The publication of Chicago Inscriptions, a collection of autographs by Gertrude Stein, reveals Stein’s desire to hold on to the recognition and celebrity status she achieved in the United States and Europe following the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Perhaps more importantly, Chicago Inscriptions sheds light on how and with whom Stein and Alice spent their time in Chicago during the winter of 1934.
Having struggled to receive recognition for her works for almost thirty years, Stein finally achieved fame in 1933 when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published. Told through the perspective of her longtime partner Alice, the titular character, the Autobiography paints a very pretty picture of Stein’s life in Paris, surrounded by the likes of Picasso and Matisse. Almost overnight, the Autobiography became an international best-seller, celebrated by both American and European readers.
Following the successes of the Autobiography, Stein and Alice returned to the land of their birth, the United States, for the first time in thirty years. Arriving in New York in 1934, Stein spent the next sixth months delivering lectures across the country. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-gertrude-stein-toured-america-105320781/) Stein and Alice travelled to Chicago in late 1934 at the request of her friend Bobsy Goodspeed.
Photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas ca. 1934. From the Wilson Collection, the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.
There they attended a Windy City performance of Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera written by Stein and produced by the composer Virgil Thompson both on Broadway and off. She remained in Chicago through the end of the 1934, spending Christmas with Bobsy and her friends. (http://www.renaissancesociety.org/events/727/an-adventure-was-home-gertrude-stein-in-chicago/) Stein signed various copies of her books for Bobsy’s friends as Christmas presents. The compilation of those various autographs resulted in Chicago Inscriptions, a book published by the Lakeside Press. We know that the Lakeside Press only printed forty copies of Chicago Inscriptions. We may surmise as to the purpose of its publication, being in such a small quantity. Presumably, Bobsy Goodspeed asked the Lakeside Press to publish the text as a pseudo-autograph book, intended as a Christmas gift for her friends. Some inscriptions provide the reader with a glimpse into Stein’s personal life that reaches far beyond the timeline of and on a different continent than the Autobiography. Two such examples are the sections inscribed to Charles B. Goodspeed, Bobsy’s husband and to Thornton Wilder, a playwright with whom Stein met in Chicago.
Inscription by Gertrude Stein to Thornton Wilder and others in Chicago Inscriptions (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1934). From the Mary Ellyn Devery Collection, the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.
Wilder and Stein ultimately spent the next ten years regularly corresponding. (http://www.thorntonwilder.com/nonfiction/the-letters-of-gertrude-stein-thornton-wilder/ )
Photograph of Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas, Chicago 1934. From the Wilson Collection, the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.
The title page of Chicago Inscriptions consists of an illustration of a woman sitting in bed and writing in a notebook. Underneath the image reads the annotation “Bobsy”. The illustrator is not identified in any way. Perhaps, the annotation refers to the fact that Bobsy drew an image of Gertrude Stein sitting in bed and writing, as the figure in the illustration has Stein’s signature haircut. The title page also has the words “Chicago Inscriptions by Gertrude Stein” followed by “Merry Christmas from Bobsy Goodspeed 1934”.
Interior title page of Chicago Inscriptions. (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1934). From the Mary Ellyn Devery collection, the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.
On the first page, the first paragraph says the following,
“Mrs. Charles H. Swift
FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS
Four Saints in Three Acts by Gertrude Stein
for Claire Swift who knows how one thing goes into
On average, each page of the text contains four inscriptions. The inscriptions are organized according to the person they are inscribed to. That is, the first page has the heading “Mrs. Charles H. Swift” and then each inscription is addressed to Mrs. Charles, or Claire, H. Swift. Each inscription refers to a different work, sometimes a lecture, sometimes a book, and sometimes a collection like Stein’s Portraits. Sometimes the inscriptions focus only on a text and other times they include something more genial, such as wishes for a merry Christmas from Bobsy. Sometimes the inscriptions appear incredibly emblematic of Stein’s style, in the tradition of Tender Buttons. Other times, the inscriptions seem to be written in a more grammatically correct fashion. For instance, the set of inscriptions to Eugene Stinson reads,
“PORTRAITS AND PRAYERS
For Gene, because I like the way he feels because
I like the way he is because I like that we
one another always
Merry Christmas from Bobsy, and it is nice to be
in Chicago with Bobsy and with you
She almost always spells her first name “Gtde”, but sometimes either omits her last name entirely, or writes out “Stein” in full. The text contains 16 pages in this style and the final page in the book contains information regarding its publishing.
Exterior cover of Chicago Inscriptions (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1934). Final page of Chicago Inscriptions (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1934). From the Mary Ellyn Devery Collection, the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photographs by Sherry Simkovic.
Other inscriptions demonstrate how removed she sometimes was from the person to whom she was writing. The varied degrees of intimacy on Stein’s part conveyed through the text is perhaps more revealing of the nature of the relationship between Stein and Bobsy and how far reaching Stein’s celebrity was. As a favor to Bobsy, Stein wrote the various inscriptions in the various works. Chicago Inscriptions, then, serves as more of a record of in what texts and to whom Stein inscribed the message. Taken in its entirety, Chicago Inscriptions would serve as the raw material for an American sequel to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In other ways, perhaps, the compilation of inscriptions and its subsequent publication permanently cement Stein as a celebrity in the memory of Chicagoans. Having dealt with ridicule up until 1933, Stein would probably have wanted to hold onto the feeling of fame, even if she received it for a piece she hated. Regardless of the purpose of the publication of the Inscriptions at the time, the text provides the modern day reader with an ethnographic note of how and with whom Stein spent her time in Chicago.