Picabia painted Basket

THE LETTERS OF GERTRUDE STEIN AND THORNTON WILDER ed Edward M Burns and Ulla E Dydo with William Rice, Yale pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Gertrude Stein was 60, and in Chicago on a lecture tour, when she first met the 37-year-old Thornton Wilder. They rapidly became friends (he a devoted admirer, she a willing mentor), and, with Wilder mainly in America and Stein in France, they kept up a correspondence between 1935 and 1942 which, conscientiously annotated, indexed and appendiced, fills this volume of some 450 pages.

Its first destination is clearly the university library: there are good reasons why you would not want to invest in it as light reading. Stein and Wilder are both quite unfashionable, and leave something to be desired as correspondents. Her letters are written in much the same affected style as her other prose works and, like them, are largely unpunctuated; his (to Gertrude and Alice Toklas) may begin "Dear Twain", "Dear One" or even (God help us) "Blest pair of sirens, pledges of Heav'n's joy", and be signed "Thy Thornton" or "Thorny".

But for all this playful tone, there is nothing intimate or confessional about the correspondence from either side, despite a lot of chatter about friends, moods and dogs, or reflections on places and peoples. Their one shared interest is literature, and the one extrinsic interest of this collection is the oblique insight it gives into literary and artistic life on both sides of the Atlantic during the period. Wilder records his endless struggles with Jed Harris, the producer of his plays, while Stein entertains Picabia ("he made a lovely painting of [her dog] Basket for me") or goes to the latest of Giraudoux's plays. Outside that, the world hardly exists: the index records four references in the letters to Hitler and one to Mussolini. "Why don't you come over?" Stein asks in May 1940 - and she is still merrily urging "come along Thornton" in September, from the depths of Vichy France.

This other-worldliness explains her silly preface to a collection of Petain's speeches. Thorny had a very different war and emerged from it a different man. He wrote only a couple of half-hearted letters between the imposed silence of wartime and Stein's death in 1946. The whimsical, self-absorbed mood of Thirties modernism had been dispelled, and he knew it; but a trace of it remains here.