"The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder," edited by Edward M. Burns and Ulla E. Dydo with William Rice. Yale University Press. 436 pages. $35.
It would be difficult to find two authors whose works diverge more in style and structure than Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein. Wilder's limpid, engaging prose and accessible story lines often mask his works' depth and critics too easily dismiss him as a popularizer of great ideas. Gertrude Stein assembled streams of laborious, repetitive sentences into lengthy meditations on a few recurrent themes. Her writing's inaccessibility merely increased the mystique that enshrouded her larger-than-life persona.
Wilder and Stein met in 1934 when she was on a nationwide lecture tour and he a lecturer at the University of Chicago. Their friendship was immediate and an effusive, if intermittent, correspondence was launched. Professors Burns and Dydo have gathered the letters they exchanged until Stein's death in 1946.
The 60-year-old Stein and the 37-year-old Wilder were both struggling with newly found fame in the early 1930s. Although Stein had been known for decades as an eccentric expatriate art collector, she became a celebrity with her act of literary ventriloquism in "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." Wilder had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his first novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," and was in great demand as a speaker throughout the country.
Their worries about the corrosive, distracting effects of fame and the effects of an audience on an artist's creations dominate the early letters and recur regularly throughout their correspondence. In his condolence letter to Stein's companion Alice Toklas, Wilder is still fretting about the impurity of "all those audience-activities - 'articles,' letter-writing, and conversation."
In a 1928 lecture, Wilder had compared himself unfavorably to the great letter writers of the past. "Your letters and mine," he explained, "are messages to friends and we do them as well as we can to please the friends." And what a lot of pleasing there is in "The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder": silly nicknames, flattery, cajoling, protestations of love and eternal devotion. The treacle often runs so deep that readers would certainly suffocate in the sticky sweetness were it not for long stretches of arid footnote.
The editors have tried, through tireless research, exposition, and masses of minutiae, to turn these pleasing messages into significant documents. They explain much that is not mentioned or not clear in the letters - and much that is. In fact, footnotes and appendices make up the majority of the book. And yet, despite massive annotation, the editors' claims are unfulfilled. The letters do not dramatize the inner workings of creative influence. They do shed light on the authors' personalities: Wilder's eagerness to please, his hunger for approval, and his heroic efforts to promote Stein's work; Stein's self-absorption and complacent demands of veneration.
And yet, as the letters show, these are the very elements they struggled to transcend in their writing. This is not how they would have preferred to be remembered.
Tess Lewis is an essayist and critic whose work regularly appears in national newspapers and reviews. She received her masters degree in English Language and Literature from Oxford University and a bachelor's degree in English and German literature from Notre Dame.
Pub Date: 1/05/97