Kreymborg and the Modernist Autobiography

As a peripheral figure in the groups of convening artists in Paris in the 1920s, Kreymborg’s interpretation and recollection of the expatriate experience is necessarily different from other Modernist figures that inhabited the artistic circles of the Left Bank. Though he was introduced to the literary circles during his visit to Paris in 1921, he never became an active member of “the Crowd,” as Robert McAlmon called it. Passages in Troubadour show that Kreymborg was never entirely comfortable during his time in Paris—as he says, in the third person, “Krimmie’s French was a severe handicap. He must have seemed queer to these Parisians. Every foreigner spoke French of a sort and few Frenchmen ever descended to another language” (288). Aside from a language barrier, Kreymborg apparently did not enjoy the company of the congregations of artists—as opposed to the importance that he grants to his time amidst artists in Grantwood and New York. In a letter sent to Gertrude Stein from Italy in August of 1921, he wrote, “In Paris we saw too much of Americans and of artists. We don’t know a single high-brow here, and god, the blessing of it” (UVA Special Collections). His remarks to Stein—and his time in Paris more generally—represent a tension throughout Troubadour, as well as throughout his life: he acknowledges the benefits and support that come from working in a community of artists, yet he also believes, as he suggests in Troubadur, that “when [the artist] turns sociable it is usually at the expense of some compromise with his inner being” (159). Because he was not as sociable as other literary figures that wrote memoirs of the ‘20s, Troubadour focuses more on drawing attention to and promoting authors, rather than engaging in gossip or criticism. As Craig Monk points out in Writing the Lost Generation, Kreymborg’s generous treatment of writers in Troubadour shows that his “modernism was already distinguishing itself by its Catholicism, its heterogeneity” (39).

With the contentious debates among figures and groups within Modernism, writers like Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, and Ernest Hemingway use their autobiographies largely as legitimizations of their own writing and censure of others’. Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together provides a more intimate and severely critical depiction than Troubadour, but the social interactions that provided him with the intimate material for his memoirs may have come at the cost of what Kreymborg feared: as Sylvia Beach claims, “Bob was so busy sharing his interesting ideas with his friends or listening attentively and with sympathy to their stories of frustration that he neglected his craft, which was supposed to be writing” (Beach 25). Though Kreymborg would eventually become more critical of some of his contemporaries in Our Singing Strength, published in 1929, the more neutral position of Troubadour helped, as Monk claims, take “tentative steps toward defining modernism as a movement; and asserting for this fledgling movement a privileged position within American culture” (21). Indeed, heterogeneity was necessary for Kreymborg’s role in promoting figures that were marginalized in 1925. Writing nine years later, however, McAlmon was evaluating—and in many cases, attempting to downplay—reputations that had already began to establish. Throughout his account of the 1920s, he does not so much defend his own work and reputation as challenge those of others. In writing about Stein, he attempts to reveal an insecurity in her self-professed authoritative position, saying, “I left thinking that one could become fond of Gertrude Stein if she would quit being the oracle and pontificating, and if she would descend from the throne chair and not grow panicky any time someone doubted her statements” (McAlmon 205-206). Similarly, he seeks to undermine Hemingway’s reputation as a hardened, bullfight aficionado by claiming, “I suspect that [Hemingway’s] need to love the art of bullfighting came from Gertrude Stein’s praise of it, as well as from his belief in the value of ‘self-hardening’” (161). Whereas Kreymborg seeks to romanticize Modernism, McAlmon seems to demythologize it.

Like McAlmon, Hemingway provides a number of anecdotes in A Moveable Feast that serve to challenge the popular conception of expatriate writers’ images—from describing the petty nature of Stein’s quarrels, to presenting a portrait of a desperate Scott Fitzgerald. In romanticizing gestures, he plays up his ‘hardened’ persona, describes hunger as a useful trait for writers, and creates an idealized vision of Parisian cafes and social life. A major that Hemingway and Kreymborg share with McAlmon is the attention to the craft of writing in their autobiographies. Whereas McAlmon judges the works of his contemporaries throughout his autobiography, he rarely discusses his own writing. Hemingway explicitly, and Kreymborg more obliquely, describe theories and methods related to their writing, and provide the reader with insight into the craft involved in their work.

Another gesture of Modernist autobiography that Monk points out is the tendency toward self-aggrandizement. In Troubadour, Kreymborg discusses his various contributions to Modernism and describes some of his writing, but he does not indulge in the sort of self-promotion that some of the Modernist expatriate autobiographers do. In Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein positions herself as the authoritative figure of Modernism—both in the genius of her own writing, and her influence on other artists and writers. While Kreymborg’s discussion of his important, influential ventures—such as Glebe and Others—revolves around all of the figures involved, Stein tends to reconstruct events only as they relate to her. The attempt to place herself in the center of Modernism may be summarized by an example from her autobiography in which she claims that the publication of The Making of Americans in the Transatlantic Review in 1924 represented “the first time a piece of the monumental work which was the beginning, really the beginning of modern writing, was printed” (233). It is probably this arrogance that causes figures throughout the text to quickly come in and out of friendships with Stein. As is evident from the autobiography, disapproval of Stein’s work would sever a relationship with her, and she befriended and appreciated only those artists who either appreciated her or recognized her as the authority of Modernism. As Hemingway recalls in A Moveable Feast, “I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career” (27). Indeed, when Stein does mention Kreymborg in her autobiography, it is only in relation to Kreymborg accepting her work to be published in Broom in 1921. In contrast to Stein, Kreymborg’s more accommodating position toward the personalities of other writers may provide the foundation for the catholicity of his judgments, and shapes the way he describes other writers in Troubadour. In a example, Kreymborg claims that in his youth, he “had his ribs beaten in by the lusty rataplan of the Menckenesque drum-stick;” though upon meeting Mencken in Europe, he says that “as long as they avoided poetry…[they] moved along as smoothly as a pair of student friends” (311).

This tolerance for other writers and catholicity of judgment is what allowed Kreymborg to successfully make the adjustment from the avant-garde to the establishment. In Paul Rosenfeld’s 1925 book, Men Seen, he prophetically describes Kreymborg as a poet extending the romantic tradition to meet experimental new forms. Though in the 1920s Kreymborg had not yet voiced his admiration for poets like Shelley and Swinburne, Rosenfeld astutely recognizes, “there never was…any sentiment of conflict between the moderns and the classics in the mind of [Kreymborg]” (Rosenfeld 139). He finds value in the universal experience that Kreymborg expresses through trivial objects and common occurrences; while other critics overlook the artistry in such poems, Rosenfeld claims that Kreymborg’s poetry, “constantly refers one to the human immensities against which the feelings [and] experiences, are thrown” (144).