A Steinian Portrait of Chicago

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 by Gertrude Stein

for Claire Swift who knows how one thing goes into


Gtde Stn”

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,


For Gene, because I like the way he feels because

I like the way he is because I like that we

one another always

Gtde Stn


Merry Christmas from Bobsy, and it is nice to be

in Chicago with Bobsy and with you

Gtde Stn”

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.




To Be A Portrait

The simple visual design of the first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Portraits and Prayers emphasizes the text’s subject matter: non-visual, literary portraits. From the book’s first few pages to its final pages, the book is almost entirely devoid of imagery. The reader, then, can more easily transform her understanding of “portrait” from the traditionally visual portrait to the newly literary portrait, while paying particular attention and granting special analysis to the text’s few visual elements.

The book’s content would support such a concept, as all of its portraits are portrayed in words rather than images. The table of contents includes the titles of verbal portraits of many individuals whom Gertrude Stein knew personally. Interestingly, these people were often visual artists, as proven in titles such as “Cezanne,” “Matisse,” and “Picasso.” The idea of “place” appears once in the table of contents, with the title, “Mabel Dodge At The Villa Curonia.” Non-famous names also appear, such as “Irma” or “Harriet.” Stein also uses conceptual titles, such as “One Spaniard,” or “Four Dishonest Ones,” and titles that sound like stories, such as “A Description of the Fifteenth of November       T.S. Eliot” or “The Life and Death of Juan Gris,” and titles that don’t make sense, such as “A Play A Lion     For Max Jacob.” These variations within the table of contents, both in subject and in visual layout, relate to a visual portrait in their combination of various components, spacing, shapes, and concepts.

Determining why Stein would want to compile such a work would be mere speculation. It is possible that Stein wanted to present her vast array of friendships, especially with those as well-known as Picasso, for example. This point might be backed up by the name of one title: “Kitty or Kate Buss,” in which she indicates her close friendship with Kate, which is so familiar that she knows her as “Kitty.” In Stein’s individual dedications, as seen in the title “For Max Jacob,” she also suggests her interest in publicizing the personal. Perhaps, Stein wanted to display her obvious comfort with writing either “portraits” or “prayers” (or even both) about a wide variety of people in a wide variety of ways. Or, perhaps, these portraits are ways of portraying herself through her friendships and her writing, which were two of the most important things in her life and thus reflections of her own self.

I have said that “all of its portraits are portrayed in words,” but that claim is not entirely true. The cover bears no name or title, but instead, it is covered in a black-and-white photograph of Gertrude Stein that the copyright page describes as being “made at Belignin [sic], Miss Stein’s country home in France” by Carl Van Vechten in June, 1934. Gertrude Stein herself is the only visual portrait in the book. Why would she make this choice? Perhaps, the cover portrait allows her to differentiate herself from the textual portraits by appearing visual rather than literary. Or, perhaps, she becomes both visual and literary, for as discussed, we might consider that each of the literary portraits in the book might also be portraits of herself.

We might further believe this claim for two reasons, the first of which is that she believes that a portrait can be synonymous with a human being. After the title page and a blank, white page, Stein makes her dedication. The page says, simply, “TO CARL,” and on the next line, “Who knows what a portrait is because he makes and is them” (no period). We might assume that “Carl” is Carl Van Vechten, who was perhaps Stein’s greatest publishing champion. That Stein dedicates the text to him, and not, say, to her brother, Leo, to her friend, Picasso, or to her companion, Toklas, might say much about by whom she feels most empowered, most encouraged, or most propelled in her writing process. But what of the dedication’s message, itself? As a writer and photographer, Van Vechten certainly made portraits. But does making a portrait prove that its maker knows, inherently, what a portrait is? And if he knows what a portrait is because he “is them,” is Van Vechten his own art? By extension, would Stein be a portrait, too, and she her own art?


Dedication, from Gertrude Stein, Portraits and Prayers, (New York: Random House, 1934). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

A second reason for which we might believe the claim that Stein becomes both a visual and literary portrait through the design of Portraits and Prayers is the sole other entity who appears in the book in both textual and visual form: Random House. We receive the book’s printing information early in the book: the text received its copyright in 1934 from the Modern Library, Inc., and was printed and bound by H. Wolff in New York. The copyright page notes, too, that two of the texts contained within—“A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” and “Van or Twenty Years After”—were reprinted from Useful Knowledge, originally published in 1928, with permission from Harcourt, Brace, and Company. However, the publishing house name does not appear until the book’s title page: page 6. This page is matte black, but a tiny white sketch of a multi-story home stands out against the blackness, about two thirds down the page. This same house appears on the beige back of the book, but there, it is drawn in black. This logo is actually that of Random House and dates back to 1928. Artist Rockwell Kent was commissioned to draw the house in which Candide and his friends live at the end of Candide, which was the first book that Random House brought to print.


Random House Logos, from Gertrude Stein, Portraits and Prayers, (New York: Random House, 1934). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.


This logo, then, is much like Stein: their names appear in text, but both receive a visual representation: Stein, her cover portrait, and Random House, these two logos. These two characters—Stein and Random House—then become similar within Portraits and Prayers. And, indeed, these two characters appear on the same page in text. On the other side of the solid-black, matte page on which we found the white Random House logo, we can see Gertrude Stein’s name in all capital letters and in red print. Her name is the only non-black-or-white ink that appears in the book. It seems, based solely upon this visual element, that GERTRUDE STEIN holds even more weight than the Random House logo, which also gets its own, all-black page, but which is written in red, rather than in black and white. In this way, Gertrude Stein has paralleled herself with Random House by being represented both in visual and textual form, but she has heightened herself slightly above the publishing house by rendering her name even bolder through color.


Interior Title Pages, from Gertrude Stein, Portraits and Prayers, (New York: Random House, 1934). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

The design of Portraits and Prayers encourages us to regard “portraits” in a different way. It encourages us to regard Stein as both a visual and literary thinker, for she has composed a written book with the visual—or defiant lack thereof—in mind. And, finally, it also encourages us to read other books, both of Stein’s and of other authors, in consideration of the visual.


Gertrude Stein, Portraits and Prayers, (New York: Random House, 1934). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.


This blog tracks the collective observations, insights, and ideas of students in Modernist Networks in the Archive, a class at Johns Hopkins University, as we investigate the professional and social networks of three modernist American writers, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Langston Hughes, as seen through their archival traces. We’ll be exploring archival collections related to these writers held at Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries, as well as many rare books. But we’ll also dig into digital repositories, websites, and other “internet holdings” of these writers’ remains.

There are important archival collections devoted to our three writers at these sites, to which we’ll be paying special attention.


Langston Hughes Papers, 1862-1980, Beinecke Library, Yale University

Langston Hughes Collection, 1926-1967, New York Public Library

Langton Hughes at the Poetry Archive

Langston Hughes at the F.B. Eyes Digital Archive


Ezra Pound Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University

Ezra Pound Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Ezra Pound Collection, Hamilton College

Ezra Pound at PennSound, University of Pennsylvania


Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University

Gertrude Stein Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Papers of Gertrude Stein and Her Circle, University of Maryland

Gertrude Stein Collection of Papers, 1934-1966, New York Public Library

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, National Portrait Gallery, 2012