- Editor's Note
I have what feels like a fairly reliable memory of reading James R. Mellow's Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company in my first year of college, but I can't recall what initially drew me to the book. Although it's likely I had heard of Stein by then in one of my introductory English classes, I'm certain I hadn't read any of her work, and I suspect it might only have been the sinuous art-deco typography on the cover of the 1982 Avon paperback edition that prompted me to buy it. Whatever it was that called out to me, I'm forever grateful for the appeal. I found Mellow's account of Stein's life and world as captivating as any novel, and it set me on an often baffling, always thrilling course of reading that stoked my own literary aspirations even as it unraveled some of my aesthetic prejudices. After devouring The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which I found in its entirety in the Vintage Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, I worked my way, much more slowly, through all the other selections and then tackled the complete versions of many of the works excerpted in that anthology. My fascination with Stein persisted into graduate school, where it culminated—and apparently exhausted itself—in a not terribly original seminar paper comparing Tender Buttons with Francis Ponge's Le parti pris des choses. While I certainly still admire Stein's genius, and while I'm indebted to her for introducing me to the pleasures and profits to be gained from writing that doesn't wear its meaning on its sleeve, until this past week I hadn't read her in decades. I don't know what happened to my copy of Charmed Circle, but I keep the fat, now-yellowed Selected Writings on my shelf among the other books I can't quite bring myself to give away. While I was writing this paragraph, I took it down and happily surrendered an hour or so to Stein's inimitable prose.
I have to thank Linda Zygutis for reigniting a spark of my lapsed devotion to Stein. In her essay in this issue of Biography, Zygutis recounts the famously inscrutable author's 1934 lecture tour to the United States following the commercial success of her uncharacteristically scrutable Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Reflecting on the sometimes sensationalist press coverage of Stein's appearances, the efforts of her publishers to exploit her notoriety, and Stein's struggle to retain control over her own image and to preserve her artistic integrity, Zygutis gives us a portrait of the artist as a somewhat reluctant "personality" chafing against the expectations of a public whose interest in her was [End Page iv] largely mediated and distorted by the machinery of publicity. In the context of the ongoing memoir boom, Zygutis's analysis of Stein's ambivalence about the fame she garnered with The Autobiography speaks to the challenges today's autobiographers and memoirists face when their lives, along with their works, are drawn into the contemporary culture industry.
With its exploration of the connections among publishing, publicity, and literary celebrity, Zygutis's study of Stein on the lecture circuit nicely harmonizes with all three of the other articles in this issue. Like Zygutis, Andrew Jewell reflects on a famous author's attempt to manage her public persona. Recounting Willa Cather's last years, Jewell reconstructs the psychological and historical context in which Cather issued a ban on the posthumous publication of her letters. Both Jayne Lewis and Anna Poletti draw upon book history to trace the emergence of autobiography in Europe within the material and economic matrix of an evolving print culture, focusing on different historical periods. Lewis organizes her study around the enigmatic figure of Valentine Greatrakes, whose remarkably multilayered 1666 life narrative attempts to uphold his credibility as a healer in the midst of a pamphlet war that put his reputation at risk. Jean-Paul Sartre's 1964 autobiography The Words serves as Poletti's point of departure for a wide-ranging consideration—reaching back into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—of the...