piece, Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott vilifies Gertrude Stein:

She began perpetrating one of the longest and most successful literary frauds in cultural history. As an author, she wrote reams of gibberish, either in a singsong style that one critic aptly described as “literary baby talk” or in a hermetically sealed private language that she absurdly considered an analog of cubism. As an art collector, she often showed remarkably bad taste, especially after the early years of her alliance with Picasso. Her theater work, either unintelligible or profoundly clichéd, survives because other people set it to music or choreographed it. Even her moral reputation — courageously living with her female partner, Alice B. Toklas, championing a woman’s right to be eccentric — has been sullied by recent scholarship showing that she while she rode out World War II in a French country house, she was protected by a particularly unsavory and anti-Semitic official of the collaborationist Vichy government…. Stein modeled a familiar figure still swanning the galleries of cultural capitals around the world: Intellectually infantile, cheerfully amoral, profoundly insecure and nakedly ambitious. She is the patron saint of every mediocrity who woke up one day and realized, I want to be an artist.

This is just a small representative of Kennicott’s bile, which hints that Stein (who was of course, Jewish) was anti-Semitic (huh?) and that she was a fascist and Hitler supporter (huh?).  Perhaps his most astounding non sequitur is that she was somehow not a “real lesbian” because she escaped Vichy France and almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis.  I suppose that by Kennicott’s reasoning, all of the Jews who escaped the Holocaust (consider, for example, Albert Einstein) don’t deserve a “moral reputation.”

I’ve seen both of the shows that Kennicott mentions, Seeing Gertrude Stein (Contemporary Jewish Museum & National Portrait Gallery) and The Steins Collect (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Grand Palais, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and have read both the catalogues (Seeing Gertrude Stein, Steins Collect) (in fact, I think that the catalogues were actually better than seeing the museum shows – but that is a subject for another post.) 

SteinWhile it is true that Gertrude Stein was at the center of a creative circle (and, indeed, the entire Stein family was close to the Parisian artistic community in the first part of the twentieth century).  While the case of Stein does raise interesting questions, Kennicott’s hatchet job certainly misrepresents both Stein’s legacy and the particular museum shows.

First, Stein was an important literary figure – her novel The Making of Americans was finished in 1911 and published until 1925 – much earlier than many of the classics of modern literature (in particular, the mature works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.)  Kennicott compares her unfavorably to Joyce and Woolf, mocking:  “Stein’s literary innovation was simplistic and mechanical. She had one linguistic trick and like Yoda it was.”  But Kennicott’s reading is uncharitable, harsh to the point of inaccuracy, but most of all, anachronistic.  To understand the impact of The Making of Americans, one must read it with the eyes of someone in 1911 or 1925 – someone who has yet to read Ulysses or To The Lighthouse. I think the libretto Stein wrote for operas are by themselves sufficient evidence of her literary skill .

Second, although it is certainly name-dropping, narcissistic, and in part fabricated I think we need to acknowledge Stein’s book (written under her lover’s name) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas for capturing a certain type of sensibility that remains influential even today.  One does not need to approve of this perspective to appreciate Stein’s accomplishment.

Third, I think one needs to acknowledge Stein’s success in view of her personal struggles.  Holland Cotter (who gives a fair and balanced account of Stein’s strengths and weaknesses) writes

There is evidence that Stein had a history of depression. Being brainy, bulky and gay must have made her feel like a misfit pretty much everywhere she went. And writing, which she had begun to do, can be a lonely occupation, particularly if you’re inventing a mode that gives you little hope of readers. “I write for myself and strangers” is a repeated refrain in ”The Making of Americans,” which was composed in part before Stein and Toklas met.   

Now there is a question of whether Stein turned a blind eye towards the early Nazi excesses, a point forcefully raised by Janet Malcolm’s biography (which itself is highly flawed and tabloidish).  But this does not detract from Stein’s contribution, as both part of the social network that shaped early modernism, as an author by herself, and as someone who helped document a certain style and time.  Kennicott’s odd essay seems to betray some hidden anger about Stein’s sexuality – he has in the past written essays calling out homophobia but then he seems to think that homosexuality is a special calling – that, for example, homosexuals betray their sexuality if they try to save their lives by fleeing from the Nazis.

Love her or hate her, Gertrude Stein was so significant that her works continue to be in print 85 years after publication; that her operas continue to be performed; that biographies continue to explore her life; that she has inspired two major museum shows in a single year with stops in major cultural centers:  Paris, New York, Washington, San Francisco.  I have to wonder whether Kennicott’s beef with Stein is not one, ultimately, of jealousy.

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