Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Now Not Now: Gertrude Stein Speaks

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Now Not Now: Gertrude Stein Speaks

Article excerpt

Her story was now and now here.

Peter Gizzi, "The Creation"

MUCH TO GERTRUDE STEIN'S SURPRISE, the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) made her a celebrity. And fame--if she could properly harness it--promised access to the mass audience that she had long coveted. How, though, would people encounter her writing? What control would she have over that process? On the advice of her literary agent William Aspinwall Bradley, she quickly installed telephones at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris and at her summer home in Bilignin. She wanted to make it easier for presses and journals to contact her (Goble 129). Few if any representatives of the publishing world sought her out, however. In the winter of 1934-35, tired of waiting, she went on the offensive She traveled to the United States for an extended author's tour. She visited nearly thirty college campuses from Massachusetts to South Carolina to California, and she gave a series of talks rushed into print under the titles Lectures in America (1935) and Narration (1935). She was also interviewed repeatedly by print and radio journalists. She found the latter experience especially revelatory: she was "smitten" by the "distinct form of communication" that radio creates, that is, a "feeling of everybody" everywhere listening to her speak (Wilson 263). Obeying Wordsworth's dictum that great poets create their own audiences, Stein learned to use celebrity as a vehicle for disseminating the skills and information necessary to appreciate her experimental writings.

The best-known record of this phase in Stein's career is Everybody's Autobiography (1939), a memoir in which she meditates on how writing a bestseller changed her life. There is a more useful document, however, if one wishes to learn about her immediate response to American celebrity culture and its promotional apparatus. In 1956, the record label Caedmon released the LP Gertrude Stein Reads from Her Work, which includes a handful of recordings made in "New York, Winter, 1934-35": "Matisse" "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso" "A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson," and extracts from both the novel The Making of Americans and the libretto "Madame Recamier" These recordings capture Stein in the process of retooling for mass-reproduced oral performance her earlier, limited-circulation page-based work. (1) Conveniently, too, they remain readily available down to the present day, easily downloaded from websites such as PennSound,, and (2) Accordingly, they offer a high-profile, readily accessible means of investigating the innovative soundscape of Stein's verse, as adapted to a new medium.

How should a literary critic approach these recordings, though, let alone interpret them as windows on 1934-35? They are not original compositions. They are oral renditions of texts that, in many cases, were written a decade or more previously. Granted, in the course of reading these works aloud, Stein could selectively reveal aspects of her 1910s and 1920s artistry that might otherwise prove elusive. In other words, one could credit the recordings with the ability to clarify what had been present all along. Martina Pfeiler repeats a scholarly commonplace when she asserts that the "meaning of [Stein's] poems unfolds itself much better when heard" (59). (3) Could one, though, proceed differently? Could one permit a one-off dramatic reading of a piece to displace or replace its prior textual incarnation(s) as an object of literary analysis? If so, in what sense and to what degree?

In Everybody's Autobiography, Stein herself downplays the value of oral performance. Back in Europe and writing just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, she is acutely aware of the propaganda skirmishes underway between fascists and communists. In response, she draws a distinction between her work--which she characterizes as page-based and self-consciously writerly--and the belligerent, populist, speech-oriented media culture that surrounds her. …

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