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October 2012

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"Dear Gertrude Stein..."

While Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris re-opened the door to Gertrude Stein in a popular way, he did so without really nailing her and he, like everyone who truly cares about the legacy of this Modernist, has missed the significance of an American G. I. named Christopher Blake, who, by the Steiny Road Poet's recent research at Yale University's Beinecke Library, was clearly Stein's last protégé. What the Steiny Poet is saying is, Allen missed his opportunity to talk to a writer who has vivid memories of showing his work to Gertrude Stein and not only that, but there are letters proving Blake's writerly relationship to Stein in her archive at Yale.

DEAR GERTRUDE STEIN…BE SWEET ON FRIDAY

In a succession of letters dated variously in October 1945 and consistently addressed "Dear Gertrude Stein" [Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library], Blake writes about Stein—her importance to him and within the context of his play [Lady with a Jug, now lost] that holds Stein responsible for the fall of France in World War II. (Note: The ellipsis used in the following quotes is part of Blake's unique letter-writing style.)

"For me, you have always meant something…not only your personality and your legend, but your writings as well. You tore down walls of superfluities for me… and got at a directness and simplicity in telling a tale that I wanted to aim at myself." [Blake to Stein, October 8, 1945]

"After I spoke with you, I came back and tore the script to shreds. I feel much better for you. One day I'm going to do a damn good play about you. I'm really very frightened…so be sweet on Friday. I wanted all the truth from …that's why I asked you to read it first. My sole defense is that I wrote it over four years ago…and even then couldn't finish it. Please don't hand the script back to me I couldn't take it….just rip it to shreds….I hope reading the script hasn't lowered your faith in me. You do still believe that I can amount to something? I'm glad you called it 'unclean'….I want only to write with health and cleanliness. Forgive this note, but I've really been nervous all day. I love you and Miss Toklas so….I wouldn't write anything in the world to hurt you. You do understand. I'm glad though that I got that out of my system…and I see now that I'll have to fish around before I can write a play about you." [Blake to Stein, October 9, 1945]

"I'll tell you a secret…I think I've found the play I want in you…I've already started on some notes, no monkey business this time. I'm going to write it straight and orderly….and not fake any names either. It's going to start with the fall of France…and your determination to stick it thru…and be right in the war. The second act is going to take place at your country home…and the third act back in Paris, after the liberation….and I want to show the very sweet lady I know. I'm not going to stick close to facts, but the other hand…I'm not going to go wild. Will you and miss Alice give me permission to use your names. I promise you that you won't be ashamed of the play this time…not of me. I owe this 'clean' play to both you and myself.

"A young writer makes a great many stupid blunders, doesn't he?" [Blake to Stein, October 11, 1945]

STEIN'S STUDY OF AMERICAN G.I.s

Blake came into Stein's life he says on July 12, 1945. The month before, Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas traveled with the United States military around Germany to U. S. Army bases. By August that year, she was working on her novella Brewsie and Willie, which captured the rhythm, inflection, and slang of speech by the soldiers she met on the German tour. By October, she began work on her last opera libretto The Mother of Us All in which Blake appears as the character Chris the Citizen.

Scene4 Magazine - Steiny Rod to Operadom - Gertrude Steiney in Army Line - October 2012 - www.scene4.com

Through a group known as the Gertrude Stein Society—it was formed in May 2010 at the 21st convention of the American Literature Association—the Steiny Poet recently learned that Columbia University professor Rosalind Morris is making a film based on Stein's Brewsie and Willie. Hearing about the film and viewing the trailer, lit a fire under the Steiny Poet to reread this somewhat shocking novel that deals with racism, sexism, nationalism, industrialization, etc. and which advocates a return to the land over getting a job where people make useless widgets that use up natural resources. The language and the subject matter of this novella cum play speaks closely to things that Americans think about and experience today, including a soldier's re-entry into civilian life and hard economic times.

 

Reading the following line from this novella spoken by Willie, "when I was in school in Paris the only Red Cross place where you could get coffee and doughnuts anywhere near was a colored one and so we just all went in there…" (Brewsie and Willie. London: Brilliance Books, 1988, p. 42) makes the Poet believe Stein was thinking of Blake who, after victory was declared in Europe, was given the opportunity by the U. S. military to study at the Sorbonne because he was fluent in French. Although Stein read him the entire libretto of The Mother of Us All to Blake, he says she never discussed Brewsie and Willie with him. On page 50 of this edition, Stein has the nurse Pauline mentioning the author—"…you know that Stein woman who says things" and on the same page she mentions for the first time someone named Christopher. But Christopher is only mentioned one other time.  However, since Stein is only mentioned once, the Poet thinks it is reasonable to think that Stein attached some importance to this Christopher, who might very well have been Christopher Blake.

STEIN'S MEDITATION ON CHRIS BLAKE

What particularly makes the reference to Christopher in Brewsie and Willie interesting is that the Steiny Poet found reference to "Chris Blake" in a meditation Stein wrote in thirty to thirty-one stanzas. This format is similar to her extended love poem Stanzas in Meditation. These thirty-plus stanzas were in Stein's scrawling handwriting in her second notebook in which she finished writing The Mother of Us All. Stanza 1 discusses "nearly fifty angels" on a stage. Here the Steiny Poet is reminded of the ethereal pageantry of Stein's first opera with Virgil Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts.  Stanza 2 reads, "It is funny to think that peace can come out of war. Only war can come out of war." Stanzas 5 and 6 talk about a white man and a colored man respectively. Stanza 8 addresses, among other things, love of country and boys becoming soldiers. Stanzas 2, 5, 6, and 8 conjure the conversations of Brewsie and Willie. The middle part of this meditation addresses domestic life with depiction of such activities as cooking.

There are two stanzas 25. The repetition of stanza 25 is most likely purposeful. Both stanzas 25 begin "The life history of Chris Blake." It's quite likely she wrote these stanzas in early 1946. Blake was born March 10, 1921 and would become 25 years old and since she treated him like a son or grandson, his birth (i.e. his existence) meant a good deal to her. The Steiny Poet has not yet puzzled out how the first stanza 25 reads, but the second stanza 25 is "The life history of Chris Blake. Is it better to be young and then not young, not old but not young." Stanza 26 reads, "The life history of Chris Blake, After all you think not, you think decidedly it was? Not but after all he does come out? Welcome." Stanza 27 concludes, "That is the life history of Chris Blake."  Stanza 28 reads, "No use in moon and stars no use in thunder and hail, no use in sun and rain, that is what is after a war." The final stanza reads, "No use in wind and birds, no use in food and water, no use in change of scene and clothes, no use. And yet. Are they ready yet. They might be." Despite the devastation of war, Stein is still Stein—ever optimistic.

Now Christopher Blake believes he has the definitive play he has always wanted to write about Gertrude Stein. He says his play is not Paris in the Twenties like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Blake says his play is a timely follow-on to Barbara Will's controversial but well researched book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma. On October 5th at 7:30 pm, Michael H. Arve will present a reading of Blake's 5 Rue Christine at the Multi-use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC), 142 Atlantic Ave in Rochester, New York.

There is more to the story of Gertrude Stein's last protégé. As stated at the end of the August 2012 Steiny Road column, Stein's relationship with Christopher Blake ended just before she died July 27, 1946, but was tied up with an altercation between Blake and African-American author Richard Wright. To this day, Blake regrets not going back to Stein to make amends. However, immediately after her death, he sent this brief letter to Alice Toklas [Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]:

Chris Blake
37 Quai d'Anjou
Paris 4eme

Dear Miss Toklas,
God bless you, dear Alice. If ever I may come to see you again, I should consider it a rare treat.

Love,

The letter was not dated or signed, but Alice, known for refusing to see people, saw Blake. In that meeting she held his hand and told him that after Gertrude read his letter breaking off their relationship, Gertrude Stein cried. Alice continued saying that her renowned partner only cried on one other occasion and that was when Sylvia Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922. Stay tuned.

Photo - Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers
Yale Collection of American Literature
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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