Issue 116, Fall 1990
In 1934, Gertrude Stein returned to America after thirty-one years abroad, to lecture across the country on art and writing. Two weeks after she arrived she flew from New York to Chicago on her first plane ride. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Carl Van Vechten—photographer of celebrities, novelist, popularizer of the Harlem Renaissance, old friend of Stein’s and, not least, old hand at flying—had found it “the bumpiest ride I ever had.” Stein was not at all fazed: “No, there is no sense of height or danger,” she observed, “the air seems solid.”
This was generally Stein’s tone during the entire six-month lecture tour, that of seeing things for the first time, wide-eyed, the way a child can be but an adult is expected to have outgrown. In her own mind she perceived the tour as her great opportunity to persuade Americans to read the daunting pieces of writing she had been producing for the preceding thirty years. If only they would let her writing surprise them, as she let their America surprise her, they would have just as good a time as she was having.
That the tour of America was such an astounding success was perhaps the only thing that did not astonish Stein. It did astonish the newspapermen and women and the pundits who piqued everyone else’s curiosity by their mystification. Thus Gladys Baker reported to her readers in the Birmingham News-Age-Herald: “For the first time in my experience as a New York newspaper correspondent a celebrity has come to America whose right to fame defies analysis. … she has created as great a sensation as would the combined appearance, in their heyday, of Charles Lindbergh, Gene Tunney and ‘Peaches’ Browning.”
“To hear Miss Stein read her own work,” another journalist wrote, “is to understand it—I speak for myself—for the first time. … you see why she writes as she does; you see how from sentence to sentence, which seem so much alike, she introduces differences of tone, or perhaps of accent. And then when you think she has been saying the same thing four or five times, you suddenly know that she has carefully, link by link, been leading you to a new thing.”
Stein did not limit her propaganda campaign to the lectures. She freely trespassed on the journalists’ own terrain. To the New York Herald Tribune she contributed a series of newspaper articles in the spring of 1935 on American states and cities, food and houses, education, crimes and even American newspapers. (Stein knew how to keep the press interested: in an article in the Springfield [Massachusetts] Unionheadlined “Miss Stein Pays Her First Visit to Newspaper Office,” the caption under a photograph of Stein examining some Associated Press dispatches adds: “… and is fascinated by the equipment of a city daily.”) But most unusual perhaps were Stein’s forays into the new media—new at least for her—of radio broadcasting and talking pictures.
What follows is an interview, never before published, with NBC reporter William Lundell, which was conducted on November 12, 1934 on WJZ and NET radio. Stein’s responses, like the questions she was asked, were written out prior to the broadcast.
Coming back to the United States for the first time in thirty-one years, Miss Stein, is there anything in particular which has seized your interest?
Coming back to the United States after thirty-one years everything seizes my interest and seizes it very hard. The buildings in the air and the people on the street they are all exciting and they are and I know it seems a funny thing to say but that is the way they appear to me, they are so gentle, so friendly, so simply direct and so sweet. I feel that way about the people on the street and I feel that way about the buildings in the air. By the way what I feel most about the buildings is the way they come down into the earth more than the way they go up into the air and they do it all so naturally and so simply. But the people on the street never could I have imagined the friendly personal simple direct considerate contact that I have with all of them. They all seem to know me and they all speak to me and I who am easily frightened by anything unexpected find this spontaneous considerate contact with all and any New Yorker touching and pleasing and I am deeply moved and awfully happy in it. I could tell so many incidents but charming as are the incidents it is the unreality of it the gentle pleasant unreality of it that makes my moving about in the street just a pleasure.
Just yesterday Mr. Cerf told me a story in that connection, Miss Stein. After the party given in your honor by Random House and the Modern Library, Mr. Cerf was going down in the elevator and he talked with the elevator boy. The boy said, “You had a big party.” Mr. Cerf replied “Yes, we had a lot of celebrities there. How did it strike you?” The boy said, “Well, I only recognized two of them … Miss Stein and Miriam Hopkins, the movie actress.”
Well, you see the sweet part of that was that we liked each other and asked each other’s advice without really knowing who each other was. But in a way that is a joke because what is extraordinary is that in this the largest city in the world everybody knows me and I feel that I know everybody it is just exactly like the village in France where I spend my summers and where there are 20 families and they all know me and I know all of them. Why even at the football game a little boy came up to me and bowed and said please Miss Stein may I have an autograph. I said how old are you and he said twelve and we were both pleased, then everybody handed me their programs and it was perfectly charming, simply charming. Why when I first arrived off the boat the first evening I took a walk and I wanted an apple and I went into a little fruit store on Sixth Avenue to buy it, and the clerk said how do you do Miss Stein did you have a pleasant trip over.
Your coming to the United States to lecture, Miss Stein, seems to me to imply that there are many people who will be able to comprehend your ideas. The current impression of your work, however, among American people, is founded largely upon the tremendous publicity attained by Four Saints in Three Acts, and although it may seem absurd in them, many American people doubt your ability to speak intelligibly. Just where, then, does Four Saints in Three Acts fit into your scheme of lecturing, which, if it is to be successful, must be at least understandable … which is more than most of us can say for your opera.
Look here, being intelligible is not what it seems, after all all these things are a matter of habit. Take what the newspapers say about what you call the New Deal. If you just know ordinary English you do not have the slightest idea what the newspapers are talking about everybody has their own English and it is only a matter of anybody getting used to an English anybody’s English and then it is all right. After all when you say they do not understand Four Saints what do you mean, of course they understand or they would not listen to it. You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have the habit of talking … putting it in other words … but I mean by understanding enjoyment. If you go to a football game you don’t have to understand it in any way except the football way and all you have to do with Four Saints is to enjoy it in the Four Saints way which is the way I am, otherwise I would not have written it in that way. Don’t you see what I mean? If you enjoy it you understand it, and lots of people have enjoyed it so lots of people have understood it. You see that is what my lectures are to be. They are to be a simple way of telling everybody this thing, that if you enjoy it you understand it and so if I am telling them this about why my punctuation is, why my so-called repetition is, what my prose is and what my poetry is and what my plays are and what my English literature is and what my pictures are and I am telling them all this simply as I tell everything you will see, they will understand it because they enjoy it.