Quirky Genius Turns Literary Kingdom to Mud
“They ask me to tell why an author like myself can become popular. It is very easy everybody keeps saying and writing what anybody feels that they are understanding and so they get tired of that….they do not know it but they get tired of feeling they are understanding and so they take pleasure in having something that they feel they are not understanding…. My writing is clear as mud but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear…” (Everybody’s Autobiography)
Here she sits (in Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom by Hans Gallas and Tom Hachtman, see my blog # 82) and sips her tea, perfectly unperturbed, as the year of Stein rolls to its last breath. What a year it’s been. A roller-coaster. The month of May brought the so-called “Summer of Stein”: her wild come-back with exhibitions and events in San Francisco. Then came the brooding fall with the political controversies over the controversial author who was not always “politically correct.”
While the exhibitions continue to delight most viewers and trouble a few in Washington, D.C., and Paris, France, the fall harvest added another show: ”Insight and Identity” at the Stanford Gallery in D.C., a playful look at Stein’s impact on artists today. Some of the familiars who had already wandered through my blog appeared in the show: author and Stein collector Hans Gallas as the initiator of the show, Bay Area artist Katrina Rodabough with her “textually” designed Stein dresses, conceptual artist Gisela Züchner-Mogall with her monumental work of copying The Making of Americans” over and over again into patterned pages of imagination.
New artistic insights into Stein were also proposed this fall in Paris: author and Stein expert Marjorie Perloff (Wittgenstein’s Ladder) talked about parallels between the work of Stein and Marcel Duchamp, telling us it’s time to look beyond the obvious Stein-Picasso link and find a new, exciting territory to explore.
For me, the year ended in several high notes. In November, at the Second Feminist Conference in D.C., keynote speaker Catharine R. Stimpson, an eminent Stein scholar, took a public stand against Stein’s old and new detractors. In the present “Stein wars,” I was not the only one any more speaking up in Stein’s defense.
My arguments, first, of course, expressed in this blog, appeared in Ms. Magazine in November and in the LA Review of Books in December. Lots of reactions proved that readers are waking up to the complexities of the historical and personal situation Stein and Toklas found themselves in during the war. Many shades of color were added to the all-black picture drawn by the media and the blogosphere. Academic Barbara Will, with her tendentious, inflammatory book Unlikely Collaboration, is not the only recent detractor of Stein. Stimpson pointed out the “relentless and redundant hostility” of writer Elaine Showalter. Once a pioneering feminist critic, Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of her Peers, is, in Stimpson’s words, “a compendium of attacks on Stein, none original, but presented as being mostly fresh. Here is Stein, the fat, egocentric monster who thought she was a genius and who manipulated people, especially Toklas, into serving her. … The final chop of Showalter’s little hatchet revises folklore, ‘Stein seems more and more like the Empress Who Had No Clothes – a shocking sight to behold in every respect.’ “
Not only men (like critic Phil Kennicott in the Washington Post), but women, too, descend to expressions of unmasked obscenity speaking of Stein, which shows the deep cultural anxieties and gender worries caused by the big, imposing lesbian author who turned their literary kingdom into mud.