- The Making of Americans
Few authors have ever acquired a status quite so paradoxical as that of Gertrude Stein. With the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 Stein became a bestselling author, a celebrity whose name was a household word, and with her death in 1948 there began a steady stream of biographies that has continued down to the present. Yet the success of The Autobiography turned out to be a fluke. Notoriety did little to ease Stein’s difficulties in finding a publisher for her other works, while her efforts to have some of her earlier works republished in more popular editions also proved fruitless. (Prior to The Autobiography Stein had been so frustrated in her experiences with publishers that she had sold a painting by Picasso in order to start a small press of her own, Plain Editions, which issued five books by Stein in 1931 and 1932; but these editions, with modest press runs and poor distribution, could do little to make Stein’s work readily available to a broader public.) What resulted was a paradox: though Stein was now as a celebrity and widely acknowledged as a gifted writer, her works were difficult or impossible to obtain.
Nowhere has this paradox been more acutely felt than with The Making of Americans, Stein’s massive “history of a family’s progress” and arguably one of the most important works [End Page 222] of twentieth-century modernism. Written between 1906 and 1911, The Making of Americans might almost be said to have never been published. Stein submitted the first half of the manuscript to the English publisher Grant Richards just as she was finishing the work. But Richards found it too long and too difficult, so becoming only the first of many publishers to decline it. In 1924 Ernest Hemingway convinced Ford Madox Ford, then the editor of The Transatlantic Review, to publish excerpts of the work, and Stein’s selections appeared in nine of the journal’s total run of twelve issues. Finally, late in 1925, the entire novel was published by the Contact Press, a modest publishing venture that was located in Paris and owned by Robert McAlmon, a young writer who two years earlier had become wealthy when he married Winnifred Ellerman, the sole heir to a vast fortune made in shipping. The Contact Press edition was limited to five hundred copies, of which one hundred were exported for an American edition published by Albert and Charles Boni in 1926. An abridged edition was issued by the American firm Harcourt, Brace in 1934, and a reprint was at last issued by the Something Else Press in 1966. But by 1990 copies of the Something Else edition had become so scarce that they were selling for $100.00 or even $120.00 in the rare book market. For all practical purposes, Stein’s novel could only be read in the rare book collections of major research libraries.
None of this would matter, of course, if the work were not so important. In part, its importance has to do with its chronology. Stein’s first published book, Three Lives, was written in 1905–1906 and published in 1909. The volume attracted critical attention and its most notable story, “Melanctha,” has long been viewed as a classic work of modern American literature, widely taught in survey and introductory courses. But Stein’s next book, a collection of poems titled Tender Buttons, was not issued until 1914, and by then her style had changed so radically as to seem as if it were written by someone else. Stein, it is true, had also published two brief “portraits” or short sketches of Picasso and Matisse in 1912 in a journal called Camera Work, an avant-garde review published Alfred Stieglitz in New York, but they presented the same question: they too were in written in a restless, overtly modernist, and experimental style that seemed far removed from “Melanctha.” So how did one...