Gertrude Stein & Co.: an imposed agenda

July 09, 1995|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to The Sun

"Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family," by Linda Wagner-Martin. Rutgers University Press. 346 pages. $34.94

Does anything remain to be said about modernist writer Gertrude Stein, her lesbian relationship with Alice Toklas and her '20s Paris salon on the rue de Fleurus? In what purports to be a biography of Stein and her family, particularly her mentor brother, the art collector and critic Leo, Linda Wagner-Martin, a professor at the University of North Carolina, promises to reveal Stein as daughter and sister. Alas, we glimpse little of what Leo meant to Gertrude in their youth, or how their break affected her.

The best part of "Favored Strangers" is the picture of the young Gertrude Stein garnering A's from Hugo Munsterberg and George Santayana and becoming William James' favorite pupil at the "Harvard Annex." Readers will enjoy viewing Stein in her Ford driving supplies all over France during the First World War, Alice by her side.

What mars Wagner-Martin's book is its heavy-handed feminist agenda. Lacquering '80s jargon onto early 20th century life, Ms. Wagner-Martin insists that Stein suffered from "sexual harassment" at Johns Hopkins medical school from "conventional (male) physicians." Yet it seems clear that she flunked out only because she didn't do her homework.

Although Stein seized for herself a fine education and lived as a free woman, Ms. Wagner-Martin calls her education "disadvantaged." She prefers to see Stein as a victim of the "patriarchy," a "society that imposes its rule over women's lives."

To fit the current feminist model, Ms. Wagner-Martin suggests with scant evidence that both Stein and Toklas were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Heralding Stein as a feminist savior, she makes a spurious claim for Stein's sympathy for "women's voices." At least in the case of young Kay Boyle, Stein was haughty and decidedly unwelcoming. Vulgarisms like "the macho Picasso and his buddies" are jarring. The cliche "gender-based" passes for an idea.

"Favored Strangers" feels rushed. Its errors reveal that Ms. Wagner-Martin didn't immerse herself sufficiently in the period. Harold Loeb is called in one place "an" editor of "Broom," in another "the" editor. It was his magazine. The Dayang (misspelled) Muda of Sarawak wasn't "visiting" Paris when she met Stein; she lived there. Stein did not talk "with Lillian Hellman and Hammett" at Lillian Ehrman's dinner; she didn't say one word to Hellman, focusing entirely on Hammett. Nor did she and Hammett become "friends."

If a biographer's role is, in part, to offer some perspective, Ms. Wagner-Martin fails there as well. Offering little insight into Stein's political development, she rationalizes away as "naive" her accommodations to Vichy during World War II (Stein translated and wrote an introduction to Marshal Petain's speeches and then asked Bennett Cerf to publish them. Cerf refused indignantly). Facile asides unconvincingly substitute for analysis: "with Janet Flanner, she worried over the outcomes of the Nuremberg trials," whatever that means.

Even aficionados of '20s Paris would do well to pass on this one. And when will academic writers relinquish the unpleasant mannerism of using "privilege" as a verb?

Joan Mellen treated Paris in the '20s in her recent biography, "Kay Boyle: Author of Herself" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Her dual biography, "Hammett and Miss Hellman," will be published next year by HarperCollins.

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