Thorton Wilder ’20 was an intimate friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Having met the pair during Stein’s American lecture tour in 1934, the acclaimed author of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” and “Our Town” kept a lifelong correspondence with Stein and Toklas. “Thorny,” as he was affectionately known to Stein — the language poet seems to have been inexplicably fond of pet names, like “Papa Woojums,” Stein’s literary executor, known to the rest of the world as Carl Van Vechten — played a primary role in preserving much of Stein’s literary legacy here at Yale. In a letter addressing the couple, Wilder wrote “Dear Gertrude and Alice,” where “Gertrude and Alice” form a circle on the page.
Wilder’s writings are one exceptional facet of a current two-month-long exhibit on view at the Beinecke. “Descriptions of Literature: The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers” consists of two glass cases full of unpublished manuscripts, photographs and personal effects of Stein, Toklas and their close friends. The arrangement and selection of the display effectively demonstrate the experimental nature of Stein’s writing process, her life as an artistic authority and the immense influence her friends, especially Toklas, had on her.
In titling her memoir “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” it is clear that Stein believes that an integral part of understanding herself is understanding her relationship with Toklas, her life partner. The two lived as lovers and hosted the famous “Stein salon” together until Stein’s death in 1946. This profound closeness can be found in all letters addressed to Stein, as they are in fact addressed to both Stein and Toklas. Even in Stein’s own writing she rarely uses the singular “I.”
Toklas is also a very clear part of Stein’s writing process. Often, the large, unintelligible script of Stein’s manuscripts has been doubled over by the clear, compact print writing of Toklas’ notes and edits. The exhibition describes Toklas’s role in Stein’s creative process as that of an editor, organizer and muse: Toklas would convert notebooks full of Stein’s writing, and often her own edits, into typeface. The exhibit also presents a waistcoat Toklas knit for Stein, representative of her additional role as the caretaker and homemaker of the relationship.
Stein’s idiosyncratic literary style and philosophy is also heavily displayed. In the manuscripts and drafts, familiar quotes such as “A rose is a rose is a rose” showcase her favoring of humor and repetition as well as her love of experimentation.
Perhaps no manuscript in the collection is more indicative of this famously provocative line than the early draft of her children’s book, “The World is Round.” This work (printed on rose-color paper) features a main character named Rose: “she would carve on the tree, Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, until it went all the way around.” These pieces display a unique interest in identity, roundness and cyclicality.
The exhibit’s wealth of literary correspondence between Stein and her friends further demonstrates how interconnected Stein’s private life was to her art, and how influential she was to her correspondence in return. The philosophy and literary ideas of Stein and Toklas, the exhibit suggests, were inseparable from their social perception and self-identity.
The exhibit will run through Dec. 14th.