GERTRUDE STEIN HAS ARRIVED
In 1933-34, just after Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to great acclaim, the writer and her faithful companion went on a celebratory tour of the United States. Although Gertrude was born in Oakland and Alice in San Francisco, neither had been in America for roughly three decades. Their trip was a rollicking success. Gertrude gave scheduled lectures several times each week, while Alice kept track of the luggage and logistics. Roy Morris Jr. tells the story of that grand tour in Gertrude Stein Has Arrived, fittingly subtitled “The Homecoming of a Literary Legend,” an engaging study of where the travelers went and what they did along the way.
Morris’ book is a winning blend of scholarship and wit. He meticulously notes the content of the lectures, the places the two women visited, and the array of people they met at every turn. Just as important, he catches the gossipy flavor of their American adventures. Morris not only quotes liberally from Gertrude and Alice’s personal observations, but his own writing captures the essence of the way each one communicated. The observations as they peer from train windows and over the wings of three-seater airplanes, their enthusiasms and disdains, the rhythms and cadences of their speech. Reading Gertrude Stein Has Arrived sometimes felt like an immersion into a newly-discovered Gertrude Stein novel, so adroitly has Morris caught the flavor of her intellectual pathways (and Alice’s, too).
Reading Morris’ book also feels like opening a Who’s Who of American arts and letters in the early 1930s. Gertrude and Alice’s conversations ricochet from Dorothy Parker to Robert Hutchins, from Sherwood Anderson to Katharine Cornell, from Bennett Cerf to Eleanor Roosevelt, from Thornton Wilder to Anita Loos, from Charlie Chaplin to Mabel Dodge Luhan, from Joseph Alsop to Gertrude Atherton, from one luminary to another as the couple travels from New York to the Midwest, back to New England, into the Deep South, and on to California before returning home. And yes, their travels do feel like a run-on sentence, in the very best sense of that literary device.
I haven’t read any Gertrude Stein for years, so I found it great fun to delve into the particulars of this enjoyable journey. Students of Stein most often focus on the French connections—her early passion for collecting the paintings of modernists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and her endless soirees with famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gertrude Stein Has Arrived takes a different approach, setting her down in a fresh milieu and sharing her distinctly American voice with a new generation of readers. Morris also describes a distinctly American terrain, not only from the air and from trains but also as seen from rental cars and long walks in all sorts of wet and wintry weather. Along the way, Gertrude and Alice stayed in such iconic hotels as the Algonquin in New York, the Drake in Chicago, the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, and many private homes. Returning to France after their adventures are over, the couple even laughs at the shabbiness of France, by comparison. Thus Morris stresses the American-ness of travels and their subsequent insights.
I admit that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are acquired tastes, but Gertrude Stein Has Arrived will amuse every reader. Well-researched, well-written, a bit quirky, and just plain fun, I would summarize Morris’ book by saying, there definitely is a there there. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Roy Morris, Jr.: Fraud of the Century, Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876; Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company; Lighting Out for the Territory, How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain; Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde in North America; The Better Angel, Walt Whitman in the Civil War; Sheridan, The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan; The Long Pursuit; Marine Corps Mustang
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