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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

This Week in BAM History: Gertrude Stein’s American Lectures

Gertrude Stein, Basket, and Alice B. Toklas
When Gertrude Stein came back to America in 1934, she returned an unlikely American hero. This expatriate had lived for three decades in Paris, where she was known as a gallerist, a champion of modern art, and for her infamous salons which featured such folks as Hemingway, Picasso, Mina Loy, and Ezra Pound. Only those in her immediate circle knew her as a writer whose level of textual complexity rivaled Woolf, Proust, or Joyce.

But this changed in 1933 with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. An improbable bestseller, this fictional biography brought Stein a level of fame which few of her Modernist contemporaries experienced. It's curious that at the height of the Great Depression one of America's most popular books told of two comfortably out, upper-middle class lesbians as they traveled through Europe, meeting famous artists and writers. Compare this to Quentin Crisp’s story of being out in hardscrabble London in the 1930s, where he experienced daily harassment and violent attacks—a still common story—and the popularity of Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas seems all the more unlikely.

As the book gained popularity, so did the public’s desire to know more about its author. When Stein and Toklas arrived in New York on October 24th, Stein was only planning on giving lectures at a few venues along the East Coast. She was not expecting the throng of reporters waiting dockside as she stepped off the ocean liner from Europe. She was also not expecting to see “Gertrude Stein Has Arrived in New York” flashing across an electric billboard in Times Square as she was driven to her hotel. Nor did she anticipate the numerous requests for appearances, the steady stream of invitations to socialite soirees, and the constant press from various tabloids and magazines, which chronicled her zigzag across the country. But Stein seemed energized by the attention. What began as a modest speaking tour ended nearly six months and 74 lectures later; the interim saw her visit 37 cities and hang out with everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Charlie Chaplin, with faithful Alice at her side.

Membership ticket to Stein's BAM lectures

BAM fortunately hosted three of Stein’s appearances in November of 1934. Her first talk here, “The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans,” would go on to be included in Lectures in America—Stein’s definitive statement on her craft, published the year after she returned to Paris. Stein hoped that after the success of her tour, the publication of her major lectures would broaden her readership, with more attention paid to her more difficult works, such as The Making of Americans.

But, as Stein scholar Wendy Steiner points out, “The sales of [Lectures in America] and of Stein’s following books were disappointing. People were anxious to see Stein but not to read her.” Megan Gambino, in a recent article for Smithsonian Magazine, notes that “Stein’s audiences, by and large, did not understand her lectures.” Even today, when The Making of Americans occupies the most formidable spot on the Modernist canon’s Big Books shelf—alongside Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (Brooklyn’s very own Modernist Masterpiece©)—Stein’s reputation for difficulty is not diminished. If anything, it is a testament to the strength of her densely cubistic linguistic structures.

We oh-so-enlightened 21st century readers now have many resources to help us hear Stein. As she herself writes in the membership ticket that advertised her BAM lectures, “You see words and you hear them. The trouble is to know the difference between seeing them and hearing them.” If you're inclined to follow Stein’s charge, you can hear recordings of several of her 1934-35 New York appearances at PennSound, University of Pennsylvania’s online archive featuring innovative writers reading their work.

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