Children’s Books, Children’s Songs: Gertrude Stein, Paul Robeson

September 5, 2012

Last year Yale University Press brought out Gertrude Stein’s To Do: A Book for Alphabets and Birthdays, never published in her lifetime.

Stein had written it as a follow-up to her first children’s book, The World is Round, published in 1939 (though not without some difficulty: she had stipulated that the pages had to be pink, the ink blue).   But publisher after publisher turned down the second book, saying it was too complicated for children.

Illustrated now by the New Yorker’s Giselle Potter, the book looks so well put together, and fits so comfortably into the genre, that it is hard to see how it could ever have been a reject.  One thought: a new (and radically enlarged) history of American literature, written on just that basis –  books that barely made it, books that never did, read against their siblings that got into print with relative ease.

The writing is in fact vintage Gertrude Stein, not unlike Tender Buttons, in fact.   About the letter Z, she writes: “Z is a nice letter, and I am glad it is not Y, I do not care for Y, why, well there is the reason why, I do not care for Y, but Z is a nice letter.   I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter to you and nice to me, you will see.”

It makes me think of Paul Robeson’s Chinese children’s song, still carrying his signature – that voice couldn’t have been anyone else’s – but a genre not native to him, sung in a language that couldn’t have come all that easily.

Maybe that’s the way to think about genre: not as taxonomic boxes, but as all those places and all those instances where those boxes get bent out of shape?

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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