Gertrude Stein has Arrived: The Homecoming of a Literary Legend

Gertrude Stein has Arrived

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) is actually Gertrude Stein‘s own memoir. Gertrude Stein Has Arrived by Roy Morris, Jr. chronicles the return of the delightfully perplexing literary figure to her American homeland in 1934.

With Alice in tow, Stein conducted an epic lecture tour to promote what would be her most commercially successful book.

Gertrude appropriated the supposed persona of her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, to tell her own tale. Famously, Alice is quoted as saying:

“About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, ‘It does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do? I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe.’ And she has, and this is it.”

Of course, Alice probably said no such thing. The entire book is narrated as if Alice is doing the writing, which comes across in a fresh and vibrant manner.

Stein was known both in America and her adopted home of France for her experimental, often ponderous works (like The Making of Americans) and modernist poetry (including Tender Buttons). The Autobiography … is considered one Stein’s most accessible works, and it became a commercial and critical success.

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the autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 
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The book’s overwhelmingly positive reception prompted a return to America by the confirmed ex-pat couple to build on its success. Stein’s return to her homeland is chronicled in Gertrude Stein Has Arrived. From the publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press:

“The surprise success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 prompted the book’s real author, Gertrude Stein, to return to America from her self-imposed exile in France for the first time in three decades.

Accompanied by her life partner Alice Toklas, Stein undertook a seven-month-long, thirty-seven-city lecture tour of the United States in the fall and winter of 1934. From New England to California, from Minnesota to Texas, the pair went everywhere and saw everyone. 

Everywhere they went, they were treated like everyone’s favorite maiden aunts — colorful, eccentric, and eminently quotable. Based on the firsthand reminiscences of Gertrude, Alice, their friends and associates, and contemporary newspaper accounts of the tour, Gertrude Stein Has Arrived is the first book-length account of their rollicking American tour.

Intended for both general readers and serious scholars, the book reveals how their warm reception enabled the couple to rediscover their American roots after three decades of living abroad.”

For aficionados of Gertrude Stein, this book is essential reading. I enjoyed getting to know Gertrude and Alice’s personalities, which are beautifully sketched in this slim yet action-packed volume.

I had for some reason imagined Gertrude as strict and dour (no doubt in part thanks to her iconic somber portrait by Picasso, and the brisk portrayal of her in Woody Allen’s silly Midnight in Paris), but she really seemed quite friendly and whimsical, and often spoke the way she wrote.

It’s also heartening to read about a 37-city book tour that took place in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude and Alice did seem to provide a national pick-me-up, and it also went to prove that even when times are tough, books can uplift as well as entertain.

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Gertrude Stein has Arrived

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Introduction to Gertrude Stein Has Arrived by Roy Morris, Jr.

In the summer of 1933, after nearly three decades of writing and publishing everything from three-word poems to one-thousand-page novels, American author Gertrude Stein finally achieved overnight success.

The surprising vehicle for her literary stardom was an uncharacteristically lucid and readable book, one that until the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page she had pretended was written by someone else. That book was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Supposedly the reminiscences of her life partner, elfin, austere Alice Babette Toklas of San Francisco, California, it was actually the reminiscences of portly, genial Gertrude Stein of Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Gertrude compared it, in her modest way, to the Battle of Waterloo, quoting Victor Hugo’s famous comment that the fate of Europe would have changed completely had it not rained on the night before Napoleon’s epic defeat. “Of course it is not so,” she wrote, “if you win you do not lose and if you lose you do not win.”

Still, Hugo had a point, and if the weather had not been so lovely in France the previous autumn, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas might never have been written, Gertrude conceded, at least “probably not then.”

As it was, the book Gertrude ghosted for Alice in October and November 1932 at their country home in Bilignin, France, near the Swiss border, would make both women famous, if not necessarily rich.

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Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein - the centennial edition

Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
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Published in America by Harcourt, Brace on August 31, 1933, the first printing of the Autobiography sold out its initial fifty-four hundred copies nine days before it was officially released.

… The unexpected success of the book, whose putative author disliked, among other things, the inclusion of her middle initial in the title, would place the real author’s name before the American public in a way that three decades’ worth of novels, stories, essays, poems, and plays had not. It would also bring Gertrude and Alice back to their native country for the first time in thirty years.

“You’d better come over and take the tribute due you,” their friend Carl Van Vechten advised them in September 1933, and fellow author Sherwood Anderson agreed. “Why don’t you and Alice come to America as a great adventure next summer,” he suggested, “Ford around [travel by automobile], come see us and others?”

It would give them the opportunity, he said, to have “one big taste of America again.”

Despite the blatant appeal to their appetites, Gertrude and Alice ignored Anderson’s advice for several months. “I am a person of no initiative,” Gertrude observed later, “and I usually stay where I am. Why not as long as there are plenty of people about.”

Foreshadowing one of her most famous quotes, she added, “After all I am American all right. Being there does not make me more there.”

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Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Basket

Gertrude and Alice in Paris, with their dog, Basket
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… Eventually, the public clamor proved impossible to resist, and Gertrude agreed to undertake a lengthy speaking tour of America, commencing in October 1934. Alice, of course, would come along.

“I used to say that I would not go to America until I was a real lion a real celebrity,” Gertrude wrote in her characteristically unpunctuated style, “at that time of course I did not really think I was going to be one. But now we were coming and I was going to be one.”

In a way, she was being modest. The couple’s much-anticipated homecoming would last for nearly seven months and become a media sensation, garnering them a level of attention typically accorded, one biographer noted, “only to gangsters, baseball players, and movie stars.”

Their travels would take them completely across the United States, from New York to California, from New Hampshire to Texas—thirty-seven cities in twenty-three states.

The trip would be great fun, not merely for Gertrude and Alice but for thousands of literally depressed Americans who would find some much-needed diversion in the unpredictable antics of a pair of eccentric, accessible, uninhibited women who were apt at any given time to say or do anything.

The headline crawl on the New York Times Building in Times Square—“Gertrude Stein Has Arrived . . . Gertrude Stein Has Arrived . . . Gertrude Stein Has Arrived”—was both literally and figuratively true.

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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

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It had been, all things considered, a long time coming. Prior toThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein was known primarily to American readers for her dense, often indecipherable prose and for being an amusing, frequently quoted avatar of the modernist movement in painting and literature.

Her face was well known, her writing not so much. “It always did bother me,” she complained, “that the American public were more interested in me than in my work.” 

The Autobiography changed that equation, or rather, it combined the public’s interest in her and her work by making both the writing and the author a good deal more accessible. In any case, Gertrude was largely to blame for her own neglect.

After publishing the comparatively traditional Three Stories in 1909, she had turned away from conventional forms of narrative fiction and begun experimenting with complex mixtures of rhythm, repetition, syntax, and sound to challenge readers on a subconscious level.

… Toward the end of the trip they revisited Gertrude’s childhood home in Oakland, California, about which she would famously say, “There is no there there.”

Throughout the tour Gertrude demonstrated strong appeal with American college students, who proved particularly receptive to her unconventional ideas about literature, painting, and life in general.

She had a simple explanation for why students liked her. “You see why they talk to me is that I am like them,” she told the president of the University of Chicago. “I do not know the answer, I do not even know whether there is a question let alone having an answer for the question.” She even took the time to expound on her most famous, if frequently misquoted, line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

“Now listen,” she told a writing seminar at the University of Chicago. “You all have seen hundreds of poems about roses and you know in your bones that the rose is not there. I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” No one disagreed.

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The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein

The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
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… Proof of the book’s popularity came regularly in cities and towns across the country, where the visiting couple was greeted like everyone’s favorite maiden aunts. They fully returned the compliment, rediscovering along the way their own American identities after thirty years abroad.

“I never knew it was so beautiful,” Gertrude said of their homeland. “I was like a bachelor who goes along fine for twenty- five years and then decides to get married.”

There was no marriage on the tour, but Gertrude and Alice did enjoy something of a delayed second honeymoon on their epic jaunt across America.

Every honeymoon must start somewhere, and theirs started four thousand miles away, in the French foothills of the Swiss Alps, where the two women could be found innocently at work—or in Gertrude’s case, what passed for work—in the autumn of 1932, when a rose was still a rose and there was still there.

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