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Posts Tagged ‘Gertrude Stein’

The Making of an American

May 14, 2014 | by

Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

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Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern. Read More »

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Dallas, Part 1: From Afar

November 22, 2013 | by

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With all eyes on Dallas, it seemed fitting to re-run one of our favorite pieces from 2012, an ode to the city and its complicated legacy.

Between 318 and 271 million years ago, the ancient continental core of North America butted against what would become South America. Land folded and faulted; mountains were born. Then what would become the Gulf of Mexico opened, and inland seas washed the peaks away. It pays to remember there are mountains beneath Dallas. The tops may have eroded, but the roots remain buried deep.

Some 165 million years later—in 1841—John Neely Bryan built a shelter on a bluff and called the area Dallas.

One hundred and twenty-two years later—in 1963—John F. Kennedy was shot on that bluff, now named Dealey Plaza.

Seventeen years later—in 1980—J. R. Ewing was shot on TV. Read More »

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Bride of Gertrudestein, and More Literary Halloween Ghouls

October 31, 2013 | by

 

Tim Taranto hails from Upstate New York and attended Cornell. In addition to The Paris Review Daily, his work has appeared on the Rumpus and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Tim lives in Iowa City, where he is studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

 

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On Mirth, Milton, and Nostalgia: A Conversation with Mark Morris

October 11, 2013 | by

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Twenty-five years ago, Mark Morris created L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a vibrant, enthralling choreography inspired by the music of George Frederic Handel and the poems of John Milton. The New York Times hailed L’Allegro as “a glorious outpouring of dance invention and humanistic imagery,” and Joan Acocella stated that it is “widely considered one of the great dance works of the twentieth century.” Morris may indeed be the most talked-about modern dance choreographer of his generation, and he has a personality to match his renown. He didn’t so much appear for our interview as arrive, bursting into the room in red socks and his trademark scarf, thrown insouciantly over his shoulder.

A natural performer, Morris communicates with enthusiasm and urgency; his hands sliced through the air dramatically as he spoke. Our conversation was punctuated by his impish laugh and his opinions on everything from Lydia Davis, country western music, his figurine collection, and his choice of vodka. Morris is a voracious reader, and during the course of the interview in his New York apartment, he repeatedly pulled books from his shelves.

What’s the last great book you read?

You know what’s not great but fabulous is this book of love notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It’s called Baby Precious Always Shines. And I just read this Mary Renault–style gay potboiler called The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. I have to say I was so thrilled that Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize, because I was plugging her book to everyone I met. When I read her Collected Stories, I lost my mind. Those two-sentence stories really fucked me up. I think she’s a genius.

Is there any type of literature you steer clear of?

Boringness! Actually no, I have a tolerance for boringness. If it’s John Grisham I’m not going to read it. I’m not a big best-seller type, but I did read all of those terrifying, evangelical Christian books, the Left Behind series. Read More »

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A Rejection Is a Rejection Is a Rejection

June 27, 2013 | by

Behold what is either the best or worst rejection letter we have ever seen (depending on your capacity for cruelty), sent to Gertrude Stein in 1912 by publisher Arthur C. Fifield. Given that the manuscript in question became Three Lives (among other things) we suppose she had the last laugh. And as an editor, you can’t help thinking: Just how much time did this guy have on his hands?

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Thanks, Electric Lit!

 

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Sendak Does Tolstoy, and Other News

June 20, 2013 | by

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  • Maurice Sendak illustrates Tolstoy.
  • And speaking of collaborations! Appropriately enough, there is now an interactive app for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.
  • Everyone loves Bloomsday; why no Dalloway Day? (Dalloday?)
  • Ten words for which we could really use English equivalents. (Although, really, we should just learn the ones we don’t know. Especially age-otori.)
  • “Gertrude Stein, with her gnomish, arty, aphoristic tendencies, would seem to be ideal. ‘There is no there there’ may be one of the great proto-tweets.”
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