Thesis Update: Notes from the Archive

This blog is long overdue for an update—and a #jessewritesathesis update in particular. In brief: I’m chipping away at it! Progress doesn’t accumulate nearly as quickly as I’d like, of course, but I now have several docs that hold quite a bit of writing. Still learning to avert—or rather, manage—the crippling inner editor who insists that every sentence or phrase be “perfect” before moving to the next, but things are slowly improving.

ransom center exteriorThe most important development which specifically warrants an update post, however, is that after many years of hoping and scheming I was finally able to do some actual archival research for this thesis. Two weeks ago I spent three days at the University of Austin’s Harry Ransom Center sifting through their extensive holdings on both Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and it just couldn’t have been a better experience. I was constantly impressed with how the Ransom Center and their staff were able to balance a (rightful) sense of protection over the remarkable material in their possession and an obvious commitment to access. As someone currently suspended somewhere between the categories of scholar and student, it was heartening to see that alongside the scholars were what seemed to be a constant stream of undergraduate students accessing and perusing material.

[That said, even though the Center is extremely generous in allowing users to take as many photos of the material as they want, one must sign a strict confidentiality agreement that forbids sharing it without written permission. So unfortunately I can’t provide any images to accompany the things I mention below. Just an FYI—I’m not being stingy!]

What did I find? Well, that three days was hardly enough to even pretend that I’d managed to scratch the surface in regards to what’s available for discovery in both of these archives. It’s been very heartening to see both Ford and Tyler receiving increasing scholarly interest over the last year or so—something itself I should do a write-up one of these days—which leads me to assume that eyes are starting to get on this material (indeed, I was told someone had been working with the Ford material the week before I arrived), but it was also IMMEDIATELY clear that this is a “story”—indeed, multiple stories—that needs, is even demanding, to be told. Though I was forced to do a lot of scanning/speed-reading, Ford’s prolific correspondence (of which this is only a partial holding; there also seems to be much held at Yale’s Beinecke Library, to say nothing of holdings in archives of his countless correspondents) offers so much first-person documentation of modernism, American expatriatism, the pre-Stonewall queer experience, and early twentieth century American/European culture in general—in addition offering perspectives that have been generally kept to the peripheries of historical accounts of these eras and communities.

djuna barnes letter

Image of a typical Djuna Barnes letter found online [NOT from the Ransom Center collection]

Perhaps the single most personally satisfying experience was the several hours spent poring over the collection of Djuna Barnes’s letters, most written between 1933 and 1936. Some were typed, but the majority were handwritten—itself a thrill (though it took a little while to acclimate to her distinctive handwriting!). I was able to answer some questions I had regarding Barnes’s involvement with the manuscript and initial publication of The Young and Evil, as well as Ford’s contact with Nightwood. I was also able to get quite a bit of insight into Barnes and Ford’s brief but intense romantic partnership, a chapter not widely known, probably because it complicates the most common narratives regarding both figures (and Barnes’s life and career in particular). A long term goal is to carve out of my thesis a publishable article on this specific topic.

Other highlights: several draft fragments from The Young and Evil that provide insight into Ford and Tyler’s collaborative process, as well as facsimile copies of Ford’s correspondence with Gertrude Stein which helped illuminate her involvement with the text.

And finally, more information which only led to more mystery: one of the central enigmas that has emerged during my research is the figure of Kathleen Tankersley Young, a poet and critic initially associated with the Harlem Renaissance and appeared in a number of the “little magazines” of the period. As well as taking on a kind of mentorship role and co-editor credit for Ford’s literary magazine Blues, she is important to The Young and Evil, not only as the novel’s dedicatee but appearing as the text’s only major female character. From her poetry I had started to suspect that she is actually a more crucial influence on Ford and Tyler than even Barnes and Stein; reading through her letters has only confirmed this.

Yet despite all these fascinating connections (and others—she went on to found a minor but admired publication company before a tragic and mysterious early death) Young currently remains more or less invisible—indeed, the several mentions of her currently out there (mostly in studies and compilations of women connected to the Harlem Renaissance) can only mention that practically nothing is known about her. Indeed, I’ve yet to come across a photograph of her. I was cautiously hoping an image of some kind would emerge somewhere in Ford’s material, but that ended up not being the case (at least in what I was able to go through)—though I sense that a dramatic pencil sketch of a female face on one of her letters might be a portrait of her. I’m  now more curious than ever about this fascinating, unknown figure; if anybody reading this happens to have ANY information on Young, please get in touch with me! (My info is in the “About” section.)

The Ransom Center actually shared on their Instagram account a snippet from one of letters from Young that I was able to look at, making it (I presume) ok to share here. I’ll also include below a few other images taken outside the restricted Reading Room.

It’s taken the two weeks since to simply organize and upload the notes and images (nearly 250 of them!) that I took over the course of the three days. Now it’s time to dive back into the writing—something I’m taking on again with a renewed sense of excitement and engagement. Wish me luck!

kty letter to chf ransom centerransom center jacques cocteauoscar wilde ransom center windowransom center leon bakst ballet russes costume

Top to bottom:

  1. Letter from Kathleen Tankersley Young to Charles Henri Ford (1928), posted on the Ransom Center Instagram account
  2. The eyes of Jean Cocteau from the interior of Ransom Center
  3. “Apparition” of Oscar Wilde on the exterior of the Ransom Center
  4. Original costume designed by Léon Bakst for Narcisse, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe (1911)

 

 

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IotD: The Unexpected Collaboration of Alice B. Toklas and Picasso

Needlepoint might not be what most think of when they think of modernist art, but we’ve actually featured it here before. Below are two examples of Alice B. Toklas’s needlepoint, taken from designs by Pablo Picasso.

alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chairsalice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 1alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 2

Juliet Clark from SFMOMA has a really nice write-up that prominently features these two chairs, including a lengthy excerpt from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that relates the series of events that led to their creation.

The two chairs, before Toklas transformed them, can actually be glimpsed in the famous Man Ray portrait of the two women in their shared home at 27, rue de Fleurus (Alice is sitting in one of them):

man ray portrait stein toklas

Yet another reason to (re)consider Toklas as an accomplished artist in her own right.

Provenance:

Alice B. Toklas (from a design by Pablo Picasso)
Two armchairs, fabric and wood
Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Man Ray, c. 1922
Gelatin silver print
Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

 

scholarship

I finally got around to posting a sample of my academic work over at Academia.edu. The paper is “I Like Detectiving Almost as Much as Writing:” Detectives Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the Work of Samuel M. Steward,” a very well-received conference paper I presented during “The Other Detective II” panel at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in San Diego, November 1, 2013.

The paper was a response to a short passage in Justin Spring’s magisterial biography Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo, and Sexual Renegade (2010):

“At the suggestion of Michael Denneny, a pioneering gay editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York, Steward then set to work on a series of mystery novels featuring Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as sleuths. The writing of these light entertainments would take up the final years of Steward’s life, with Murder is Murder is Murder published in 1985 and The Caravaggio Shawl in 1989, but they were disappointing works of fiction, weakly plotted and of little value even to those interested in the lives of Stein and Toklas” (397).

I read both of these novels and found them quite delightful, and was rather stunned by Spring’s complete dismissal of their value. This was my attempt to understand what I found so interesting, compelling–and ultimately quite resonant–about these so-called “disappointing works of fiction.”

The paper can be found here, and my Academia.edu profile here.
Steward - Caravaggio ShawlSteward - Murder is Murder is Murder

IotD: Rejecting Gertrude Stein

I had read this infamous 1912 rejection letter of Stein’s The Making of Americans but never seen an actual image of it. A recent event hosted by the Studio 360 blog staged readings of rejection letters sent to famous writers, including this one:

Gertrude Stein Rejection LetterClever, rather cruel, and more than a bit bitchy, I’d say! You can listen to the readings here, and  transcription and more detailed information about the letter itself can be found at the Letters of Note website.

IotD: Francis Rose Depicts Stein & Toklas at Home

stein & toklas - sir francis rose

stein and toklas - sir francis rose

Sir Francis Cyril Rose was a titled British painter that Gertrude Stein patronized throughout the 1930’s, but despite her best efforts she was never able to generate much sustained interest in his work and he remains an obscure figure of the era.

And while Rose is certainly no Picasso or even a Matisse, there’s a quality to his art that more immediately compels than the work of either of those more famous artists. I particularly like how he is able to evoke a sense of comfortable queer domesticity at 27 rue de Fleurus, with as much emphasis on Toklas and their beloved dogs as on her famous modern art collection. The Stein glimpsed here is certainly a far cry from, say, the imperious sibyl immortalized by Picasso some twenty years before.

I did a fair amount of research on Rose several years ago in conjunction with a paper I wrote on Samuel M. Steward, and truly, there are aspects of Rose’s life that are stranger than fiction. I’ll have to write up some more information on this curious figure sooner than later.

Provenance

TOP: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (1939)
Sir Francis Cyril Rose
Tempera and gouache on cardboard
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

BOTTOM: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (1939)
Sir Francis Cyril Rose
Gouache on paper
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution