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Posts Tagged ‘Gertrude Stein’

A Narrow Street at Dawn

November 16, 2015 | by

From a Bantam paperback edition of The Last Time I Saw Paris.

Over the weekend, I found myself picking up Elliot Paul’s 1942 memoir of prewar Montmartre, The Last Time I Saw Paris. (It must have been a gift from my grandfather; at any rate, it’s a discard from the Salinas Public Library.) A novelist, journalist, and, later, screenwriter, Paul was in the thick of Lost Generation artistic circles. He was friends with Gertrude Stein, a coeditor of Transition, an intimate of James Joyce. The book is unquestionably a “portrait” of that time, and an elegiac one: cafés, cheap rents, local characters, and literary cameos all abound. And yet it’s not wholly steeped in nostalgia; by its end, the series of vignettes has begun to illuminate the more sinister tendencies of some of his neighbors, and forecast an end to an era that was already rosy with setting-sun glory. Which makes it so strange that the cover—striped in the bleu, blanc, rouge, bearing a Montmartre street sketch—should be emblazoned with the following words: “A book about the France the whole world prefers to remember.”

This passage is from the chapter “A Narrow Street at Dawn”: Read More »

Great Rot

September 22, 2015 | by

Little did you know, when you woke up today on this rather ordinary Tuesday, that a treat awaited you. I speak, of course, of the above clip, in which Evelyn Waugh critiques modernism.

No one ever made the mistake of confusing the Waugh of the 1950s with a progressive: by this point, he was fully inhabiting the role of an outspoken, old-guard crank, as loudly disillusioned with modernity and its art as he was by the Church of England. And yet! Even so, one is not quite prepared for his strident tone. He refers to Gertrude Stein as an author of “absolute gibberish”; James Joyce, that “poor, dotty Irishman,” is a producer of “great rot.” Between takes, apparently, Waugh sexually harassed his interviewer, Elizabeth Jane Howard. Read More »

Distinctly Emasculated

April 24, 2015 | by

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and sexual anxiety.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924.

History tends to compare Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—and why not? As contemporaries and rivals, the two make natural foils for each other. Hemingway, we’re told, epitomizes a certain archetypal masculinity; he presented himself as a hunter, a boxer, a war veteran, and a ladies’ man; accordingly, he wrote in a spare, economical style, mostly about war, solitude, and adventure. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, we know as a social striver, someone who prided himself on his budding elitism and his (incomplete) Princeton education, who was known to have his pocket square and his hair-part always just right. He wrote about socioeconomic status in prose that was, at least next to Hemingway’s, often lyrical and adorned, and most would readily agree that he’s the more effeminate of the two. But the sexual identities of these men, formed by their peculiar childhoods and the Lost Generation artists they surrounded themselves with, weren’t as self-evident as many modern readers might think.

There’s a classic story of the homosexual tensions bubbling just beneath the surface between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It takes place in the men’s room at Michaud’s, at the time an upscale brasserie in Paris. As Hemingway claims in A Moveable Feast—and claims is just the word, because his own sexual insecurities tended to manifest in an unfair emasculation of Fitzgerald—Fitzgerald told him: Read More »

To Lie in the Cheese, to Smile in the Butter

February 3, 2015 | by


Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906.

From Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein, a collection of experimental prose and “word portraits” written by Gertrude Stein between 1909 and 1912. Stein, who was born on this day in 1874, had arrived in Paris by 1903 and began to develop a kind of literary Cubism, steeping herself in the art of Picasso, Matisse, and others. These pieces saw her evolving approach to aphorism and especially to repetition, the device she made her trademark, even if it chagrined some early readers.

To lie in the cheese, to smile in the butter, to lengthen in the rain, to sit in the flour all that makes a model stronger, there is no strangeness where there is more useful color, a description has not every mission.

Leaning together and destroying a principle preciousness which is not mangled, this is so loaned that there is no habit, not at all and yet there is the late way, there is an instance of more.

To be painful is not more than a street, to be a principal apricot is not more than a cherry and yet there is an expression, there certainly is. Read More »


The Making of an American

January 1, 2015 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!


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

G Stein Van Vechten

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 >>

Finding the Question That Hasn’t Been Asked: An Interview with Lynne Tillman

September 11, 2014 | by


Lynne Tillman, Second Avenue, New York City, 2013. Photograph: Mark Alice Durant.

Writing a short introduction about Lynne Tillman isn’t easy; her singular and visionary writing covers a great deal of territory. The author of twelve books, she is adept at fiction, short and long essays, cultural critique, and interviews. A sampling of just three of her books conveys the scope of her work: her novel American Genius: A Comedy follows the obsessive inner monologue of a single character for almost three hundred pages; This Is Not It is a compendium of twenty years of witty and risky novellas and short stories, some as short as a paragraph; and Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. weaves together the voices of Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, Paul Auster, Calvin Trillin, and many others to tell not just the story of the rise and fall of the iconic, well-loved Books & Co. but that of the changing landscape of publishing.

Her new book, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, is a collection of recent essays—on Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, on the lives and work of Paul and Jane Bowles, and on Edith Wharton and architecture, to name just a few—and interviews with Harry Mathews, Paula Fox, Lebanese-American writer and visual artist Etel Adnan, and German painter Peter Dreher. Each piece, whether essay or interview, is illuminated by Tillman’s wit, intellect, and curiosity. When the book was released earlier this year, Jason Diamond of Flavorwire declared 2014 to be “the year of Lynne Tillman.”

I spoke with Lynne Tillman at the New School, as part of the university’s Summer Writers Colony. Fiction and nonfiction students had spent three days reading What Would Lynne Tillman Do? and the questions I posed reflected their curiosity, as well as my own, regarding the processes and practices that allow her to transition easily between genres. Tillman was eager to answer, and the qualities that characterize her writing shone through in her answers.

In your 2009 essay, “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” you write, “I don’t want to take a position. Not taking a position is a position that acknowledges the inability to know with absolute surety, that says: Writing is like life, there are many ways of doing it, survival depends on flexibility. Anything can be on the page. What isn’t there now?” All those interesting negatives—“not taking a position,” “the inability to know,” “what isn’t there now”—reminded me of Keats’s famous letter in which he used the term negative capability. When you begin to build an essay, do you feel as if you’re exploring what you don’t know, precisely because you don’t know? Or do you begin with a firm idea or a mystery that you want to explore more deeply?

I begin nonfiction essays in a similar way to fiction. I have some questions in my mind, things that I’m interested in writing about, and in fiction I find a voice through which to do that. On the other hand, in an essay, I assay some of what I think I know, and then, as I go along, I realize that I don’t know what I thought I knew. Read More »