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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)

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

Stein’s 1937 book, Everybody’s Autobiography, is filled with observations from the journey—what she liked and what she found unusual. In New England, she decided that Americans drove more slowly than the French. Heading to Chicago in November 1934 for a performance of Four Saints in Three Acts, she compared the view of the Midwest from the airplane window to a cubist painting. It was her first time flying, and she became a real fan. “I liked going over the Salt Lake region the best, it was like going over the bottom of the ocean without any water in it,” she wrote.

The Mississippi River was not as mighty as Mark Twain made it out to be, Stein thought. But she loved clapboard houses. “The wooden houses of America excited me as nothing else in America excited me,” she wrote. And she had a love-hate relationship with drugstores. “One of the few things really dirty in America are the drugstores but the people in them sitting up and eating and drinking milk and coffee that part of the drugstores was clean that fascinated me,” said Stein. “I never had enough of going into them.” When it came to American food, she thought it was too moist. She did, however, have a fondness for oysters and honeydew melon.

A Successful Trip

On May 4, 1935, Stein left America to sail back to France, having successfully concluded an agreement with Random House to publish just about anything she wrote. From then on, she also had an easier time placing her work in magazines. And yet, it is often said that Stein remains one of the most well-known, yet least-read of writers. “People aren’t going to pick up Stein’s work and make it their bedtime reading,” says Corn. “It’s not easy stuff. Modernism asks viewers and readers to be patient and to work at it.”

But by coming to the United States, Stein certainly cleared up some of the mystique that surrounded the modern arts. According to Corn, at a time when few Modern writers and artists made lecture tours, Stein acted as an ambassador of the Modernist movement. Even though her writing was difficult to digest, by force of her personality and sociability, Stein convinced Americans that the Modernist movement was worthwhile and important. “She put a face on Modernism that people liked,” says Corn. “She made Modernism human.”

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