The very strange tale of “The World Is Round”, Gertrude Stein’s long lost psyche-searching children’s book.
In 1938, the children’s author, Margaret Wise Brown asked a series of prominent American authors to write a one-off children’s book for her publishing house, Young Scott Books. Ernest Hemingway said no. So did John Steinbeck. Gertrude Stein however, said yes, she was working on a children’s book already called The World Is Round, and it was nearly complete.
Stein did have some conditions for the publisher. She specified that her book be illustrated by Sir Francis Cyril Rose, a truly awful English painter who she inexplicably championed. Also, every single page should be pink and the ink in blue. Despite their concerns about legibility the publisher decided they could just about meet the pink pages/blue ink but didn’t think Rose was right for the book. They sent the demanding author several samples of illustrators in their stable and reluctantly Stein chose one. Clement Hurd.
The publisher made a brave and progressive choice. The World Is Round is one of the strangest children’s books ever published. An existential and esoteric mix of unpunctuated prose and deep, thought provoking poetry.
The book’s main character is called Rose. Stein dedicated the book “To Rose Lucy Renée Anne d’Aiguy, A French Rose,”. This real Rose was a child Stein knew, the daughter of her neighbour in Bilignin, France. The real Rose had two dogs, Love and Pépé who both appear in the book.
Grounded with these few crumbs of reality, the book launches off into narrative that questions the relationship between words and being, exploring a child’s psyche and sense of self:
“Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.
Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals.
That is the way it was. And everybody dogs cats sheep rabbits and lizards and children all wanted to tell everybody all about it and they wanted to tell all about themselves.
And then there was Rose.
Rose was her name and would she have been rose if her name had not been Rose.
She used to think and then she used to think again.”
Stein’s second choice artist Hurd provided a single illustration for each chapter. Whilst incomplete in terms of the entire book, these 1939 drafts of illustrations sent by Hurd in America to Stein in France and found in a collection of her papers at show the back and forth remote workings between the author of an abstractedly symbolic work for children and the artist trying to interpret and visualise the impenetrable internal worlds within The World Is Round.
Hurd did a great job and Stein’s insistance on pink & blue really works. Perhaps her initial choice of, and preference for Francsis Rose had something had a certain “rose” symmetry in Stein’s mind. The two “Roses” in her life. Rose, her neighbours daughter & Francis Rose, one of her favourite painters.
So. The “making of” a strange, lost psychological children’s book by one of America’s leading writers. A book and imagery that fell quickly and deeply into the abyss of complete and utter obscurity.
Credits : “Lord Chaos, the life of Sir Francis Rose”, Nick Harvill Library, 20 December 2015 ; “Gertrude Stein: The World is Round” We too were children, Mr. Barrie. Being a Compendium of Children’s Books by Twentieth Century “Adult” Authors Currently Out of Print. May 10, 2011 ; the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers at Yale Universtity Library.
The illustrations for chapters 12 & 13 (above) became chapters 13 & 14 (below).
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