This entry in Fanny Butcher’s small daily diary describes Gertrude Stein’s “marvelous” talk at the Friday Club—a Chicago women’s literary society—and the overwhelming crowd of people who lined up at Marshall Fields department store the next day for Stein’s book signing. Longtime literary editor, Butcher also chronicled Stein’s multiple visits to Chicago for the Chicago Tribune, then the city’s most widely read paper. Butcher had met Stein in the summer of 1931, when Butcher travelled to France with her friend Alice Roullier, exhibitions coordinator for the Arts Club. Now, for the first time in over thirty years, Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas made a return trip to their home country as part of Stein’s American lecture tour. Butcher was thrilled to have Stein in Chicago: after a post-lecture lunch with Stein and Toklas at the Drake hotel, Butcher was “so excited by it all that I could hardly work.”
After the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, Stein had become a literary celebrity. Butcher describes going to “Field’s” with Dick Bokum, whom she married a year later: the store “was so jammed that they wouldn’t even let us off the third floor. They were delighted to see us. After we nearly lost our lives getting to [Stein and Toklas].” Stein’s appeal at this moment in America—and especially in Chicago—came from her ability to speak and entertain various different communities, including huge public audiences, a university crowd, and an intimate group of well-heeled literary ladies: Butcher; Roullier; Elizabeth “Bobsy” Goodspeed (then President of the Arts Club); and Maude Hutchins (wife of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins). These women celebrated Stein’s modernist aesthetic—the humor, self-reflexivity, sexual punning, and musicality of her work—even as they were outspoken about not fully “getting it.”
Stein and Toklas mostly traveled by train throughout the country during their tour, but soon after arriving in America they took a last-minute flight to Chicago for the city’s premiere of Stein’s Four Saints In Three Acts. This marked the first time that they would see the performed opera Stein had written with Virgil Thomson. The flight to Chicago was also their first experience on an airplane. They loved it: the view of America from above clarified, for Stein, the experimental perspectives of cubist art. Stein and Toklas returned to Chicago four times during their tour.
In Chicago, Stein also met writer Thornton Wilder, who would become a lifelong friend. When Robert Hutchins—persuaded by his wife and Wilder—invited Stein to deliver a set of lectures at the university, Stein and Toklas stayed for over two weeks in Thornton Wilder’s Hyde Park apartment while Stein met with students and wrote and delivered lectures specifically for the University of Chicago audience. The University of Chicago Press eventually published these lectures as Narration.
Stein told Wilder that she and Toklas preferred Chicago above all other American cities on their tour. Chicago was compelling to Stein not just because of the receptive community she found there, but also because of how she conceptualized the Midwest as part of a particular American idiom and ideology. Her Narration lectures describe American language as having a “different feeling of moving,” a quality that she associated with the innovative spirit of her home country which she was experiencing with such pleasure on her tour.
- Liesl Olson, Newberry Library