The Fleetness of Stein
The letters of Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein consist of two genius-level intelligences exchanging information — praise, guilt, happiness, confusion — from deeply different literary perspectives. The two first met when Stein was promoting her novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in Chicago, returning to America after 30 years in Paris. Stein was 60, Wilder 37.
It is Stein whose private writing appears more congruous with her published work. In contrast, the closeted Wilder experiments with Stein's language play here in a way he never managed to in his plays or novels. Stein's letters may constitute the more electric art, but Wilder's writing to Stein can be said to comprise a greater revelation. In these letters from the 30s, both artists were in a similar place in their lives, dealing with the onset of notoriety resulting from public attention to their work, and trying to remain true to an artistic vision. If nothing else, Thornton Wilder was better at telegrams than any man who ever lived.
January 23th 1935
My dear Thornton,
I am writing some little short things about newspaper writing and Detective story writing and I think of you, I am full of meditation about narrative and how it can be written and every solution is a solution and I think of you. That is really what I want the course to be our course, just to find out how narratives should be written are written can be written may be written, it kind of worries me how they were written have been written worries me less but this other thing does worry me, quite a lot it worries me and sometimes I know and mostly I don't know and I think of you both ways I think of you, I am now writing about American education, well anyway I do think of you, and it is nice to think of you, here in New England as well as elsewhere.
Lots of love
Thornton sent along the following telegram shortly thereafter:
DON'T LET MY WORDS CONSTITUTE UNJUSTIFIED PRESSURE BUT I RECOMMEND THE INVITATION OF BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE A LIVE LITTLE EXPERIMENTAL COLLEGE THAT HAS LONG READ YOUR WORK BUT IF YOU ARE ECONOMIZING ENERGY DISREGARD THIS WIRE EXCEPT ITS LAST WORDS VIZ THAT I SIMMER IN HAPPY ANTICIPATION
February 14th 1935
My dearest Thornton,
Why did we not hear about Black Mountain College before, it looks like a perfectly heavenly place and their account of themselves most amusing but now we are in Charleston and every moment we are taken, we could have gone from Chapel Hill which was already a place we liked immensely, but anyway every place left out is an inducement to come back and that is the way we are beginning to feel about it, I guess we are going to be awful lonesome in France, anyway that is the way we are beginning to feel about it. We get to Chicago around the 25th and I do want to talk everything over with you, now that the time is approaching I am getting a little nervous about just what I want to do, and now about our plans. Do you want us to go straight to your flat when we get to Chicago, your flat being of course our flat as we are arriving a few days before the first and what is the address of that flat so that we may have a trunk forwarded from New York, you will be getting a lot of mail for us which I hope is not being a bother. Our address in New Orleans is the Hotel Roosevelt, so will let you know about all that there, we are still enjoying it all immensely, which is very nice of it.
Lots of love and everybody loves you, and somebody just told us that a sister is just like you, which must be nice for the sister
April 2nd 1935
PLEASE FORGIVE DELAY IN ANSWERING HAD AN ODD LITTLE UNIMPORTANT NERVOUS BREAKDOWN PERFECTLY RECOVERED WE ARE REMEMBERING THE GREATNESS OF YOUR VISIT LOVE TO BOTH
Stein's white poodle is the Basket mentioned here, and Pepe was their Chihuahua.
June 8th 1935
My dear Thornton,
Yes you shall and will stay where you like as you like as long as you like and wherever you like, but I think at your date at any of your dates we will be free and so glad to see you, there has not been much sunshine so far, there are nightingales and it is pretty and by the time you come there will be sunshine and so please us and please everybody, yes certainly correct the lectures if you will be so kind that is the proofs I want awfully to see the introduction in print not having seen it otherwise so do whatever you want to do about it, I have almost begun my new work, not really but almost, it remains the geographical history of America with the subtitle the relation of human nature to the human mind, which of course allows me anything and is once more to be the history of the Universe that is our universe, I feel that necessity coming over me again, it is necessity, but I am hesitating to begin but begin it will, and go on it will at least it will, their wills a bouquet, that was always a favorite work of mine, of mine, and some day you will have them play it in Chicago, you see I am beginning, and it will be nice seeing you and we liked your grandparents, it is not a confusion, although it might have been if it so completely had not, so any date you set will do, really and truly do, because Alice and I love you very much and Basket and Pepe will too, in part you might say they already do, too
On July 16th of 1935, Wilder wrote to his new friends that "I can no longer conceal from you two that I love you and am looking forward like a madman to gazing into your beautiful eyes. At the heart of love lies the consciousness of the fleetness of time."
October 7th 1935
SPLENDID BEAUTIFUL FASCINATING DEVOTEDLY
Thornton felt overstressed during his time in Vienna. His recollection of his meeting with Freud is truly a wonder to behold.
October 14th 1935
So I shall see the Rue de Fleurus at last and my friends in it. And the pictures around them.
I still don't know when. I beg you not to change your plans one jot — because I can come to you in either place perfect well. I still haven't the faintest notion when I'm leaving here. There's so much in town here that vexes me, the kind assiduities of authors, playwright and stage directors — such phone-calls, such as When can I talk to you about New York, and Perhaps you can tell me which are the best literary agents. Such meetings in cafe-houses. The way strangers call up and ask for an appointment is the limit. And even if I were hard as nails about putting them off what can I do, if at social gatherings everybody wants to make an engagement for a good long talk, freighted with self-interest.
Excuse all this self-pity.
There are compensations. Prof Freud was told that I had expressed (under pressure, but certainly true) a wish to see him, and he asked to go yesterday at 4:15 to his villa in Grinzing. I was all alone with him for an hour and a half, and it was fine. He's seventy nine. He talked of many things: "I don't do anything any more ... loss of interest ... satiety ... impotence."
"The poet we call Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford...the sonnets are addressed to Wriothesley who was about to marry Oxford's daughter when Oxford fell in love with him himself." "I could not read your latest book ... I threw it away. Why should you treat of an American fanatic; that cannot be treated poetically."
"My sister-in-law admires your Cabala the most; I do not think so." (One of the characters makes a slighting reference to Freud in it!)
"I am no seeker after God. I come of an unbroken line of infidel Jews. My father was a Voltairean. My mother was pious, and until 8 I was pious — but one day my father took me out for a walk in the Prater — I can remember it perfectly and explained to me that there was no way that we could know there was a God; that it didn't do any good to trouble one's head about such; but to live and do one's duty among one's fellow men."
"But I like gods" and he pointed to handsome cases and cases full of images — Greek, Chinese, African, Egyptian — hundreds of images!
"No, my work did not require any particular intellectual gifts - many people could have done it - the quality I had was courage. I was alone, and every discovery I made required courage. Yes, the courage to publish it, but first the courage to think it, to think along that line."
"Just these last week I have formulated a new definition for religion." He stated it and I said I had gathered it already from the close of Totem and Tabu.
"Yes," he said, "it is there, but it is not expressed. Hitherto I have said that religion is an illusion; now I say it has a truth — it has an historical truth. Religion is the recapitulation and the solution of the problems of one's first four years that have been covered over by an amnesia."
"No, I am as unmusical as I am unphilosophic."
"My daughter Anna will be so sorry to have missed you. You can come again? She is older than you — you do not have to be afraid. She is a sensible, reasonable girl. You are not afraid of women? She is a sensible — no nonsense about her. Are you married, may I ask?" !!!
Really a beautiful old man.
What a lucky boy am I. My cup runneth over.
Stein writes her friend a Christmas letter.
December 25th 1935
My dear Thornton,
Every day a letter to you and it is a pleasure to me and I guess a pleasure to you, I am afraid Bennett Cerf is in a mess, too bad he was made to be happy and if you are made to be happy it does not come easy not to be. I have just written them to right away send you the ms. and so if you don't get it will you call them up and after you have it why do what you like with it, having showed it to them I have no further publishing obligations, just had a charming telegram from Woollcott, he sort of replaces Mildred Aldrich in our life a necessary thing to have in one's life, Basket and Pepe had a Christmas dinner, much appreciated, Pepe slept through the lighted crèche but Basket was sweetly sentimental, Alice says that is because Pepe is more honest, well anyway we love you a lot and may it be a glad new year, and we do love you a lot,
Gtrde and Alice
Stein reported in a March 6th letter of next year that "Pepe the other day slept 26 hours out of the 24, he said what is the use, Basket goes out with me and comes home and sneezes, Pepe and Alice cuddle each other to keep warm." Wilder wrote Stein in April but after that not until June, when he wrote her and Alice (he often called them by the one word name "Twain") that "my brusqueness in this making my apologies doesn't mean that I'm not truly contrite; it merely means that I don't like discussing my everpresent shabby irresponsibility, and that I want to hurry on and talk of happier things."
July 8th 1936
My dearest Thornton,
Yes we are xcited, and you are funny, Alice and I laughed a lot, I am pleased on the whole that you are giving up the University of Chicago for a bit and going to Hollywood, I wish we could be there together, it would be fun, listen Thornton, could they do The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas at Hollywood, that might make a lovely film, I do not know what makes lovely films but that might and they could shoot the background here and in Paris and we could be taken in Hollywood including the puppies Basket and Pepe and we would have enough money to make a leisurely trip across the continent and the Mississippi valley taking on a college boy for the more difficult driving and then we could have an installation in Washington Square and go to and fro for ever. Do you think there is anything in it, I am not just perfectly sure there isn't, and I have done a new chapter bringing Picasso up to date and it's pretty good.
I'd love you to put us on the Hollywood map, but don't think about it twice only perhaps there is something in it.
All that about money was to clear my mind about that chapter romanticism and money and I finally got it right, in a last one, which perhaps they will not buy beginning with it is funny about money. And then going on about man and animals ending with but the thing no animal can do is count, and the thing no animal can know is money and so long as the earth turns around there will be men on it and they will count and they will count money. The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey the king was in his counting house counting out his money, counting is funny. And then it goes on I think I am getting it clear and then I have to do more about romanticism, as they are going to have a revolution in France I may find out more about that, well anyway, I hope Detroit is a success, I love to be a success, and I love to have all of them be a success along of me, I like that, oh how I do like that and you do not mention it but I guess you have sent the ms. to Random House by now, they are going to do a volume of selected selections in the Modern Library next spring, putting in all the things of mine that make a volume, if you have suggestions will you, but perhaps oh certainly we will see you before then. France is sad, hard xcited just a little lifeless and sad and the weather is rotten but we love you oh how we love you all of us
Thornton was planning a trip to Los Angeles that never materialized that year because of the death of Irving Thalberg four days after this letter was mailed.
September 10th 1936
My dear Thornton,
I just read in this morning's paper that Wodehouse says they give him $104,000 for doing nothing at Hollywood they keep him there but they do not use what they ask him to do, now that would just suit us fine, we want a payed which is à la mode here now, and of course we are not valuable like he is, but for considerable less we would write dialogue and titles that they do not want to use, not at all do we insist they use our works printed or unprinted not at all, we just want to run around and do nothing and be payed largely for it, that is as everything they do not want, it is a pleasant xtravagance and we are just pining for pleasant xtravagance, so keep your eyes and ears open, if they want us we will come, we would love to be payed largely and we are kind of tired of just staying here besides it is coming too high to live in Europe like that, we are nutting in the woods and then Alice makes cakes of the nuts, which is a pleasant life too, but a paid vacation and it might be with you dear Thornton and lots of love
This is the first in a series. You can purchase the collected letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder here.
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