When Gertrude Stein Toured America

A 1934 barnstorming visit to her native country transformed Stein from a noteworthy but rarely glimpsed author into a national celebrity

Writer Gertrude Stein crisscrossed America for 191 days in 1934-'35. She gave 74 lectures in 37 cities in 23 states. (The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, Gift of Adelyn D. Breeskin BMA 1985.3, © Estate of George Platt Lynes, Photography by Mitro Hood)

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When asked why she didn’t speak as she wrote, she said, “Oh, but I do. After all it’s all learning how to read it…. I have not invented any device, any style, but write in the style that is me.” The question followed her throughout her tour. On another occasion she replied, “If you invited Keats to dinner and asked him a question, you wouldn’t expect him to reply with the Ode to a Nightingale, now would you?”

On the Lecture Circuit

Stein was anxious about how she might come across on a lecture tour. She had given only a few speeches, and the last thing she wanted was to be paraded around like a “freak,” as she put it. To assuage her fears, Stein laid some ground rules. At each college, university or museum, with a few exceptions, she would deliver one of six prepared lectures to an audience strictly capped at 500. At her very first lecture, attended by members of the Museum of Modern Art, and routinely thereafter, she entered the stage without introduction and read from her notes, delivered in the same style as her confounding prose. Then, she opened the floor to questions.

Stein’s audiences, by and large, did not understand her lectures. Shortly into her tour, psychiatrists speculated that Stein suffered from palilalia, a speech disorder that causes patients to stutter over words or phrases. “Whether it was Picasso or Matisse or Van Gogh, people said that Modernism [a movement that Stein was very much a part of] was the art of the insane,” says Corn. “It is a very common reductionism that you find running throughout modern arts and letters.” But talk of the putative diagnosis quickly fizzled.

Stein engaged her audience with her personality and the musicality of her language. “Even if people couldn’t follow her, she was so earnest and sincere,” says Corn. “People loved listening to her,” especially during her more candid question-and- answer sessions. According to Corn, Americans “welcomed home the prodigal daughter.” Or grandmother—the 60-year-old was charming.

Media Frenzy and Other Diversions

Within 24 hours of her arrival in New York Harbor, Stein was promoted “from curiosity to celebrity,” according to W.G. Rogers, a journalist and friend of Stein’s. En route to the hotel where she would stay her first night, she saw the message, “Gertrude Stein has Arrived” flashing across an electric sign in Times Square. Soon enough, she was recognized by passers-by on the streets.

In terms of an itinerary, says Corn, “She really didn’t have it sketched out very thoroughly other than a couple of dates on the East Coast. But once she began to talk and the press began to report on her, invitations flowed.” She visited Madison, Wisconsin, and Baltimore; Houston and Charleston, South Carolina; Minneapolis and Birmingham, Alabama. “I was tremendously interested in each state I wish well I wish I could know everything about each one,” wrote Stein.

Wherever Stein went, says Corn, “People kind of dreamed up things that they thought would amuse her or be interesting to her.” After a dinner party at the University of Chicago, two police officers from the city’s homicide department took Stein and Toklas for a ride around the city in a squad car. American publisher Alfred Harcourt invited them to a Yale-Dartmouth football game. At the University of Virginia, Stein was given keys to the room where Edgar Allan Poe stayed for a semester. She had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. In New Orleans, writer Sherwood Anderson took her to see the Mississippi River. And, at a party in Beverly Hills, she discussed the future of cinema with Charlie Chaplin.

Media coverage followed Stein’s every move along her tour. “No writer for years has been so widely discussed, so much caricatured, so passionately championed,” declared the Chicago Daily Tribune months after she returned to Paris.


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