What is a rose?

(Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The myth of Gertrude Stein has perhaps eclipsed the reality of the woman. She is so closely associated with her rarified cultural scene that when we refer to Stein, we are also referencing, in shorthand, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The extensive literary name-dropping of Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris and its subsequent commercial success are emblematic of the relationship that most cultured people have with Stein: blind admiration. Her mystique is compounded by the fact that while Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby continue to be mainstays of high school curricula and American literature syllabi, Stein’s own work is comparatively little-read. Stein’s reputation is thoroughly established but both her personal character and the character of her writing are oddly hard to pin down.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is uniquely capable of providing insight into Stein, thanks to its possession of her collected works. Unfortunately, the exhibit “Descriptions of Literature: Texts and Contexts in the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers,” which opened Oct. 8 and runs through Dec. 14, is largely unhelpful in revealing much of anything at all. The exhibition aims to provide a variety of resources for the Stein devotee, but its displays have evidently limited thematic interests.

Some of the more interesting displays give us a selection of Stein’s books for children. Stein’s obsession with the possibilities of language, and her association with the art scene, both seem to suggest a realm of exciting possibilities for her children’s literature. Unfortunately, for the most part the books are kept closed, so I can’t tell you if they are as exciting as they potentially could be. When I read about the never-realized children’s book Stein planned to write with Picasso illustrations in her letters, I was exhilarated by the possibility—but of course here again, neither the exhibit curator nor I can help but identify Stein in the context of her friends and collaborators. The myth of Stein remains oddly impenetrable.

The second, larger focus of the exhibit attempts to delve deeper into the psyches of both Stein and her companion and lover, Alice B. Toklas. Early this year, the Yale University Press released definitive editions of Stein’s novel, Ida and her collection of poems, Stanzas in Meditation. The new edition of Stanzas, boldly subtitled “The Corrected Edition,” was edited on the basis of new research that suggests that the word “may” was systematically removed from the text of the work and replaced with “can.” The exhibit goes to great lengths to show the extent of these edits, presenting its audience with sheets of manuscript paper, the typewritten “may” crossed out and replaced with “can.” The explanation offered for this revision borders on the absurd: May was the nickname of Mary Bookstaver, Stein’s first love. Toklas, after learning of May’s existence decades after Stein last saw her, insisted that every mention of her nickname be stricken from the text.

While this story lends a certain pulpy flavor to my own image of Stein and her sexuality, as the effective centerpiece of an exhibit it seems remarkably flimsy. What does this anecdote have to say about the force of the prose that surrounded those mays, or the genius that wrote them? Very little, save that she had a jealous lover. The self-congratulatory display card that informed me that the new edition of Stanzas in Meditation has had all its mays restored seems indicative of the kind of small-minded scholarship that this portion of the exhibit fetishizes. Stein was, I can only assume, very aware of the many times the word “can” appeared in her published text. If she had wanted it another way, I imagine she would have made it so.

Ultimately, the most interesting parts of the exhibit are the smallest ones, tucked away between more prominent and largely insignificant artifacts. For instance, Stein’s letter to an early publisher, urging him not to change her punctuation even once despite its irregularities, seems far more meaningful to who she was and what she wrote than any number of ink-stained manuscripts. She is clear, direct, and forceful in that letter. Reading it, one can imagine how this woman created Paris’s foremost salon.

The exhibit is poorly planned out and oddly executed, with some letters and objects placed apparently at random. That’s a pity; there’s a lot more to know about Stein than a rose is a rose is a rose. Maybe she created a myth too compelling, too pithy and witty and ensconced in fame, for us to be able to get past it. Certainly, this exhibition could not.

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