Sketch by Tom Hachtman
Wouldn’t you know that the New York Review of Books wouldn’t pass up the chance to feed into the urban legend claiming that Stein really meant it when she quipped that Hitler ought to have the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1934.
The NYRB reviewed The Steins Collect, the traveling exhibition that finally reached the East shores at the end of February, opening at the NY Metropolitan Museum. 11 months in the running, one would imagine that reviewers had time to get acquainted with the show and its topic, gather correct information about Gertrude Stein and her siblings, about the Stein controversy (also in the running for 11 months), and that maybe even read some Gertrude Stein. The NYRB assigned the task to Michael Kimmelman, professor of architecture, who repeats and makes mistakes that are typical for someone coming to the task out of the blue.
“More than a hundred books” about Stein "in the past decade or so"? Sorry, the academic count is some 30 books and 70 dissertations.
If you present new books about and by Gertrude Stein, how can you mention Ida: A Novel and not know or leave out the more eminent new critical edition of Stanzas in Meditation, by the same Yale University Press?
Mr. Kimmelman states: “Michael and Sarah, husband and wife, … created a salon of their own on the rue de Fleurus.”
Excuse me, but there was only one salon on that rue, and that was Gertrude and Leo’s at 27 rue de Fleurus! Michael and Sarah’s rival salon was in the rue Madame, a fact that looms large in the exhibition. How to get something this basic wrong, you may wonder.
And do you wonder, then, what Mr. Kimmelman knows about Stein and Hitler?He reports: “’Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize,’ she meanwhile told The New York Times Magazine in 1934, and alas, she apparently meant it.”
Here we go again.
The lack of reading Stein, the apparent misreading of an obvious, cutting irony, the failure to explore the matter – what else is new? I have commented on it repeatedly, but the urban legend will last as long as critics like Mr. Kimmelman and colleagues review Gertrude Stein. What is the information the critic bases this on? Janet Malcolm and her (according to Mr. Kimmelman) “excellent” book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice? But Malcolm, mean-spirited as she loves to be, accords Stein her famous irony. So we can pinpoint the culprit. Mr. Kimmelman has read another book about Stein, he really has: Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration!
As I said before: Will uses highly speculative language to make her case against Stein. The great majority of Stein critics, biographers and academic experts have agreed about this obvious irony (which I see as a prime example of Jewish humor), and Will at first admits it, too. But then she twists it in her wily, willful way: She muses: “Stein probably wanted her audience to respond in both ways…” She claims there is “a strong element of conviction and intentionality in such pronouncements, as though she requires – indeed demands –that her words be taken literally.” She denies Stein’s sarcastic humor by arguing, “her political ‘pontifications’ are not clearly ironic but apparently deeply felt.” (all quotes page 71-72). Are we to take this sort of language – “probably wanted,” “as though she requires, indeed demands,” “apparently” as clean, academic scholarship? To my reading eyes, this language is an obvious manipulation of the reader. Apparentlythe author has no argument, no evidence, and neither, alas, does Mr. Kimmelman.
In order to explore these matters again in greater detail than I did in the Los Angeles Review of Books and in my blog posts, I have summed up my studies of the Stein controversy of the last 11 months in an essay for the newly republished magazine Trivia: Voices of Feminism.
If you are interested in the urban legend being debunked, here is your chance!
Here Gertrude Stein fiction is decoded. The detective story,
Tinker Tailor Soldier Stein
is to be continued.