[Firenze: Tip. Galileiana propr. Cappelli], n.d. . First edition. , 2-11,  pp. Original Florentine wallpaper sewn wrappers, printed label on front cover. Slight edgewear all around, otherwise an unusually bright and clean example of a fragile item normally found in much lesser condition. This copy with the publisher’s imprint at foot of p. , Wilson notes that “most copies examined lack the imprint.” Ownership signature of legendary bibliographer and bookman John Carter on the inside front cover. Now housed in a custom clamshell box.
The art critic Henry McBride once perceptively observed that Gertrude Stein “collected geniuses rather than masterpieces,” understanding that Stein’s own genius lay in an almost unparalleled ability to spot other people’s talent. The friendships which she formed with Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne and Hemingway in turn formed the raw material for her own art; “Pablo is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words,” she explained.
Stein wrote more than a hundred of these word portraits, often as part of an informal reciprocal arrangement with visual artists who had in turn painted or photographed her. Indeed, Stein’s “friendships” were ultimately contingent on these transactions; “friendships were like her collection of bric-a-brac: delicate objects, curiosities that took her fancy...” (Rudnick, 1982) Some artists failed to abide by the rules of the game, and Stein’s friendship with Man Ray came to an abrupt end in 1930 when he sent an invoice for taking her photograph.
Mabel Dodge Luhan, the subject of one of Stein’s most important portraits, “had an equally detached view of human beings, as though they existed for the sole purpose of providing interesting specimens for their psycho-aesthetic laboratories.” (Rudnick) Dodge, an American socialite and patron of the arts, remains, much like Stein, a complicated figure who defies any simple reading; a self-obsessed flapper, a white savior guilty of spiritually and sexually fetishizing the other, and perhaps most importantly to Stein, a rootless wanderer who lived in a permanent state of flux between countries, philosophies, romantic partners and husbands. The Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia, written in 1911 on the occasion of Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ visit to Dodge’s lavish fifteenth century villa near Florence, does not attempt to detail “the baroque richness and lavish absurdities of Mabel’s life at the villa. Rather, it renders the atmosphere of the life there in the most basic of primary colors, focusing on simple textures, like a cubist collage.” (Rudnick)
Mabel Dodge was a character whose essential fluidity and inconsistency belied any attempt to capture her in traditional literary form, and she was thus a perfect target for Stein’s modernist stream of consciousness in which she sought to record “what I knew as they said and heard what they heard and said until I had completely emptied myself of all they were that is all that they were in being or hearing and saying what they heard and said in every way that they heard and said anything.” Dodge herself considered “the Portrait to be a masterpiece of success... When I repeat to you some of the comments you will see their application to me is absolutely perfect. I keep still & let people talk. What they see in it is what, I consider, they see in me. No more no less.... Some days I don’t understand it, but some days I don’t understand things in myself, past or about to come!” Dodge was so enamored with her portrait that she
bought up most of the edition, and exhibited them at the first New York Armory show in 1913 which she had helped to organize; Stein’s portrait was the only non-visual work included in the entire exhibition, “thanks to the force of her personality and the enigma of her work... [Stein] was associated with the Armory Show from the first, and at every level of commentary in America.” (Green, 1988)
Stein’s subjects often received her texts with a gratitude tempered by incomprehension, summarized succinctly by the sculptor Jo Davidson’s remark that “when she read it aloud, I thought it was wonderful. It was published in Vanity Fair with my portrait of her. But when I tried to read it out loud to some friends, or for that matter to myself, it didn’t make very much sense.” Stein’s prose is famously difficult to parse; Edmund Wilson condemned “her soporific rigmaroles, her echolaliac incantations, her half-witted-sounding catalogues of numbers,” admitting to having not finished reading her The Making of the Americans, and “I do not know whether it is possible to do so.” Stein, for her part, put it simply: “If you enjoy it, you understand it.” As The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas shows, Stein was fully capable of writing comprehensibly when she chose to, but the truth, revealed in her magnificently backhanded compliment to F. Scott Fitzgerald, was that she found it rather dull: “you write naturally in sentences and one can read all of them and that among other things is a comfort.”
Stein’s writing attracts such opprobrium that it has even given birth to an entire field of study of how to avoid reading it; Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein (Natalia Cecire, 2015) considers “how, counterintuitively, not reading Stein’s texts can tell us something about them, and can tell us something about reading, too.... Stein’s texts invoke female labor— forms of labor that are a priori understood to be bodily and compromised, and which cannot be seen or read. In doing so, those texts invite their own identification with bodies, which must be approached in ways other than reading.” It is this capacity to encapsulate the “bodily and compromised” Mabel Dodge which makes Stein’s Portrait so compelling. A rare and important book, privately issued and rarely seen in such excellent condition.
Rudnick, Lois P. “Radical Visions of Art and Self in the 20th Century: Mabel Dodge and Gertrude
Stein.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 12, no. 4, 1982, pp. 51-63.
Green, Martin. New York 1913: The Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant. New York: Scribner, 1988.
Cecire, Natalia. “Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein.” ELH: English Literary History, 82 (1),
With special thanks to Ben Maggs for allowing us to shamelessly crib his excellent description. Item #2278