Three Recent Titles on Gertrude Stein, Latin-American Poetry, and Jazz Photography

A dispiriting thought: Titles arrive in such numbers and speed amid such emphasis on the just-published in social media that many unique books remain unknown to, barely noticed or forgotten by their potentially receptive audiences. Here are three titles from 2011 that I was unable to cover when they were first issued.

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Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, edited by Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer (University of California Press)

Stein1903.jpgIn 2008 I came across an article in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review by Mimi Chubb titled “Anti-Biography.” I believe Chubb was then a student at Princeton, or perhaps had just graduated, but in any event I kept the article because it evoked some of the qualities of my earlier experience of encountering Gertrude Stein’s writings for the first time. The triggering subject of the article is Janet Malcolm’s 2007 Yale biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, in which Malcolm tells about the permanent estrangement between Gertrude and her brother Leo. The falling out occurred over Leo’s remark that Gertrude’s writing experiments could not work outside of the context of the facts and nature of her actual life and voice.

After describing the effect of Stein’s sentences, Chubb noted that their diffuse effusiveness “was drawing out the richness of lived experience by expressing it in traces and shadows … dramatizing the fact that it’s impossible to transcribe lived experience in all its richness … She sustains a haunting, almost physical presence in her work by gesturing boldly at the certainty of her absence, and at the certain failure of the words on the page to fill up that absence.” What a fine summation. Not only is there no there there, but there is no person saying so.

SteinToklasDog.jpegGertrude Stein was a person the world was untrained to see, or if seen, was not inclined to embrace her for what she actually was. Yet she was a physical phenomenon. George Biddle once said of her, “She might have been a Bethlehem Steel magnate, a labor politician, or a Catholic Cardinal.” This woman, innovative for her intuitive grasp of absence and its sounds, became a model of choice for the new young masters of painting, photography, and sculpture who perceived her as a superb substance.

SteinPicabia.jpegHere, we come to the rich strangeness of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, a product of the exhibit of the same name that was shown at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco and the National Portrait Gallery in 2011. The art historians take charge now, organizing and evaluating a vast cache of Steiniana, and creating a five-part narrative to help sort the content. She wrote, “What is a door way, a door way is a photograph. What is a photograph a photograph is a sight and a sight is always a sight of something” (“Objects Lie On A Table,” landscape play, 1922). There is a surfeit of images of Gertrude Stein. The curators of the Stein show always seem quite certain about what it is they are looking at (Gertrude Stein). Why turn away one’s eyes just because she is not there? It is something to look at again and again. But there is the disjunction to contend with, the gap between Stein’s playful and the curators’ earnest language.

SteinBryantPk.jpegI don’t mean to disparage or mock the text of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Not at all. It is ample, fluent, and deeply informed by primary and secondary sources. The editors say, “The premise is that material objects, whether fine art, household artifacts, or curious possessions, highbrow or lowbrow, that belong to Stein and Toklas could, if read closely, yield fresh insights about them and their universe.” If the text mainly embroiders what we already know, it is determined to integrate all that is implied by these images into a coherent portrait of the person and her relationship with Alice B. Toklas.

Stein1931.jpgStory 1, “Picturing Gertude,” is about portraiture. She sat first for Picasso in 1906. In 1946, just before she died, Horst took her picture. Story 2 is “Domestic Stein.” Homemaking and stability were very important to Stein and Toklas – fashion decorating, and food. Story 3, “The Art of Friendship,” considers the post-W.W.I period when Stein’s interests broadened to include fashion, theatre, and dance, and the artists, especially young gay male ones, she befriended. Story 4 is titled “Celebrity Stein” and the three events that made her name familiar – the reception of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the opera she created with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, which opened on Broadway in 1934, and her trip back to the U.S. that year (her only return to America from Paris). Each “story” begins with an overview, followed by several themed essays. It’s a rich stew and there is a lot to look at.

SteinTime.jpegIn 1950, an embittered Leo Stein wrote, “Gertrude’s sort of massive self-admiration, and, in part, self-assurance enabled her to build something rather effective on her foundations. I, on the other hand, through the upsetting, complicating and stultifying effects of a terrific neurosis, could build nothing substantial on my intelligence, which came through only in fragments and distorted bits.” Gertrude Stein didn’t have the air of someone struggling with things bigger than herself, but she certainly pitched her forces against them. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is ultimately about the relieving and supporting powers of symbiosis: the makers of images helped Stein “build something rather effective” out of her own irrepressibility, while exploiting an artistic center of gravity that she seemed to create out of her own body.

[Published June 22, 2011, 320 pages, 80 color illustrations, 182 b&w photographs, 8-1/2 x 11” format. $45.00 hardcover]

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The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, an anthology edited by Ilan Stavans (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

“Talking about language purity in the Hispanic world is preposterous,” wrote Ilan Stavans in his essay “Language and Colonization.” “The varieties of Spanish used in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Guatemala differ from the type used in Spain … The Hispanic world has grown to be a decentralized entity in a number of areas, language being a crucial one.” Ninety percent of the world’s Spanish speakers live in the Americas – where nearly two dozen aboriginal tongues are also spoken and exert influences.

StavansCover.jpgStavans’ selections in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry represent the renewal, rise and variegation of Spanish in modernity, often confronting the situations and conditions that would hold it back. This bilingual anthology includes 84 poets from 16 countries writing in nine languages – Spanish, Portuguese, Mapuche, Nahuatl, Quecha, Mazatec, Zapotec, Ladino and Spanglish. There are version of poems that will be familiar to English-speaking readers who have been following these poetries for the past decades – now classic translations by James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Mark Strand, Stephen Kessler, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Bly – and several new translations by Stavans himself.

The poems are arranged chronologically by the poets’ dates of birth – bracketed by the Cuban poet José Martí (b. 1853) and Juan Gregorio Regino from Mexico (b. 1962). In between you will find work by Rubén Darío, Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Nicolás Guillén, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortazar, Nicanor Parra, Octavio Paz, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Claribel Alegría, Roberto Bolaño and several contemporary notables.

“We the people of Latin America know, and not only unconsciously, what it means to live in an environment defined by superimposed verbal codes,” writes Stavans in his brisk introduction. At the end of the nineteenth century, Modernismo arrived, and with it the railroad, electricity, photography, telephone – and the rise of nationalist sentiments. The Modernistas and early avant garde are amply represented here. The poetry swings between the private and the epic. Throughout, the poets express a “uniform obsession with language as universe unto itself.”

Stavans.jpegStavans is a unique and seasoned editor. He teaches Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst, and has produced four books on language and Hispanic culture. But he is also the person who bluntly stated, “Literary studies are intellectually bankrupt” in the essay “A Critic’s Journey.” He has railed against the abstruse and theoretical in literary teaching, a fiery character who has looked for and insisted on the continuities between intellectual traditions. Now available as a paperback, this major anthology therefore bears both his stamp of authority and inclusive approach to complexities and differences, political and otherwise.

[Published in hardcover April 5, 2011, 730 pages, $55.00. Published in paperback March 27, 2012, $25.00. Stavans’ essays may be found in A Critic’s Journey, published by the University of Michigan Press (2010, $24.95 paperback).]

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Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz, by Benjamin Cawthra (University of Chicago)

Armstrong.jpegOn July 4, 1960, an ambitious 28-year old photographer named Herb Snitzer stepped aboard Louis Armstrong’s tour bus and took a picture of him smoking a joint. The editors of the jazz magazine Metronome, for whom Snitzer was shooting, decided not to use the image. In Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz, Benjamin Cawthra shows us the photo Metronome ultimately used for their December, 1960 issue. Making an obvious but persisting point, Geoff Dyer said, "This question of whether a photograph is defined by the person who took it or by what it is of is absolutely central to all discussion of the medium’s history.” Cawthra’s book is at its best when inhabiting the space where the various talents, attitudes, aims and styles of the performers, photographers, and promoters intersected.

Cawthra focuses mainly on the period of 1936-65 when, per his introduction, “the photography of jazz created a visual rhetoric that argued for racial inclusiveness in the 1930s, racial equality in the 1940s and 1950s, and black cultural nationalism in the 1960s.” Contending that the photography “made the racial associations clear at a time when African Americans demanded visibility and attendant equality in American society at large,” he also seems to imply that the photos comprise the most revealing statements of that clarity since they were designed to do so. “Jazz itself existed as a kind of a critique of a society divided racially,” he says, “and its photographers made that critique visible while publicizing and selling the music.”

BillyHolliday.jpegThe first two chapters deal with the influence of Life magazine in the 1930s and Downbeat in the 1940s, featuring the photography of William Gottlieb (and his interactions with Dizzy Gillespie) and Herman Leonard. Cawthra picks up the pace with a chapter devoted to Miles Davis, and then goes on to cover Sonny Rollins. Chapter 5 focuses on photographer Roy DeCarava and John Coltrane.

Dexter.jpegThe Armstrong anecdote begins Cawthra’s preoccupation with the tug-and-pull between the shooters (at first, exclusively white) and their subjects, and then, between the shooters and their editors. He then explores the effect of these now iconic photos on public opinion. A professor of history at California State University at Fullerton, Cawthra acknowledges that he has drawn closer to jazz and its literature over just the past ten years. Informed by the newer historiographies, he blends a wide scope of cultural studies into these pages -- perhaps too wide at some points.

The chapter on Miles Davis underscores the musician’s molding of persona and his insistence on controlling the imagery on his album covers – just at the moment when albums were emerging as conceptual forms:

MilesPrince.jpeg“With Someday My Prince Will Come, Davis finally achieved control over the entire album package. Released January 1, 1962, at the height of Davis’ fame, it presents a radicalized haute-bourgeois fantasy that appeared at a moment when some other jazz musicians used images of freedom riders and violated lunch-counter patrons on their covers.” The front cover features Frances Taylor, Miles’ wife. Davis said, “I hadn’t ever seen a Negro girl on a major album cover unless she was the artist. There wasn’t any harm meant – they just automatically thought about a white model and ordered one. It was my album and I’m Frances’ prince.”

But the back cover of Someday My Prince Will Come was also iconoclastic. Davis eliminated the usual liner notes and used a photo of himself shot by Vernon Smith at an earlier recording session.

Blue Notes in Black and White includes 65 halftones. Neither their number nor their reproduction quality will satisfy the avid looker. Please note that this book is a study.

Cawthra’s chapter on Coltrane is perhaps his best – a firm grasp of the artistic ventures and collaboration between Coltrane and DeCarava, and the static those efforts encountered. But Cawthra apparently was not able to obtain permission to use DeCarava’s photos of Coltrane – a big loss.

Nat Hentoff once said that by 1965, the middle-class youth who supported jazz in the 50s had aged and the new audience included a lot of “status-seekers.” Cawthra sums up it: “Jazz may indeed have reached the status of art, but that status had come with a price.” The photographs are complicit.

[Published October 1, 2011, 392 pages, 65 halftones, $45.00 hardcover]

Shown above: Billie Holliday photographed by William Gottlieb, 1948; Dexter Gordon photographed by Herman Leonard, 1948.

Re The Spirit Of St. Louis

Yes, that opening sentence is a dispiriting thought, although I would further dispirit it with the thought that it is quite likely that the very best will always be somewhat hidden. The go-getters, the self-promoters and the damn lucky get the nod. How this plays out across our culture is a conversation for another time. But three great titles deserving of your intelligent reception...thank you. Of Cawthra's, photography and jazz (and indeed all musical performance) has always seemed kind of oblique to me. On the one hand, we want the kinetics which have to be stilled. On the other, we wish to arrest the moment when we were first moved.