- Talking Saints
Gertrude Stein’s personality is as central to her legacy as her literary style. Certainly, this is reflected in the success of her best-selling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), the effect of which hinged on, as the February 17, 1934 edition of New Yorker magazine put it, a public keen on both “liking Gertrude and liking the books of Gertrude.” This description is not without its accuracy; the Autobiography remains Stein’s most successful work due in part to its insight into the author’s own life, an intimate look at the larger-than-life figurehead whose presence seemed resonant amid so many of the twentieth-century’s artists and literati. It is for this reason that The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation (2010) is such a deeply fascinating text. Composition offers a thoroughly sequenced and meticulously annotated transcription of the correspondence between Gertrude Stein and celebrated composer Virgil Thomson, with whom Stein collaborated on a number of plays and operas, most notably Four Saints in Three Acts (1933). But Composition is not merely a catalogue of Stein and Thomson’s working relationship; the letters span from 1926 to Stein’s death in 1946, following the author’s career through the height of her notoriety, and later tracing ultimately unsuccessful attempts to recapture the Autobiography’s initial success. The position of the letters across this period create a volume as narratively captivating as it is historically rich, providing valuable insight into Stein’s career, as well as a vibrant glimpse at the ego and anxieties of one of modernism’s most visible figures.
Reading Stein and Thomson’s correspondence reveals a number of things about Stein’s relationship with her own work and its reception. Even the earliest letters in the collection suggest a Stein who is eager to see her work reach as broad an audience as possible, since much of her back and forth with Thomson considers not only the intricacies of staging Four Saints, but the difficulties of marketing such a play on a wide scale. Here in particular, Stein seems especially keen to consider the play’s potential for public response: she notes the need for advertising to the general public, as “it is the general public we are hoping to reach and they take a lot of preparation.” Far from posturing as an aloof member of the literary elite, Stein demonstrates an active and engaged relationship with this public, and an earnest desire to see her own work circulating within it. The letters show a Stein who did not perceive her work to be nearly as inaccessible—or incomprehensible—as her detractors suggest. Rather, throughout her interactions with Thomson and other potential collaborators (and publishers), Stein is insistent on her own commercial appeal, citing her “steadily increasing” fan letters and a continuous trickle of newspaper and magazine clippings containing her own name. In a particularly tense response to Harcourt Brace upon their refusal to publish Four in America (1947), Stein goes so far as to exert her entire force on this perceived notoriety, warning that “[Alfred Harcourt] should recognize that my reputation is and was made by the kind of book that [Four in America] is and that a certain proportion of them should be printed by him before he does another of the kind that he likes.”
Stein’s ultimate failure at swaying Harcourt Brace back in her favor is irrelevant. The brief exchange is only one of many that showcase the character that is Gertrude Stein, with her playful combination of optimism and arrogance. For all of Stein’s interest in the mass market, her letters to Thomson show an impressive blind spot when it comes to her own work; indeed, though her commercial success may never again have reached Autobiography’s peak, Stein’s personal narrative is less concerned with this detail. The author even counsels Thomson on publishing a book that will raise his profile, doing “for you something...