- Writing “Other Spaces”: Katherine Anne Porter’s Yaddo
In 1947, Katherine Anne Porter published an essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “Gertrude Stein: A Self-Portrait” in which she accused Stein of “avarice” for the celebrity and financial success Stein had found in the wake of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. However, the essay is interesting less for what it claims— Stein-bashing was a full-fledged genre in the U.S. media by the 1940s—than for how it punctures Stein’s aura. Porter’s counter-narrative of Stein’s life is also a counter-description of the space Stein made famous in her popular writings of the 1930s:
The pavilion atelier in rue de Fleurus was a catch-all of beings and created objects, and everything she looked upon was hers in more than the usual sense. Her weighty numerous divans and armchairs covered with dark, new-looking horsehair; her dogs, Basket and Pepe, conspicuous, special, afflicted as neurotic children; her clutter of small tables each with its own clutter of perhaps valuable but certainly treasured objects; her Alice B. Toklas; her visitors; and finally, ranging the walls from floor to ceiling, giving the impression that they were hung three deep, elbowing each other, canceling each other’s best effects in the jealous way of pictures, was her celebrated collection of paintings by her collection of celebrated painters.1
Porter focuses on the social and spatial configuration of the atelier: Stein is emphatically at its center, possessing, consecrating, and equating (morally suspect operations, we know from Porter’s irony) the persons, paintings, pets, and furniture that surround her.2 It is an insightful description of how a domestic space can be converted—through the self-mythologizing practices of Stein’s popular autobiography—into a celebrity world. Persons, places, [End Page 735] and things matter only insofar as they enhance and partake of the glamor of the star, or in Stein’s own terms, “the genius.” Porter, who is rarely mentioned in studies of Anglo-American modernism, here anticipates recent literary historians in their analyses of modernist celebrity culture.3
Porter’s critique of Stein helps illuminate the larger project of Porter’s late fiction, which culminated in the novel Ship of Fools (begun 1941, completed 1961). Provoked by the conspicuous cultivation of a wide audience by high modernists such as Stein, Porter’s writings of this period revise the genre of expatriate autobiography and insist on an outsider status for authors, this against the tide of modernist integration into the literary marketplace. This stance was shaped by Porter’s more than twenty-year involvement with Yaddo, the art colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. The colony has received curiously little attention from scholars of late modernism, despite its importance for “returning exiles” like Porter and Malcolm Cowley (who wrote one of the most famous modernist memoir-histories, Exile’s Return, at Yaddo in the early 1930s).4 Paris and Yaddo are connected in the imaginations of American writers, and this article traces that connection through literary history and literary form.
Why is it that U.S. writers’ colonies such as Yaddo or MacDowell have rarely been considered integral to the story of American modernism? Part of the answer has to do with the colonies themselves, which tended to cultivate isolation and marginality, rather than celebrity or recognition. But Yaddo’s neglect is also symptomatic of a larger difficulty in the field: despite major interventions by scholars such as Shari Benstock, Lawrence Rainey, and Michael Szalay, the institutional context of modernist literary production is most often seen as mere background, at best the subject of cultural history.5 The real story for literary studies is still, if only implicitly, formal innovation, especially where innovation can be construed as responding to hegemonic ideological systems and capital flows. On one level, I identify and describe in formal terms a micro-genre—call it “colony modernism”—that emerged from a group of similar and understudied U.S. literary institutions in the early twentieth century. But my more ambitious goal is to shift our understanding of what modernism is and does. The textual spaces created by modernist writers...