Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism
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A somewhat lite but always engaging account of the modernist movement’s development in America, as seen through the prism of a great American opera. Modernism first arrived in the US via the highly influential and controversial Armory show of 1913, but didn—t gain mainstream appeal until the late 1920s and early 1930s—when it was picked up and promoted by a group of young Harvard graduates who styled themselves “The Friends” or “The Family.” Including the architect Philip Johnson, museum curator Chick Austin, and balletomane Lincoln Kirstein, “The Family” consisted of a brotherhood of wealthy, well-connected, largely homosexual boy geniuses whose support and patronage of fellow alum Virgil Thomson led to the 1933 staging of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts on Broadway. Watson (The Birth of the Beat Generation, 1995, etc.) argues that Four Saints helped to foster mass American acceptance of modernist modalities. Certainly, the opera brought together a glittering assemblage of collaborators. Gertrude Stein wrote the lyrics, Frederick Ashton choreographed, John Houseman directed, and Florine Stettheimer created the set and costumes. Watson provides brief biographies of all concerned. But he focuses on the tumultuous relationship of Stein and Thomson. She was 22 years older, prickly, less famous than she wished to be, while Thomson was a promising unknown. Even with his powerful allies, it took nearly six years to get the opera produced. The ruptures and reconciliations with Stein made things even more difficult. The opera is rarely revived today, but the beauty of its staging, the novelty of its all-black cast, and its general newness made it a landmark when it opened. Despite the opera’s success and its influence, Thomson and Stein only collaborated once more (on the lesser-known The Mother of Us All). The occasional shallows of his wide-ranging account are surpassed by the depth of Watson’s presentation of a pivotal cultural moment. (100 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-44139-5
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998


NonfictionTHE MAN IN THE GLASS HOUSE by Mark Lamster
by Mark Lamster