Was Gertrude Stein an arrogant self-publicist who achieved notoriety by abusing the legitimate experimentation of modern art? Was she more of an eccentric graced with the random perceptions of a child?
If one maintains a sense of humor as well as a sense of perspective, it is difficult to condemn the late Gertrude Stein for her eccentricities and, yes, for her arrogance. The Chinese philosopher Mencius famously noted that “the great man is he does not lose his child’s heart, the original good heart with which every man is born.” Whether Gertrude Stein can be considered “great” is entirely subjective. For purposes of discussion, however, we can allow for the possibility of one who definitely left her mark in the annals of 20th Century Western history to be considered a candidate for such categorization. The mere fact that we are discussing her today, and analyzing her most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her lover and friend whose contemporary reputation lies mainly in her association to cannabis-laced confectionaries, is testament to her enduring legacy.
One can and should read Stein’s autobiography in the spirit in which it was written. Ostensibly an ode to Toklas, it is instead Stein’s ode to herself. To the extent some among us would like to write their own epitaph before leaving this earth, then Stein can be said to have accomplished that objective quite well. In closing the opening chapter to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Toklas/Stein presents a portrait of Stein that is clearly intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Describing her arrival in Paris, Toklas/Stein describes her initial encounter with Gertrude Stein:
“Within a year I also had gone and I had come to Paris. There I went to see Mrs. Stein who had in the meantime returned to Paris, and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.”
Paris between the world wars was a very cosmopolitan place, where the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Matisse, Picasso, and other luminaries of the world of arts and letters congregated and interacted. Stein was an integral part of that world. Her “autobiography” remains an entertaining and enlightening portrait of that time and place. Was she an ‘arrogant self-publicist who achieved notoriety by abusing the legitimate experimentation of modern art?’ Undoubtedly so, but so what? Picasso was one of the century’s greatest artists. He was also an unbelievable womanizer who many consider to have crossed the line into misogyny. Hemingway is considered one of the greatest American novelists in the nation’s history. He was also no saint, and perhaps his greatest work of nonfiction is an ode to what many consider a barbaric form of entertainment: bullfighting. Incidentally, the first sentence of the second paragraph of Death in the Afternoon reads:
“Once I remember Gertrude Stein talking of bullfights spoke of her admiration for Joselito [a prominent matador] and showed me some pictures of him in the ring and of herself and Alice B. Toklas sitting in the first row of the wooden barreras at the bullring at Valencia with Joselito and his brother Gallo below . . .”
So, clearly, Stein was a major figure in this universally-admired gathering of great literary and artistic minds. She was not, however, lacking a sense of humor. In the following passage from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she satirically imagines Toklas commenting on her companion’s contribution to the world of literature and of her immersion in the world of art:
“Observation and construction make imagination, that is granting the possession of imagination, is what she has taught many young writers. Once when Hemingway wrote in one of his stories that Gertrude Stein always knew what was good in a Cézanne, she looked at him and said, Hemingway, remarks are not literature.”
One can logically conclude that Gertrude Stein fit neatly in the middle of the spectrum defined by “arrogant self-publicist” on one end and “eccentric graced with the random perceptions of a child” on the other end. Personally, I wouldn’t condemn her or judge her too harshly.