An impossible success

BY Jeff Solomon
special To

“The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas” was published in 1933, an unpromising year for a biography of a lesbian partnership: a year that saw the height of the worldwide Great Depression, the ascendance of the Nazis in Europe, and the consolidation of the restriction of personal freedom that followed the 1920s. Nonetheless, the memoir and its author quickly became not only an international bestseller but also a focus of broad cultural interest.

The Autobiography was initially printed in a run of 5,400 by Harcourt Brace & Company, the first of Stein’s publishers with enough money to invest substantially in advertising and publicity. The official publication date was in September 1933, though reports of the specific day vary. What matters is that the first edition sold out before its official publication. In part, this was due to “The Atlantic Monthly”, which published more than half of the memoir in its May, June, July, and August issues. Since 1919, Stein had waged a strenuous campaign to be published in “The Atlantic”, which during her youth was a strong contender for the most prestigious journal in the country and had great influence on intellectual culture. Though “The Atlantic” had waned by 1933, the journal remained associated with the cultural elite, and its contributors deserved respect and attention.

In July, “The Autobiography” was also a main selection of the Literary Guild, a popular book-of-the-month club that published editions of new books for subscribers. The Literary Guild was a mass-market venture that made money through its own prestige, which had to be sufficient to reassure middlebrow consumers that selections were both “classy” and respectable. The guild’s business model forbade it from recommending works that would shock mainstream America in form or content. That both “The Atlantic” and the Literary Guild—one at the high end of middlebrow, and one at the low—published “The Autobiography” early proves their confidence in its mainstream appeal. This confidence was rewarded not only by sales but also by reviews of the memoir, which were excellent, by far the best of Stein’s career.

“The Autobiography’s” success was reflected and heightened by the September 11 issue of “TIME” magazine, which featured Stein on the cover. A second printing of 2,000 would be struck in 1933, as would a British edition; and a third printing of 2,500 copies would be struck in 1934, as was a French edition. All the while, Stein stayed fixed in the public eye. In February 1934, her and Virgil Thomson’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, opened on Broadway to both success and acclaim. Stein herself went on the road for a well-received lecture tour of the United States in 1934 and 1935, with an audience that extended past the usual suspects to embrace the general public. As sales kept exceeding expectations, The Autobiography’s fourth printing, of 1,500 copies, was struck in 1935, as well as an edition through the Week-End Library, a British book-of-the-month club. In short, Gertrude Stein and her work, for years an embodiment of the avant-garde, if not the lunatic fringe, were accepted, popular, and, if not conventional, then at least applauded by those who were.

Surprisingly, this middle-class acceptability and mass-market fame were associated with a blatant manifestation of lesbian erotics and love. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” links Stein and Toklas in its title, offers photographs of the women at home, relates decades of their domestic life, and clarifies the women’s sexual connection. True, Stein neither names their homosexuality nor shows the women in bed together, but such naming and showing are also absent from concurrent memoirs of straight couples. The Autobiography contains the usual markers of a memoir of extended intimacy and love: both the sense that life before the women met was a preamble, and casual asides that, in a memoir of a heterosexual couple, would be understood as signs of a marital contract, if perhaps not a legal one. Consider the following, usually cited in relation to Stein’s cocky flourish of her genius, but which is even more aggressive in her flaunting of her relationship with Toklas. The “I,” as throughout, is Stein writing as Toklas:

Before I decided to write this book my twenty-five years with Gertrude Stein, I had often said that I would write, The wives of geniuses I have sat with. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were real geniuses. I have sat with real wives of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses. (14)

“Toklas” parallels herself at length and in detail with other wives. If Toklas is a wife, then Stein is a husband and Stein and Toklas are coupled—and their coupling is parallel to the bond of other husbands and wives. Nevertheless, many readers put themselves in the dark, or if they could see, pretended not to. Such blindness does not change the fact that The Autobiography put a lesbian relationship in plain sight.

The Autobiography completes Gertrude Stein’s ascension as the only lesbian writer before the women’s movement (1) who enjoyed mass-market success, (2) earned a canonic perch, (3) wrote works with gay and lesbian content and a queer aesthetic, and (4) was easily identifiable throughout her career as lesbian by those primed by subcultural knowledge or their own sexual dissent. How did Stein achieve such singularity? Why was she acceptable to the mass market at all? Stein was unmarried when marriage was expected, financially independent when women properly depended on men, obviously Jewish when anti-Semitism was routine, expatriate when “abroad” was suspect, and androgynous, if not masculine, as she flouted hegemonic standards of beauty with her large and aggressively uncorseted frame. Independently, these attributes might have elicited disgust and censure. For many, they did. Why, then, was Stein so popular?

. James Agee, “Stein’s Way,” TIME, September 11, 1933, 57–60; Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts, libretto, music by Virgil Thomson (New York: Random House, 1934).
. Gertrude Stein, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Tokla”s (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933), 97–98.
. “Gertrude Stein Dies in France, 72,” New York Times, July 28, 1946. Stein’s grades are drawn from Linda Wagner-Martin, “Favored Strangers”: Gertrude Stein and Her Family (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 36. “Normal Motor Automatism” (1896) may be found in Gertrude Stein and Leon M. Solomons, Motor Automatism (New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1969).
. Stein, “The Autobiography”, 98. Llewellys F. Barker cites Stein in “The Nervous System and Its Constituent Neurones” (New York: Appleton, 1899), 721, 725, 875.
. “The Autobiography”, 102.
. See Wagner-Martin 51–52.
. Florence Sabin, a Jewish woman who was at Johns Hopkins the year before Stein, became a noted chemist. See Brenda Wineapple, “Brother/Sister: Gertrude and Leo Stein” (New York: Putnam, 1996): 127.

Jeff Solomon is assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University.He is the author of So Famous, So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein

Excerpted from So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein by Jeff Solomon.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2017 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission.

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