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    Gertrude Stein Comes of Age

    By Michele Karlsberg–

    Michele Karlsberg: For this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times, I present an excerpt from So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein by Jeff Solomon.

    In 1895, Gertrude Stein was a twenty-one-year-old sophomore at Radcliffe College interested in philosophy and psychology who had begun to write fiction. By all accounts, Stein had not yet had sexual encounters, though she was exposed to the constant pressure—acute in Jewish families—for women her age to be married. The year 1895 also brought the Oscar Wilde trial, which changed the public discourse of homosexuality. At a time of life when lesbians were likely to gain same-sexual experience, Stein was swamped with proof of its danger.

    Wilde had been a mass-market celebrity in the United States since 1882, when Richard D’Oyly Carte, the Gilbert and Sullivan impresario, booked Wilde on tour. Carte hoped for symbiotic marketing with the tour of the comic opera Patience, which satirized aestheticism in general and Wilde in particular. Wilde ran three separate rounds through the United States and Canada—140 lectures in 260 days. His fame soaked the nation as Wilde was promoted in the local press of his many destinations.

    Wilde’s fame was bolstered by The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published in 1891 in both England and the United States, and by the successful London runs of his plays. When Wilde sued his lover’s father for libel, he earned even more media attention: he had moved from “entertainment” to “news.” When Wilde lost, he was prosecuted for public indecency. The Importance of Being Earnest sold out throughout both trials, which lasted from April 3 to May 25, 1895, and kept Wilde in the news. If Wilde had won either lawsuit, the two suits might now be seen as a brilliant publicity stunt.

    The entire affair must have impressed upon young Stein (and everyone else who read newspapers) that even private displays of homosexuality, once publicly known, could sentence even rich, powerful celebrities to years of hard labor breaking rocks. Though public reactions to male and to female homosexuality cannot be conflated, Stein still had ample reason to fear her desire. Fifty years later, in Wars I Have Seen, Stein wrote of her realization that she was not “free” but that her homosexuality, as well as her Jewishness, put her at risk:

    There is no doubt that everyone really wants to be free, at least to feel free, they may like to give orders or even to take them, but they like to feel free, oh yes, they do like to feel free, and so Oscar Wilde and the Ballad of Reading Gaol was the first thing that made me realize that it could happen, being in prison. And then the next thing was the Dreyfus affair, that is anti-Semitism.

    Stein’s fears from the trial and its aftermath may explain why she did not engage in the appreciable culture of female same-sex passion at Radcliffe that was typical for women’s colleges of the time. Stein did not come of lesbian age until 1900, when, as a twenty-six-year-old in medical school, she became involved with the lover of a classmate.

    Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2017 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission (www.upress.umn.edu).

    Jeff Solomon is assistant professor of English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of “So Famous, So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein.” For more information about the book, visit its University of Minnesota Press page (https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/so-famous-and-so-gay).

    Michele Karlsberg Marketing and Management specializes in publicity for the LGBT community. This year, Karlsberg celebrates thirty years of successful book campaigns.