Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American Modernist author well known for her Paris salon where she would bring together artists and writers in conversation during the 1930s . Katherine Anne Porter, a fellow Modernist writer, was also living in Paris at this time, but never attended the salon. In fact, the two women only met once during a rather uneventful evening.
Nevertheless, Porter has an striking connection to Gertrude Stein, primarily through three reviews Porter wrote on Stein’s work. Most notable of the three was a piece she wrote for Harper’s Magazine entitled Gertrude Stein, A Self Portrait, more commonly referenced under the title The Wooden Umbrella.
The article started as a review of Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography in 1937, but was never published. 10 years later, after Stein’s death, Harper’s requested an updated article with the intention of publishing a timely literary piece. As was her style, Porter did not hold back her opinions. In the article, Porter criticized Stein’s writing style as simplistic and unfinished. She drew attention to Stein’s self-centeredness and the cult-like following of the expatriates who found their social/creative center in Stein’s Paris salon.
The response to The Wooden Umbrella was polarized. Letters came pouring in calling Porter all manner of nasty names and warning her career would be destroyed in retaliation. Porter receive death threats as some people took to yelling harassments at her while she was out running errands. At one point, there was talk of suing Porter for libel. Fortunately for Porter, all of the quotes she used were drawn directly from Stein’s published works. Despite the relentless negative reactions from readers, others wrote letters praising Porter for illuminating the gaps in Stein’s work and personality. Porter herself called the piece a practice in understatement and self-restraint.
All three pieces are printed in Porter’s The Days Before. Read them for yourself and pick a side!
You can explore digitized letters from Katherine Anne Porter in the online exhibit Katherine Anne Porter: Correspondence from the Archives, 1912-1977.
Browse the finding aids to the Katherine Anne Porter papers and visit us in person to learn more about the partnership between University of Maryland and Katherine Anne Porter. Contact us to learn more!
Mattie Lewis is a student in the Masters of Library and Information Sciences program and Graduate Assistant with the Katherine Anne Porter Collection at UMD.