LOLA RIDGE ON GERTRUDE STEIN
There's no telling how reliable the digital reproduction is, but a sizable stretch of Lola Ridge's The Ghetto and Other Poems (Huebsch 1918) is now available online through Google Books. Thom Donovan commented back in February 2007 on the Factory School edition of The Ghetto, and I think it was this that first called my attention to Ridge, though I never did come around to ordering a copy of the book, relying instead on whatever I could glean from the web (i.e. the Ridge page at Cary Nelson's Modern American Poetry). In any case, in his appraisal of Ridge, Donovan nails what feels like the overriding ethos of her work, insisting that her "commitment to class antagonism ... does not mean the subsuming or synthesizing of other identity categories." Born into considerable poverty and having worked during the first half of her adult life as a model, factory hand, illustrator and, later, a labor organizer, the question of class dominated her work as a poet. But for Ridge class never functioned as a blunt transcendental category capable of blindly trumping other subject positions delicately and differentially articulated with class, and this sensitivity to identity bears itself out not only in her writing, but also her work as editor.
From 1922 through 1923 Ridge served as American editor of Harold Loeb's journal Broom, a short but decisive tenure during which Ridge edited the so-called "American" number of the magazine, the January 1923 issue containing writing from William Carlos Williams, Kay Boyle, Marianne Moore, Margaret Evans, Hart Crane, Jean Toomer, Kenneth Burke and others. Often, at least so far as I've seen, Ridge's work with Broom is framed as a challenge to European cultural hegemony — that is, a challenge to European cosmopolitanism in favor of a more insular American nationalism. Ridge herself was not American but an Irish-born woman that lived variously in Australia, New Zealand and on both coasts of the US. The figure of the immigrant, as the long poem The Ghetto suggests, was a point of deep identification for her and her selection for the American number of Broom underscores this investment, the number drawing together a rich pool of writers that throw intersecting vectors of race, class, gender and other identity categories into vivid relief. And so the critical framing of her editorial intervention as an avant-garde death match between American and European cultural influence seems reductive at best. There is, however, a deep suspicion in Ridge toward bourgeois cosmopolitanism, a particular type of transnationalism that bears a marked difference from other forms of cultural transnationalism, particularly those she addresses through her inquiry into class-specific modalities of movement and migration in The Ghetto, where questions of difference and cultural assimilation play themselves out, allowing Ridge to extend a moving critique of (American) nationalism that casts considerable doubt on any reading of her editorial practice as one determined by the coordinates of nation:
The sturdy Ghetto children
March by the parade,
Waving their toy flags,
Prancing to the bugles —
Lusty, unafraid ...
Shaking little fire sticks
At the night —
The old blinking night —
Swerving out of the way,
Wrapped in her darkness like a shawl.
But a small girl
Her braided head,
Shiny as a blackbird's
In the gleam of the torch-light,
Is poised as for flight.
Her eyes have the glow
Of darkened lights.
She stammers in Yiddish,
But I do not understand,
And there flits across her face
As of a drawn blind.
I give her an orange,
Large and golden,
And she looks at it blankly.
I take her little cold hand and try to draw her to me,
But she is stiff ...
Like a doll ...
As Donovan insists, attending to class — and to place — does not, in Ridge, presuppose the erasure of difference; nor does it treat difference as static and immutable. In this passage the narrator of The Ghetto comes up against the radical unassimilability of a little girl which is sharply contrasted against the cultural integration of other children, boys, "Waving their toy flags" and "Prancing to the bugles" of a parade. This subtle critique of nationalism arguably extends to her work for Broom such that we might imagine her editorial decisions as guided by something other than a brute preference for one region or nation over others.
In a series of letters from Ridge to Loeb edited and introduced by Belinda Wheeler in the current number of PMLA (127: 2), Wheeler calls attention to Ridge's editorial work for Broom, arguing that Ridge "orchestrated the magazine's recovery, making it one of the most widely circulated privately owned literary magazines of its time." In 1912, prior to her work for Broom, Ridge founded and edited the first number of the Ferrer Association's Modern School newsletter and, just a few years later, supervised editing of three issues of the literary journal Others. But for Wheeler it is Ridge's work with Broom that demands attention, "because the disagreements she had with Loeb highlight prescribed roles female editors encountered, polarize the modernist debates on both sides of the Atlantic, show her confronting one of modernism's well-known artists, and demonstrate how the fallout over the American issue irrevocably affected Broom's future." The magazine folded four issues after Ridge's resignation, but it is Ridge's challenge to Gertrude Stein's inclusion in the American number I find most fascinating. In a 2 January 1923 letter to Loeb tendering her resignation, Ridge writes:
You say it is difficult for you to analyze the cause of my resignation, "as the effect is entirely disproportionate to the cause." I took hold of BROOM early last March for the purpose of saving a failing venture in which I felt strongly interested. But I did not propose to do this either as your agent or as your mss. reader, but as the American editor.
2. G. Stein.
Her words satisfy Sherwood Anderson's nostralgia [sic; nostalgia] for home-cooking. I see that you advance his slushy sentimentalities about her in the New Republic as an argument in support of your opinion of her importance. I object to her work in BROOM, not because of the missing substance in her work, not because she merely plays with language, but because she does not do it well enough. If you must play with words, as such, with no impetus or passion behind, then you must do it skillfully as a swordsman plays with rapiers — as Marsden Hartley, Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens have done it. G. Stein's words — house-wife's canning plums — peanuts rattling in a straw hat — at best, corn popping in a skillet.
Personally, I have nothing against Miss Stein. I do not know her, but she is doubtless a lady of charm. Witness her power thereof in her literary reputation — a bladder blown up by many breaths. Well, my breath will not help to fill this particular bladder.
You say in your letter of December 6th, that you gather that my resignation was conditional. It was — on the withdrawal of the Stein page from the American number. I should not have greatly objected to it in any other. You, on the other hand, felt that "any review of American literature that left out G.S. would be incomplete."
Is the January number intended as a review of those arrived American writers whose work has already influenced their contemporaries? [...]
And then what about the impression given in your December ad which presages a rushing to the front of little known or totally unknown American writers? Ten years ago, when Kay Boyle was a child of ten, Gertrude Stein was quite the rage in her mother's literary set in Cincinnati ... I mention this fact to show the incongruity of the inclusion of Stein — a woman who reached the height of her notoriety a decade ago — in the group of unknown or little known moderns mentioned in your ad.
However, you are right in believing that the Stein poem was not the sole cause of my resignation, but merely the last jerk that snapped the string.
The veiled indictment of hereditary class privilege advanced through Ridge's opposition to Stein should not be dismissed. Ridge begins with an insistence that Stein's work "plays" with language, refusing to approach language through its grounding in social conditions. Ridge then identifies Stein's literary success with the belligerent force of generational wealth. At the beginning of her letter Ridge confidently registers her own refusal to be situated as an assistant or secretary and asserts her role as editor, calling our attention to gender inequality as it dovetails with class; that is, it is doubtful that an editor like Loeb, who married into the stunning cultural force of the Guggenheim family, would ever attempt to challenge the authority of a figure like Stein as an arbiter of taste. Ridge, however, was a target of a different order and one whose baseline understanding of culture Loeb radically disagreed with, as Loeb himself later confessed:
Broom, in my opinion, should favor writers who appreciated the values in the contemporary scene. This partiality soon brought me into conflict with Lola, who tended to depreciate products of the American capitalist system. To her, capitalism was corrosive, its products corrupt; I felt that capitalism was impersonal, its products magnificent. Since many an untenable religion had in the past inspired glorious artifacts, why shouldn't "money mysticism" do likewise? (qtd. Light In Hand: Selected Poems of Lola Ridge).
The statement is astounding, not only for its trust in the "invisible" hand of the economy, but more for its clear identification of avant-garde achievement with the structuration of a specifically American market economy. In this instance Loeb announces his own radical inability to comprehend Ridge's understanding of culture and, by extension, his inability to grasp Ridge's opposition to Stein. It is unclear how Belinda Wheeler will address these issues in her forthcoming book Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts, but her having made such crucial moments in Ridge's correspondence to Loeb publicly available, and the incredible care with which she frames and edits these letters, suggests Wheeler's book will be essential reading.