Gertrude Stein said “America is my country but Paris is my home town.” I was going to do a “Ferment: Vol. 2” on American expatriates in Paris in the early twentieth century, but the farther I got into my research, the more fascinated I became with “the mother of us all.” She was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) in 1874, but from 1903 until her death in 1946 she lived in Paris, holding forth in her art-filled salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, which became “the” destination for art lovers, literati, and hangers-on. Lucky she was to be born to a materially well-off family. Her brother Leo was an avid art critic, with whom she acquired many of the modern paintings that made her salon famous. Later, they had a falling-out over a major change in Picasso’s painting style, and never spoke to each other again. Her companion for 39 years was Alice “B.” Toklas.
Stein said about the French: “what they do is to respect art and letters; if you are a writer you have privileges; if you are a painter you have privileges and it is pleasant having those privileges.” and “Paris was where the twentieth century was.” She most likely coined the phrase “the lost generation,” (might have been Hemingway) which describes post-WWI disillusionment with the world and a sort of apathetic hedonism pursued by many. The advent of Prohibition in the USA, coupled with financial prosperity and a favorable exchange rate drove many Americans to Paris, where wine flowed freely and society didn’t appear as “uptight” as back home.
American composer Virgil Thomson (1896–1989) said: “. . . it wasn’t so much what France gave you as what she didn’t take away. America is always trying to lecture you for your own good and all that kind of thing, and to make you afraid of yourself.” He set Stein’s words in a wonderful opera called “Four Saints in Three Acts.” When it was first performed in New York in 1934/35, Thomson insisted on an all-black cast, stating that they were the only singers with clear enough diction to put across the difficult text.
Have you ever read anything by Gertrude Stein? You may know of her only by reputation, since the work is difficult and “new” for the typical reader, even after a century. Repetition and unusual syntax are the hallmarks of her style, which give the work a “floating” trancelike quality, as opposed to the traditional “linear” way of “storytelling.”
Stein: “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cézanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition.” “I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you could hear the rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words endlessly the same and endlessly different.” “A bird’s singing is perhaps the nearest thing to repetition but if you listen they too vary their insistence.” “We inside us do not change but our emphasis and the moment in which we live changes.”
Stein must have been a good hostess, despite her “tough” exterior. When Picasso painted the now-famous portrait of her, eyes askew in the two halves of the face that look like different angles presented simultaneously, and she said she didn’t look like that, he replied “But you will!” In a sense, that was exactly what she was doing with her writing: like the Cubist painters, multiple perspectives presented at the same time.
Like many creative people, she was a mass of contradictions. Jewish, she was also pro-Hitler, even stating at one point (1934) that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
A few quotes from the endless supply:
- “I do want to get rich, but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.”
- “A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears.”
- “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
- “Hemingway, remarks are not literature,”
- “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.”
Stein: “And so I am an American and I have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half in which I made what I made.”
The Making of Americans
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs