December 15, 2017

Stein in America

On this day in 1934, the opera Four Saints in Three Acts by Gertrude Stein (libretto) and Virgil Thomson (music) premiered. Few would know a line from Four Saints today, and fewer are humming its tunes, but the opera was popular and a small sensation when it opened. Some attended for the usual Stein reasons -- all of them wrong, said her detractors. Stein's most popular work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, had been a hit the previous year, and many opera-goers must have hoped for a similar degree of eccentric fun, or just to be present for the launch of some freshly-coined Steinism. According to those who penned "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein" a year later, this sort of publicity gave the avant-garde a bad name, and showed only the "Barnumesque" proportions of Stein's "hollow, tinsel bohemianism."

Others attended the Hartford, Connecticut opening or the later New York run because Four Saints was a modernist event. In Hartford, the production was backed by "The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music," and concurrent with the opening of a Picasso exhibition. The avant-garde artist Florine Stettheimer costumed the all-Negro cast -- "a Negro is a Negro and he ought to like to be called one if he is one, he may not want to be one that is all right but as long as he cannot change that why should he mind the real name of them" -- in cellophane, newly invented. Special trains were organized to take the New York in-crowd to Hartford, and Buckminster Fuller took a car-full (Isamu Noguchi, Clare Boothe Luce, Dorothy Hale) in his bubble-shaped Dymaxion.

Stein did not attend the opening, but Four Saints was such a hit that she overcame her apprehensions about America, arriving that autumn for a six-month lecture tour. It was her first trip home in thirty years, and she would not make another, but it was seen as a triumph on all sides. She and Alice were news from start to finish, and if some of the headlines poked the usual fun -- "Gerty Gerty Stein Stein is Back Home Home Back" -- many who met or listened found her approachable, enthusiastic and making sense, sort of:
    Think about American writing from Emerson, Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, myself, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder and Dashiell Hammett and you will see what I mean, as well as in advertising and in road signs, you will see what I mean, words left alone more and more feel that they are moving and all of it is detached and is detaching anything from anything and in this detaching and in this moving it is being in its way creating its existing. This then is the real difference between English and American writing and this then can lead to anything.
Whatever America felt about her theories or her "verbal landscapes," Stein was charmed and fascinated by America. The White House invited her for tea, and the famous threw parties in her honor, but she seemed most interested in the geography, the food, and "ordinary people who don't bore me. Highbrows, you know, always do." These preferences led to an afternoon at the Yale-Dartmouth football game, to hanging out in drug stores, to a tour of a spark plug factory, to a delight in the roadside poetry of the Burma-Shave ads.

She did enjoy a production of her Four Saints in Chicago. While there she also had an animated discussion with the Chancellor of the University of Chicago and Mortimer Adler, who was then pioneering his "Great Books" approach to liberal education. The argument over what made a great book was just heating up when the maid came in to tell Stein that the police had arrived for her. With some relief, she and Alice then left on a rainy night tour of the slums of the city during which, Stein later recalled, they listened on the squad car radio to the successful entrapment of Baby Face Nelson by federal agents.

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