Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Odd Trope - Stein, Hemingway, Stewart

Let's have a little fun. Starting with one of three stories, supposing you knew nothing about either of the other two, and could only understand each according to the inner logic and references you could substantiate from it alone. 
Given a little intuition, you'd probably come up with a fairly recognizable portrait of the Author, and a general outline of his/her views concerning the subject matter of the text. 
Here are the three texts: 
Miss Furr and Miss Skeene. Gertrude Stein.  Written between 1909 and 1911, first published in Geography and Plays [1922].  
Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad [novel]. Donald Ogden Stewart. First published by George H. Doran [1924]. 
Mr. and Mrs. Elliot. Ernest Hemingway. First published in The Little Review Autumn 1924 - Winter 1925, and in book form in in our time, Charles Scribner's Sons [1925].  
The Hemingway and Stein works are short stories. The Stewart piece is a complete novel.  I was first struck by the similarity of the titles of these separate works. Note the dates of publication. It seems plausible to me that both Stewart and Hemingway would have been aware of Stein's story. Her work had become notorious since the publication of Tender Buttons in 1914; periodical essays had been written about her, and she had already acquired a reputation as an outrageous, though largely bogus, figure of the pretentious European avant garde art scene--her works regarded as put-ons or elaborate hoaxes, without true, serious literary merit. American "exiles"--in the public consciousness (see Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return [1934])--were targets of sophisticated humor and parody during the 'Twenties. 
Donald Ogden Stewart is largely forgotten today. Shortly after publishing Mr. and Mrs. Haddock, he went to Hollywood, launching a career as a screenwriter which lasted well into the the 1970's. Blacklisted in 1950, he was obliged to live abroad thereafter, his screenwriting efforts in American productions uncredited (Summertime [1955], An Affair to Remember [1957], The Prisoner of Zenda [1952]); his very impressive pre-Blacklist credits include The Philadelphia Story [1940], and Life with Father [1947]. His screen work seems in retrospect even more impressive than that of Dalton Trumbo, perhaps the most famous of the Hollywood Ten. (Stewart wasn't one of this group, but he was, like dozens of others involved in the witch-hunting, nonetheless, black-listed; check out the names in the Wikipedia List.) 
In his early years, Hemingway had a mischievous streak. His early novelette The Torrents of Spring: A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race, Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1926, is often described as a savage attack on the work of Sherwood Anderson. He also covertly co-authored a satiric burlesque. Many of his early stories read like tongue-in-cheek send-ups of his contemporaries (Dos Passos, Pound, Ford).  
Each of these three texts deals with an American couple visiting Europe--ostensibly as tourists, ostensibly for the first time. In each case, the archly ironic tone of the narrative is frankly satirical, though this approach, in each case, is employed for different purposes. 
Let's sample a generous helping of each piece, before discussing them further:
from the beginning paragraph of Miss Furr and Miss Skeene by Gertrude Stein--
Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voices and other things needing cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then. Georgine Skeene liked traveling. Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.
. . . . . .
They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.
. . . . . .
They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then.
The language which Stein employs in this story is familiarly repetitive, like much of her work. The repetitions pile up, there is a kind of lulling monotony to the flow of repeated phrases, nested one into another in an endless chanting stream. The repeated use of the word "gay" acquires a kind of ironic absurdity which is unmistakable, particularly as much of contemporary audiences would not have "got it." The piece contains the word "gay" over one hundred times, perhaps the first published use of the word "gay" in reference to same-sex relationships and those who have them, and as such uninformed readers missed any lesbian content. A similar portrait of gay men begins more obviously with the line "Sometimes men are kissing" but is less well known.  "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" is one of the first coming out stories to be published. The piece, like Q.E.D., is informed by Stein's growing involvement with a gay and lesbian community, though it is based on lesbian partners Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars. (For a fuller account of this model Gay couple, see this article;  Stein's portrait of the two women featured the sly repetition of the word gay, used with sexual intent for one of the first times in linguistic history.) Critic Edmund Wilson had come to the same conclusion in 1951 when he said that "it seemed obvious that Stein's queer little portraits and her mischieveously baffling prose poems did not often deal with subjects of this sort" (i.e., relationships between women). Wilson also referred to Mars and Squire as "that touching pair of left-handed gloves."
It should be recalled that Hemingway acknowledged a debt of gratitude to Stein for showing him--by example if not by outright statement--how her discovery of the potential range of effects of repetition in prose sentence composition might be exploited in straight story writing. In Hemingway's Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, we have an example not only of the use of taut, sardonic prose which Hemingway mimicked to seem amusing and haughty and sly, but of the kind of concision common to all his short stories. Hemingway was at the height of his powers at this point--and would probably never be as clever and intelligent again, throughout a long career of novel-writing and hybrid personal first-hand-account (and occasionally fictionalized) journalism. For a straightforward account of the story, go here. A couple, Hubert and Cornelia decide to marry and go live in Europe. Cornelia is from the genteel South, and, already aged 40, is probably too old to have children. Hubert is an aspiring poet. Cornelia is hypochondriac, and soon she becomes intimate with another woman. She and Hubert maintain separate living arrangements. Hemingway dealt with the question of love triangles elsewhere in his work--in The Garden of Eden, a novel based (it is generally acknowledged) upon the break-up of his first marriage, involving his eventual second wife Pauline. That the love triangle which Mr. and Mrs. Elliot describes, should imply, if not actually coming out and saying in so many words, a lesbian relationship, would suggest a literary relationship between Stein's story and Hemingway's probable response to it. The original "target" of Hemingway's satire is allegedly Chard Powers Smith, an author (now obscure) of some narrative poems; the story had originally been entitled Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but was changed for legal reasons. However, the story may also have been aimed at T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land had been published to much acclaim and confusion in 1922. The similarities between the main character, Hubert, and T.S. Eliot, are striking. They are from Boston, went to Harvard, wrote long poems, were virgins, were enticed by their wives on the dance floor, and both suffered a loveless marriage of sexual ineptitude. Although Hemingway would later admit his depth of indebtedness to Eliot, and say that Eliot "watered the waste land and made it bloom like a rose," there is little question that Hemingway's sense of mischief was broad enough to include almost anyone. Here's a sample from Mr. and Mrs. Elliot--
Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was quite sick. She was sick and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick. That is women from the Southern part of the United States. Like all Southern women Mrs. Elliot disintegrated very quickly under sea sickness, travelling at night, and getting up too early in the morning. Many of the people on the boat took her for Eliot's mother. Other people who knew they were married believed she was going to have a baby. In reality she was forty years old. Her years had been precipitated suddenly when she started travelling.
  She had seemed much younger, in fact she had seemed not to have any age at all, when Elliot had married her after several weeks of making love to her after knowing her for a long time.
. . . . . .
Elliot had a number of friends by now all of whom admired his poetry and Mrs. Elliot had prevailed upon him to send over to Boston for her girl friend who had been in the tea shop. Mrs. Elliot became much brighter after her girl friend came and they had many good cries together. The girl friend was several years older than Cornelia and called her Honey. She too came from a very old Southern family. 
. . . . . .
Mrs. Elliot was learning the touch system on the typewriter, but she found that while it increased the speed it made more mistakes. The girl friend was now typing practically all of the manuscripts. She was very neat and efficient and seemed to enjoy it.
. . . . . .
Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend now slept together in the big mediaeval bed. They had many a good cry together. In the evening they all sat at dinner together in the garden under a plane tree and the hot evening wind blew and Elliot drank white wine and Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend made conversation and they were all quite happy.  

What is perhaps most striking about the similarities between the Stein and Hemingway stories is the way that verbal repetition is used as double entendre to imply other aspects of the characters' behavior and nature(s). Though each story challenges the prevailing official mores of the time (lesbianism and open triangular relationships), each does so with a kind of cattiness which puts a distance between the situation, and the authorial presence. There's a kind of dispassionate contempt in the Hemingway story, however, which one doesn't see in the Stein piece. Both, though, possess a ceertain stilted dignity which allows them to be perceived as art, rather than as, on the one hand, a vicious satire, and on the other, a covert mock celebration of sexual "deviance."
Though you might deduce from the title of Donald Ogden Stewart's comic romp Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad that it is a story about Americans in Europe, the characters in his story never actually get to the Continent. It's a parlor-room drama set on board a trans-oceanic cruise ship on its way to Europe. 
Here are the opening sentences--
Mr and Mrs Haddock were very excited about going abroad. It was the first time either of them had ever been abroad to Europe, although Mr Haddock had been to Chicago eight times, Kansas City five times, Kansas City (Kan.) five times, St. Louis four times, Denver four times, and New York City twice, but it had rained four days out of five. 
  Mrs Haddock had been to St. Louis once and Chicago twice, in Pullman cars, named, respectively, Edgar Allen Poe, Sweet Juniper, and Spauldingopolis. She had not slept very well the first two times and the third time she had not slept at all. She slept very well at home, though, mostly on her back and left side. Her mother's maiden name had been Quetch.
  Mr and Mrs Haddock had been married twenty-four odd years and their grandparents were all dead on both sides. So they were quite alone in the world except for Mr Haddock's father and mother and Mrs Haddock's father and mother, who were, however, quite old, their combined ages totalling 439 or several score years.
. . . . . .

When Mr Haddock and Mrs Haddock had been first married he had said to a lot of their best friends: "You may sneer at us now for only going to the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, on our wedding journey but some day you will sneer out of the other side of your mouth." 
  And with that he had hit his horse a terrific slash and driven away, and he and she had sworn that very day that before they were forty they would show everybody and go abroad. Mr Haddock was now fifty-one and Mrs Haddock was forty-nine and so their prophecy had come true. They were going abroad.     
The manner and mood of Stewart's little ship-board farce is typical 'Twenties fare, filled with mock-theatrical repartee. By the end of the 267 page narrative, the steward knocks at the Haddocks cabin door: "Europe, sir! Europe!" The Haddocks had arrived. The End. 
After World War I, Stewart wrote A Parody Outline of History, a satire of The Outline of History (1920) by H.G. Wells. This, and other works, both for the stage, and the sophisticated literary crowd (Perfect Behavior: A Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in All Social  Crises [1922]; the sequel Mr. and Mrs. Haddock in Paris, France [1926]; Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind [1923]; The Crazy Fool [1925] etc., led to his becoming a member of the Algonguin Round Table.2 Stewart was the model for Bill Gorton in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. 
Stewart's skill at setting a kind of superfluous, light-hearted, ridiculous dialogue was of undoubted value in his career as a screen-writer as well as a playwright. 1930's Hollywood comedies--like his The Philadelphia Story [1940] (for which he won the 1941 Academy Award), one of the greatest screen romantic comedies of all time, which starred Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart--were 95% sparkling dialogue, and 5% action. If you take the Stewart's amusing, but flimsy, little comedy and put it beside the other two examples here, you can see how both  Stein's and Hemingway's pieces work against type, in other words they exist as exceptional parodies of the character of the artistic modes of their time. Stewart's witty, silly narrative about nouveau riche American yahoos, out to prove their provenance by sailing to Europe, is the back-drop for the lampooning derisiveness which the self-styled "exiles" (Hemingway and Stein) utilize to mock their targets. 
On a deeper level, the sexual content of the other two stories provides an interesting illustration of the historical development of suppressed content in art and politics. Stewart's mockery of American speech and behavior in the Haddock books (and elsewhere) has a predictable, fluffy all-in-good-fun feel, whereas the two satiric pieces have a deeper, darker motivation. The lives of all three Authors provide interesting undercurrents to the themes they address here. Stein maintained a lesbian relationship with Alice Toklas until her death, in 1946, and many of her works have come to be seen as thinly veiled accounts of lesbian figures in her life, or from history. Hemingway, who had once been an intellectual intimate of Stein's, eventually repudiated her and her art, damning her person and sexuality, publicly, in A Moveable Feast [1964], and elsewhere. At the close of the 'Twenties, Hemingway had embarked on the macho period in is life, during which physical feats of daring, bravery and performance took center stage, as he constructed the heroic image of himself, which he would play off of for the rest of his very public life. Polite society, or middle-class respectability, would probably have been regarded with a similar kind of contempt by all three writers. Rich people and artists, i.e., Gerald & Sara Murphy--"living well is the best revenge"--might find their way into favor, but the air of sprightly condescension, so popular in the periodicals of the 1920's, in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc., could be both a curse and a blessing for serious artists striving to overcome what was perceived as American provinciality.
How did it come about that Ogden Stewart would be blacklisted? Apparently, because during the late 1930's, as WWII aproached, he had been a member of a Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which was later suspected of being a Communist Front. Following his blacklisting, he emigrated to England where he lived for the rest of his life. The choices which artists and scholars made during the 1930's and 1940's often came back to haunt them. Questions have been raised about Stein's behavior during the Vichy Occupation, though as a Jew in Europe, she would certainly have had serious risks to consider, while she remained in France. Hemingway, always the patriot, had had serious questions raised about his "Leftist" sympathies during the Spanish Civil War [1936-1939], since Loyalist supporters often rubbed shoulders with anti-Fascists of various persuasions, including open Communists.    
The comparison of these three related texts throws an interesting light on a lively period in American literary history. The subject-matter of the work, and the lives of the three writers who created them, are telling examples of the forces which shape aesthetic programs, and which in turn change opinion. Stewart is a figure now almost forgotten, though his contributions to the American stage, American cinema, and American Literature from the 1920's to the 1950's were impressive. Would he not have been more celebrated, had he not been sent underground by being blacklisted in the early 1950's? What is the degree of debt owed by Hemingway to Stein? Would Stein's career have been different, had she openly advocated for lesbian rights during her lifetime?    

1 Photo at top from endpapers of copy of Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad, by Donald Ogden Stewart, Illustration by Herb Roth, New York: George H. Doran Company, copyright 1924.

2 See under Benchley, Kaufman, Parker, Woollcott, Adams, Broun, Ross, Sherwood et al.  Also, betimes, Donald Ogden Stewart.  



J said...

Stewart was the model for Bill Gorton, eh? Interesting. He seemed at least as macho as Jake Barnes (Hem.?), that is if I recall that entertaining, existential soap opera TSAR correctly.

Joining the Republicanos was sort of radical chic in 30s I suspect--many writers and intellectuals didn't really know much about stalinism, etc until later (like, after Orwell). Though Hemingway, even at the end of his life, approved of Fidel Castro and the overturning of Bastista--that said, I think Hem's politics were far more romantic if not like drunken and unfocused than some systematic worked out programme.

Mr and Mrs Elliott an interesting tale. A hint of L-word phunn (as in lesbonic) , yes, but also ...anti-academic, macho, a bit....naturalist. Hem. once said he detested TS Eliot, if memory serves me well.

Curtis Faville said...

I just scratched the surface with these casual remarks.

A great deal more needs to be said about how these stories inter-relate.

Hemingway was always ready to put down anyone he deemed to be a sissy. There are famous nasty incidents involving E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Max Eastman. Hem liked bullying people. All that posturing, I think, actually made him seem less of a he-man than we probably was.

Why, J, did you kill your previous comment about Maurice Jarre?

J said...

Im not sure. Sometimes I'll post something, return to Arbeiten, and then check back, and no one's said anything, and im not completely pleased with the comment, so...delete 'er. And I don't recall that much. The Tin Drum was a great flick, and Jarre's music as well....

Actually, the vast majority of movies don't do anything for me.
At times a soundtrack may redeem a flick, but not usually. Really the entire blockbuster spectacle leaves a bad taste in my mouth--with those Spielburg/lucas pop-wagnerian things, the loud music sort of compounded the nausea (and memories thereof). And Goldsmith's muzak is mostly in that category (not all...but even when hearing the cool urban sounds of LA Con., I was thinking....where's the green alien babes theme...). We wuz robbed, Kubrick's few moments of glory notwithstanding.

It's sort of interesting to watch early silent flicks which had only music. The music at times was hokey, Keystone cops-like, yet at other times (some of Melies films), they'd hire a virtuoso pianist and he plays tasty Chopin or Debussy like sounds--in ways quite superior to the usual Disney/Lucas/Goldsmith bombast--or, worse, jungle-thug pop beats-- they now serve up to Consumerland....