Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dishing Gertrude Stein

Below is an excerpt from a long article in this morning’s Washington Post, reviewing  the exhibition “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five stories” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until January 22.  We discussed “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” at our 4/30/2002 meeting.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have occasionally perused some of her other writings collected in The Library of America edition of her selected works, some of which are enjoyable to read  but often baffling.

As an author, she wrote reams of gibberish, either in a singsong style that one critic aptly described as “literary baby talk” or in a hermetically sealed private language that she absurdly considered an analog of cubism. As an art collector, she often showed remarkably bad taste, especially after the early years of her alliance with Picasso. Her theater work, either unintelligible or profoundly cliched, survives because other people set it to music or choreographed it. Even her moral reputation — courageously living with her female partner, Alice B. Toklas, championing a woman’s right to be eccentric — has been sullied by recent scholarship showing that she while she rode out World War II in a French country house, she was protected by a particularly unsavory and anti-Semitic official of the collaborationist Vichy government


Tim said...

I've never been a fan of G.S. (as opposed to G.B.S.), don't know much about her life, and haven't even read the Kennicott piece beyond the part Tom quotes, but Stein was 65 when WWII began and survived the peace by little more than a year, so "riding it out" under the protection of a Vichy official doesn't, on the face of it, seem terribly compromising to me.

DCSteve1441 said...

Thanks for posting this, Tom. 'd thought about writing something myself about Kennicott's hatchet job after reading it Sunday, but got sidetracked. Anyway...

I basically concur with Tim's comment, though I see her as a genuinely important and influential writer (despite the fact that her style doesn't do much for me).

But one doesn't have to be a fan of Ms. Stein to find Kennicott's critique heavy-handed and mean-spirited, bordering on misogynistic and homophobic. In fact, since an art show is what occasioned the essay, I really have to wonder what impelled (compelled?) him to use both barrels on her. I'm tempted to write and ask him, but since I doubt he'd give me an honest answer, I probably won't.

I do plan to go see the exhibition, though!

Cheers, Steve