SHORTLY AFTER THE FOUNDING of publisher Young Scott Books in 1938, the Young Scott author Margaret Wise Brown (and author of Good Night Moon) suggested that it might be possible to convince leading adult authors to try their hands at a children's book. Letters were sent to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway and Steinbeck declined, but Gertrude Stein replied that she already had a nearly completed manuscript entitled The World Is Round and would be happy to have it published by Young Scott.
As with all of Stein's work, there were varying opinions as to whether or not the story was accessible enough to be published. Publisher William R. Scott was against it, but his wife, brother-in-law, and Margaret Wise Brown were strong advocates, and so the book was accepted for publication. Once the contract was signed, Stein immediately started making demands: the pages needed to be pink, the ink needed to be blue, and the illustrator needed to be the aptly named Francis Rose. While the first two demands presented technical difficulties and were questionable with regards to ease of reading, they could be met. But Scott did not want Francis Rose to illustrate the book. Instead, he offered samples by several Young Scott illustrators, from which Stein was to choose. She selected Clement Hurd, whose first illustrated book had appeared just that year.
The book's original release included a special edition of 350 slipcase copies autographed by Stein and Hurd (see below), as well as the trade edition (see above). The book is dedicated "To Rose Lucy Renée Anne d'Aiguy, A French Rose," who was the daughter of Gertrude Stein's neighbors in Bilignin, France. This real Rose is the main character of the book, complete with the also real dogs Love and Pépé. From this small kernel of reality, the book expands into a symbolic narrative that questions the relationship between words and being, and explores a child's sense of self. What more could you expect from Gertrude Stein?
THE WORLD IS ROUND is a mix of largely unpunctuated prose and poetry. The chapters are short with, for the most part, a single illustration for each one. The book opens with several introductory anecdotes about Rose and her cousin Willy.
"Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.Rose is very concerned about who, what, when, and why she is, and she often expresses that concern through song, and when she sings she cries. Willie, on the other hand, has no question who he is, he is Willie and he is quite certain about everything. Willie also sings, but it is only to affirm his surety.
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."
One day Willie's father takes him to a place where there are wild animals. "Nobody knows how the wild animals came there. If the world is round can they come out of the ground but anyway everybody had one and sometimes somebody sold one, quite often everybody sold them." Willie's father buys him a lion, much like Rose's dog, but large and terrifying. The lion so excites Willie that he begins to question nature, and when he questions nature, he cries like Rose, and so he summons his self assurance with a definitive statement, "there were only two baskets of yellow peaches and I have them both," and he decides to give his lion to Rose.
Rose is very concerned about the lion, as she is concerned about all things. She knows he is a lion, and she knows he isn't blue, which is her favorite color. But a lion can not come to school, "if a lamb can not come into a school how certainly not can a lion." Soon a man outside the school calls "either or either or, either there is a lion here or there is no lion here, either or, either or." This upsets Rose interminably, of course, and she decides the lion must go back to Willie. When Willie receives the lion back, he is no longer concerned about whether the lion exists or not, he is just concerned with "whether a lizard could or could not be a twin." When the lion comes back, Willie is suddenly certain the lion is a twin, and with that decision, there no longer is a lion, "and he was never there any more anywhere neither here nor there neither there nor here."
"When mountains are really there they are blue." Rose, who is always thinking, looks out one day and sees the mountains in the distance. Those mountains elicit the first definite thought Rose may ever have had, "There the mountains were and they were blue, oh dear blue blue just blue, dear blue sweet blue yes blue." She even sings about it without crying, and so she resolves to go to the top of a mountain, because there she would be certain where she was and she would be able to see everything, "she would sit on that chair, yes there."
So after much deliberation, Rose settles on what kind of chair she is going to bring (a blue one, of course), and she sets out. It is a long, frightening, exhausting journey on which Rose constantly questions herself and nature. She feels very alone, and when she feels alone she thinks of her cousin Willie. "Was she awake or did she dream that her cousin Willie heard her scream." She goes on and on and on. At times she wants to stop, but she knows if she stops she may never continue to the top of the mountain. She travels through the night, which is frightening, and she alternately wishes Willie were there and that he wasn't. She questions and questions and questions, but she also perseveres, and climbs and climbs and climbs. But
"when you are all alone alone in the woods even if the woods are lovely and warm and there is a blue chair which can never be any harm, even so if you hear your own voice singing or even just talking well hearing anything even if it is all your own like your own voice is and you are all alone and you hear your own voice then it is frightening."
When her fears reach this pitch, there is nothing for her to do but reaffirm herself, and the best way she finds to do that is to stand on her chair and carve around the trunk of a tree Gertrude Stein's immortal words, "Rose is a Rose is a Rose" so they form an endless loop. This is an act she never could have done before her climb, as it is a definite statement of self. As she does it she starts to suppose, but then she cuts herself off. She is certain. And she has not yet reached the top of the mountain.
Soon after she comes to a round meadow with high grass, and she continues through the grass, up and up and up, although still at times she is exhausted and she doesn't know if it is day and night and she wants to stop, but she keeps going and going and going. And finally she gets there. "She was all alone on the top of everything and she was sitting there and she could sing."
She sings without crying. She is certain of herself and where she is. But she is lonely. She knows who she is and what color her eyes are and what her favorite color is (blue), but she is lonely. And soon she starts to question where is there. The knows here, but where and what is there, and she starts to cry again. "Oh dear wailed Rose oh dear oh dear I never did know I would be here, and here I am all alone all night and I am in a most awful fright."
Night falls. But soon, Rose sees something. It is a light on top of another mountain. It is a searchlight, and suddenly she knows Willie is on that other mountain, and that is all it takes to make her complete. She knows she is here and Will is there and so she is certain of everything.
"Willie and Rose turned out not to be cousins, just how nobody knows, and so they married and had children and sang with them and sometimes singing made Rose cry and sometimes it made Willie get more and more excited and they lived happily ever after and the world just went on being round."
RECEPTION OF THE WORLD IS ROUND was mixed. Many critics took the opportunity to mock Stein's writing out of hand, the repetitions, the enjambments, the perceived impenetrability. But some of the more discerning children's critics in The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Times Book Review recognized that Stein's rhythm was in fact similar to the rhythm of stories that young children tell themselves, and that the book, when read aloud, was not difficult to follow. Still, the book is a difficult one, as a child needs to recognize that the true story is that of Rose's inner conflict and not the barely there action.
Clement Hurd's illustrations, on the other hand, gained enough recognition that the department store W & J Sloane launched a line of children's rugs based on them, the Nursery Steins. From the advertisement in the October 21, 1939 issue of The New Yorker:
"Those bewitching Clement Hurd illustrations of Gertrude Stein's first children's book, "The World Is Round," started it all. Whimsical, impish...they flashed on us as perfect naturals for the designs of children's rugs. Now we have ready...just when your youngster is clamoring for the lyric nonesense of "The World Is Round"...a group of six scatter rugs. They're hand hooked, genuine wool. They'll clean like lambs. While there are no pigeons in the grass, alas...you can chose "Rose Is a Rose," "Eyes a Surprise," "Willie and His Lion," "Is a Lion Not a Lion," "There" or "The World Is Round." $14.50. Rug Department, Fifth Floor"IN 1966, Young Scott Books reissued The World Is Round. This time the pages were white, the text was black, and the pink was reserved for the illustrations and title names. Clement Hurd took the opportunity to create new illustrations based on his originals. As he writes in the "About the Author and Artist":
"Artists, in mature years, seldom have opportunity to reillustrate books they did at the start of their careers. In doing this edition of The World Is Round, Clement Hurd has chosen to use his original concepts. The result is a series of pictures that retain youthful exuberance enriched by growth in technical skill and perceptual insight."The new illustrations are just as striking as the originals and in some cases a distinct improvement. But perhaps of more interest than the artistic improvements, is the reinterpretation of the material in the last few pages. In the illustration above for chapter thirty-two "There," Rose reclines in her chair, arms crossed and settled in her lap, fulfilled now that she has reached her goal. But in the 1966 edition, Rose leans forward in her chair, her legs together, both feet planted firmly on the ground, and her hands turned up in fists, almost as though she is about to stand up again.
In the original illustration for chapter thirty-three "The Light" (above left), Rose fends off Willie's searchlight with upraised arms, while the light does not quite reach her. In the 1966 version (above right), the light shines through Rose and she sits back, relaxed by and accepting of it.
And in the illustrations for the final chapter, the original (below left) shows the world alone, while the 1966 version (below right) shows Rose and Willie holding hands, on top of the world, Willie's arm raised in triumph, his lion and Rose's dog along for the ride.
Somewhere between the two editions, Hurd came to understand that Rose's satisfaction does not come from reaching the summit of her mountain. That the initial wave of accomplishment is quickly washed away by new uneasiness. And that true internal calm, comes from the union between Rose and Willie, that between the two of them, they can understand, or at least embrace, the entire world.
Two years later, another San Francisco publisher, North Point Press, printed a trade edition of the Arion book set. The trade edition was a single book that contained both the novel and the essay, here billed as an afterward. The book was square with the novel in round circles bordered by pink, and the afterward in a smaller square also bordered in pink. Interestingly, for the last image, Hurd reverted to the first edition illustration of the earth and moon alone. In fact, he even removed the clouds.
THERE IS ONE LAST edition of The World Is Round. Released in 1993 by Barefoot Books, it is a small book of the kind found on spinner racks at the checkout line, meant as a gift that can fit in a pocket. The illustrations are by Roberta Arenson, and the pink has finally been banished, the illustrations in blue against white paper. The introduction claims that the book has had many admirers and that Barefoot Books hopes to bring it to even more. The book is currently out of print.
TO SEE ALL OF THE ILLUSTRATIONS from the first edition of The World Is Round, see my Flickr set here. For more examples of the illustrations to the second edition, see the second edition Flickr set here. And for more of Roberta Arenson's interpretation of the text, see the Barefoot Books Flickr set here.
All of the historical information for this post was pilfered from Edith Thatcher Hurd's essay The World Is Not Flat from the Arion Press edition of 1986, also included in the 1988 North Point Press edition. The Johns Hopkins University Milton S. Eisenhower special collections was kind enough to allow me to photograph their slipcased and autographed copy of the first edition of The World Is Round. The photo of the Arion Press edition was lifted from Chartwell Booksellers.
All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.