The Crimson Bookshelf
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TORLAS, by Gertrude Stein, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1933. $3.50.
PERHAPS it is a testament to the intellectual vitality of Gertrude Stein that no one has thus far been able to chart her titanic course through the letters of our time. She is herself inimical to critics, and one of her strongest aphorisms insists that the artist stands in need of appreciation, but never of criticism. This has been sufficient to deter many of the faculty; Sherwood Anderson, most apt among her pupils, stylizes, and Ernest Hemingway, imitates, her. In "Axel's Castle," Mr. Edmund Wilson makes some attempt to isolate her peculiar position in the Symbolist movement; he quotes, he explains a poem. But her personal development glimmers through his words with an agonizing inconstancy that is almost caprice. The spirit of Gertrude Stein has been caught most surely in the plastic arts with which she has so deep an affinity; she comes to us most directly through the portrait of Picasso and the dominating clay of Jo Davidson.
Most figures in the literature of our day can be captured among their own certain group of associations, can be identified with a single technique of expression, and a single intellectual basis. But Gertrude Stein, seemingly the most ponderous and immobile of them, has really covered the most ground. In this, her autobiography, she reverts to the limpid, nerveless style which served for the earliest of her books. Not since "Three Lives" has she been so willing to chain herself to the actual meaning of words, to limit her scope so soberly to the common associations which they bring. It was an axiom of the schools that with "The Making of Americans". Gertrude Stein had set out boldly and forever to the promised land where words have other more intimate values; yet in the short stories written in her pre-war days in Paris she must certainly have dispatched this facile critical theory. Miss Furr and Miss Skeene might have been written, for its directness and economy, by the Gertrude Stein of Radcliffe and William James. Upon this many of the apologists of her poetry and more characteristic prose have fastened; "But Gertrude Stein can write the most delicate conventional prose; she is not always this."
Through all the irrelevance of this apology, through all that has been said and thought of her, one clear fact emerges: each of her books has been a landmark, although on many different courses, and each of them offers, along with her tract "How To Write," a sufficient support for its own art. Many individual pieces are partially meaningless to us; no one person has made his own every facet of her achievement. That their logic is architectoric rather than progressive may make critical formulae inadequate but cannot serve as a serious challenge to the work itself.
Her autobiography, published by an orthodox house and energetically advertised, should be the most popular of her books. It tells her story from Radcliffe to the present. It is bristling with intimate anecdotes of those artistic figures. Pleasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, who have most captured the hearts and imaginations of our time. Gertrude Stein moves with them; she knows the details of their domestic storms, the conflicts in their theories, the histories of their thousand small concerns and enmities; she brings the Katzenjammer Kids to Pablo Pleasso and Fernandes; when they separate the comic strip unites them. And she also knows the story of their art, their deep incommunicable struggles and problems: she is like the world, always with them, and, unlike the world, humorously alcof.
The deep, rich humor is the mark which separates Gertrude Stein from the stretches of the lunatic fringe. For her there is no working hour camaraderic in the lusty tradition of Murger; none of the careless, raptural inspiration of his Rodolfo. When the doors of 27 Rue de Fleurus are locked and the last villager has gone; in those sweet hours between midnight and dawn, when even Alice B. Toklas is abed, work, stern and serious, is the portion of Gertrude Stein.