Saturday, October 15, 2011

Don't Have a Cow, Jane

There's a very strange article about Gertrude Stein on the BBC site by one Jane O'Brien, who announces at the outset that she started out not knowing who Stein was. Which isn't a crime, though maybe writing an article (and presumably getting paid for it) about someone of whom you're completely ignorant ought to be.

But hey, maybe you don't know who Stein was either. Okay: born in Pennsylvania in 1874, died in Neuilly-en-Seine, France, in 1946. She grew up in Oakland, California and attended Radclyffe College and Johns Hopkins, but in 1903 she moved with her brother Leo to Paris, where she settled. In 1907 she met Alice B. Toklas, and the two women lived together until Stein's death; Toklas died in 1970. On Saturday evenings the Stein-Toklases held salons which were attended by the famous and the obscure alike. As a result she became something of a celebrity. At the same time she became a notoriously difficult (yet quotable) avant-garde writer. Toklas typed Stein's manuscripts and managed the household.

What got O'Brien her assignment is two major exhibits related to Stein in Washington DC. Though not herself an artist, Stein befriended and patronized artists: many of them did her portrait. Her personal collection of modern art, originally begun with Leo, became famous too. She also mentored and influenced many younger writers, including Ernest Hemingway; when I read his posthumous gender-bender novel The Garden of Eden I saw the Stein connection immediately. One exhibit, at the National Portrait Gallery, demonstrates her ubiquitous presence in modern art during the first third of the twentieth century. The other, at the Stanford in Washington Gallery, is called "Insight in Identity" and features "artists who've studied Stein for years" and "find Stein appealing and such a rich source of inspiration precisely because her writing is so obscure and incomprehensible - rather like contemporary art itself."

Okay, much of Stein's work is difficult, no dispute there. But she could also write accessibly when she wanted to, and I can't understand why no one told O'Brien about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which Stein wrote in Toklas's voice. (Much later, after Stein's death, Toklas wrote her own memoir, What Is Remembered.) It became a best-seller after its publication in 1932, which led to a triumphant tour of the US by Stein and Toklas. She also wrote the librettos for a couple of operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (about the 19th century feminist Susan B. Anthony). She wasn't just the power behind the throne of twentieth-century modernism, she was a power in her own right -- not bad for a big butch dyke who wrote incomprehensible prose.

After Stein's death her unpublished writing was issued. Among these works were Q.E.D., a pretty straightforward autobiographical novel written in 1903 about Stein's struggle to come to terms with her love of women in college, and a series of volumes published by Yale included some barely coded erotic poems to or about Toklas, like "Lifting Belly."
Kiss my lips.
She did.

Kiss my lips again she did.
Kiss my lips over and over and over again she did.

I have feathers.
Gentle fishes.
O'Brien refers to "Stein's sexuality and her openly gay relationship with Alice," but that's not quite right. Women of Stein's generation could and often did live together openly without being "openly gay"; those who were lovers generally relied on the cover provided by this convention. As far as I know, neither Stein nor Toklas ever acknowledged publicly (i.e., "openly") that they were Sapphists, and they never really had to deny it publicly either because in those days it simply wasn't done to expose the private life of respectable women, even a blatantly butch-femme couple like Stein and Toklas. When gay and lesbian scholars in the 1970s began saying aloud what had previously been an open secret, several Stein biographers reacted furiously. Friends and I chuckled over one writer's claim that they couldn't have been lesbians, because they didn't have the "sordid arguments" that real lesbians have. (That must have been also a reaction to Hemingway's hatchet job on the couple in his own posthumous A Moveable Feast.)

(I'm relieved to be able to report that this didn't happen in Washington, by the way.)

But hell, the 1970s are ancient history now too. Still, O'Brien's piece is disturbingly shoddy. What was the Beeb thinking, putting out such stuff?