- Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity
Gertrude Stein is often considered something of an anomaly even within those categories through which her life and work are most often focalized—high modernism, lesbianism, expatriation. In Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity, Karen Leick invites us to look at Stein through yet another lens, as a celebrated personage whose fame flourished despite, but also in part because of, the inaccessibility of her works. By making Stein a case study for considering the relations between highbrow and middlebrow culture, Leick manages to shed considerable light on the dynamics of the literary arena throughout Stein's illustrious and contentious career. In the process, Stein becomes less an exception than an example, her celebrity a site for thinking through the ways that mainstream culture filtered elite aestheticism.
Though the book is more descriptive than analytical, it tells a fascinating story, one in which early-twentieth-century periodicals play a major role. According to Leick, Stein was able to achieve enormous [End Page 112] visibility in the United States not because her writings were widely available—often they were not—but because mainstream periodicals regularly took note of what was happening in the literary-intellectual sphere, including the rarefied world of little magazines. Stein's highly idiosyncratic style captured attention immediately, and soon virtually everything she wrote or said became news—even to those who had never read a word of her work. As Leick demonstrates, Stein was freely referenced by newspaper columnists and other popular commentators, resulting in widespread familiarity with not just her name, but with Steinian style, broadly construed. Works such as Three Lives and "The Portrait of Mabel Dodge" were quoted, discussed, and parodied in ways and in venues that reveal mass culture's deep engagement with high modernism, and that evidence Stein's status as a familiar icon for a middlebrow audience—a position, incidentally, that she welcomed and cultivated.
Indeed, Leick argues that Stein herself resisted "hierarchical divisions between high- and low-brow literature" (63) and that she wished especially to reach a mainstream audience. Hence, she was as enthusiastic about publishing in venues such as Life or Vanity Fair as she was about the Dial or Atlantic Monthly. One of the ironies of Stein's celebrity, in Leick's view, is that she was often deemed "democratic": in press coverage of her triumphant 1930s American tour, "Stein emerged as a distinctly anti-intellectual, down-to-earth woman who was, like the majority of American journalists and their readers, unimpressed by artifice and highbrow posturing" (177). This is an impressive achievement for a writer whose works were so famously difficult that H. L. Mencken wondered publicly whether "beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh" (88).
Leick is at her best when narrating some of the more amusing or intriguing moments in the forging of Stein's American reputation. She recovers some very funny parodies and critiques of Stein's work: the Kansas City Star, reviewing Lucy Church Amiably, remarked that "Holding the book in front of a mirror doesn't seem to help" (135). She offers, for instance, a nuanced discussion of the opening performance of Four Saints in Three Acts, including sobering details about racist attitudes toward the African-American cast. Historians of periodicals will especially enjoy the details of Stein's relationships with various editors; she and Ellery Sedgwick, for instance, had a longstanding correspondence in which Stein repeatedly tried to convince Sedgwick to publish her work in the Atlantic. He finally obliged, happily, in 1933, when he printed excerpts from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which he declared "delightful" (141). Some of the strengths of this study, however, give rise to related weaknesses. For instance, Leick's comprehensive and impressive coverage of American notices of Stein comes to seem overwhelming; there are moments when fewer particulars and more generalities would aid the reader in perceiving the larger [End Page 113] points. And while the volume's organization by decade allows for an...