Issue 100, Summer-Fall 1986
The letters which follow were written by Gertrude Stein to an obscure, struggling writer named Wendell Wilcox. He had seen Stein’s work in 1926 while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. He read a borrowed copy of her book Tender Buttons. Fifteen years later he wrote to her:
I can recognize writing almost the minute I see it but certainly in two minutes and that is a gift from God very like that of the Greek girl who used to do the prophecies and whom no one believed. . . . And about you I knew in my first year of college when I first saw Tender Buttons and had never then heard your name. . . . But I knew then and still remember pearl pearl goats and a lot more.
After graduating from college in 1929, Wilcox remained in Chicago, hoping to become a writer. He followed Stein’s career closely and attended her lecture “Poetry and Grammar” which she delivered at the University of Chicago in November, 1934; the following spring, he attended the four additional lectures she read when she returned to the university. His reputation as a student of Stein and modernism prompted Thornton Wilder, then professor of dramatic literature and classics at the University of Chicago, to invite Wilcox to participate, with thirty selected students, in a series of ten conferences with Stein.
When Stein left Chicago, Wilcox s interest in her writing did not dampen. For her part. Stein was sorry to leave America, which she considered the center of modernist writing. Having gotten on well together in Chicago, Stein and Wilcox began to correspond shortly after Stein returned to Paris in 1955. Wilcox was anxious to receive further instruction from Stein, who, in turn, wanted to be kept current in the dynamic of American culture. She was very admiring of his letters: “My dear Wendell, Your letters are the best letters of all the many letters that I have as letters, Gtrde. ”
As will he seen. Stein went to great lengths to locate a publisher for Wilcox, although it was not until the final years of her life that Wilcox began to enjoy some commercial success with his fiction. His stories began to appear in The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and CoWict’s, as well as in the smaller, regional journals which had been publishing his fiction since the early thirties. He was awarded an 0. Henry Prize in 1944 for “The Pleasures of Travel,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, and his work was often included in Edward J. O’Brien ’s Best American Short Stories series. Finally, in 1945, to Stein’s delight, Wilcox’s novel Everything is Quite All Right was accepted by Bernard Ackerman Company.
After Stein’s death, Wilcox published very little, although he continued to write, supporting his work with an assortment of jobs. His wife Esther was a librarian. Finally, Wilcox settled in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he worked as an archivist at the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina. He died in 1981.
The Stein-Wilcox correspondence is collected in the Beinecke library at Yale University. Philip Galanes, the compiler and arranger of this exchange, was referred to the letters during his freshman year at the University of North Carolina. He was in the course of researching a paper on modernism.
None of the Stein letters, all of which are hand-written, were dated, but Wilcox kept Stein’s original envelopes.