This post is a reflective response to a recent podcast, Talking Tender Buttons, featuring a panel/response group moderated by Al Filreis, and including Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Bob Perelman, Julia Bloch and (by remote connection) Ron Silliman. The link to the podcast is via Silliman's Blog, here: http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2013/10/blog-post_9090.html
Back in the mid-1970's, after I had dropped out of graduate school, and was rather at loose ends, I contemplated returning to Berkeley to pursue a thesis on the writings of Gertrude Stein. There was at that time a department full professor named Richard Bridgman, who had published a book, Gertrude Stein in Pieces , and I met him in his Wheeler Hall office, probably in 1973, to explain my interest in Stein, and inquire of him whether he thought such a thesis might be welcome in the department. He responded negatively, to my surprise, saying that as a result of his thorough-going study into her work, he felt serious literary attention devoted to her writings would not be a worthy pursuit. As a result of that meeting, I decided to put off returning to grad school, and ended up starting work for the government about a year later. It was a turning-point for me, not just in my work-life, but in my attitude towards Modernist literature. I had been reading Stein's work for several years, and it seemed to me that there was fertile ground for study and appreciation, ground which had not even been acknowledged, much less developed in the academy. The English Department at Berkeley was on the threshold of a convulsive period of change, a change which would turn much of the official critical and appraisal values of art and literature in the preceding half century on their head. I'm not sure I understood that at the time, but I did have an inkling that the recognition of Stein's contribution to the history of experimental writing, and of the understanding of experimental processes in art, was in its infancy. Whether or not the revelation of that possibility would ever be acknowledged officially was another question.
While still an undergraduate at Berkeley, Robert Grenier, my poet-teacher during my junior and senior years there, had introduced me to selections from Tender Buttons . How such obviously obscure and odd and fascinating work could have been written three quarters of a century before, by a woman living in Paris, was a mystery beyond my comprehensions then. But its liberating qualities remained a touchstone for me in the succeeding years, and when I left graduate school in 1972, I continued to delve into her other writings, and found that TB was but a small morsel in a great banquet of delights and mysteries. The more of her work and lectures I read, the more I realized how original her position had been with respect to other Modernists, and what a revelation her insights and accomplishments were, not only in light of her own work, but to other writers and painters as well. She had much to teach me. That she might be ignored, or dismissed, or even condemned by the regnant centers of artistic or academic power, couldn't have mattered to me, since I had no conflicting commitments in my life, having abandoned professional writing and teaching for the "secular" workplace.
Listening to the Tender Buttons podcast yesterday, brought all of my accumulated thoughts and concerns of the past 40 years or so back to attention, and I thought this might be the opportunity to enumerate some of the ideas I've had about her work over time. A list like this is by no means exhaustive. The proof of the value of Stein's work is in the wide variety of applications which may be brought to bear on her work and life--applications, in many cases, which she actively anticipated and even considered. Indeed, one of the aspects of her personality was her keen awareness and sensitivity to the social milieus and contexts not just of her work, but of her presence in the world--its reception and the meaning and importance of that reception. She understood, I feel, that her writing had a palpable future, a measure of appreciation that she would certainly not live to see; and in addition, she understood (and was not above manipulating) the public media world against which her experimental investigations (and rather exclusive "life-style") were shown in ironic relief. Her identity as a Jewish intellectual, and an openly co-habiting Lesbian, required that she adopt stances--by turns supremely confident, at others indulging comic self-caricature.
So here is a kind of almanac of probable areas of study or inquiry, which have occurred to me over the years, as a result of my reading of her work, and reading and thinking about her life.
Stein and time. No time.
There is no question that one of the primary departures that Stein undertook, after publishing Three Lives in 1909, was to abandon narrative. Narrative--by the time of late Henry James [The Golden Bowl (1904), The Ivory Tower (1917)], and early James Joyce [Ulysses was composed beginning in 1914]--had become, in a creative sense, exhausted. In the work of both late James, the Joyce of Ulysses, as well as the somewhat later efforts of Virginia Woolf, we can see a frustration both with the temporality of sequence, and with the limits of the sentence and the paragraph to adequately portray the complexities of thought and feeling. Stein's solution to this problem, which she had addressed head-on in The Making of Americans [written 1906-08, but not published until 1925], had led her to perceive that the landscape of contemporary narrative prose was either exhausted (and probably beyond her specific aptitude or interest); or she saw other possibilities, largely in the new early Modernist painters (Picasso, Matisse, Gris, etc.), which suggested objectifications of representation that she could make more out of than just telling "stories". Besides, she was no longer interested in interpreting the course of American life (i.e., of Sinclair Lewis or John Dos Passos), as she had chosen to live permanently in France in a kind of determined state of quixotic exile. The "continuous present" one experiences in Stein's experimental writing is a consequence of her rejecting all temporal development, in favor of focusing on the progress of her mind through language. This rejection of past and future, or an unfolding of event, constitutes a repudiation of mimesis. Her work exists in a nominative flatland of named things and relationships, infinite in its enumerations. Nothing is quite "real" except the verbal qualities which suggest interactions and stitches in the duration of consciousness. Once you get over this hurdle in her work, it all makes sense.
Stein and knitting.
I used to wonder what it was about Stein's work that made it "feminine". As a self-confident Lesbian, she possessed a forthrightness and a certainty about her place and function in the world, which was supported by her financial security. Her confidence in her own work was of the kind that takes as perfectly natural a sense of its own necessity and value. One of the qualities of Stein's experimental work is her use of the woven variation. For those familiar with her work, there is repetition, nesting, steady augmentation, and an overall design of color and contrasting elements which evolve out of the process of the order of her words and phrases.
Knitting is a complex art, and one whose particularities and variations aren't a metaphor for Stein's work on any scientific level. But there is an imaginative process which is similar in its methodology in experimental writing like Stein's, in which the accrual of apparently simple, though subtly continuous altering, functions is allowed to develop into larger structures which carry the valence or bias of those functions. Threads of meaning interlock and reappear, but do not build into complete pictures or related sequences of event. There is something comforting about her work, a comfort which is akin to the settled devotion to a task, rather than the working out of problems which constitute the usual business of fictional or non-fictional prose. Stein's work exists only in the time of its reading, not as reference to another spectrum of event. Its ostensible "subject" addresses only the play of its immediate, undulating surface. It is not "about" in the sense of being an account of another thing; without its own self-referentiality, it quietly dissolves into nonsense. It can be replayed, but not re-told. In that sense, it has the quality of pure music.
Stein and narration
Stein was perfectly capable of making adamant sense, and this was something she did over and over again in her letters, and in her conversation and lectures--as well as in her "straight" prose accounts, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , Lectures in America , Picasso , Paris France , Wars I Have Seen , and so on. She may be the first important author who acknowledged the demarcation between popular and academic audiences, addressing each discretely, playing to each one with an amused irony of their difference and contradictory natures. She understood how providing each with a coherent "story" could satisfy their respective curiosity and hunger for digestible meaning(s). Her academic audiences wanted architecture and tropes; he popular audiences wanted fun and bite-sized treats. She provided both.
Stein and Childhood - In the Round
From her earliest works, Stein's language plays with the juvenile apprehension of reality. Much of it is simplistic enough to be read by children, and in 1939 she published a book, The World Is Round, intended specifically for children, with illustrations by Clement Hurd. In Stein's cosmology, aesthetic productions are deliberately round. This circularity has a functional purpose not just in the style of her writing--its rhythm and tenor--but in what she saw as the self-referentiality of the artistic act. This roundness is demonstrated by the sanctimonious and often frustrating repetitiveness of her phrases and sentences. Their "nonsense" quality--like deliberate gibberish which delights the childhood mind--is both stubbornly naive and covertly witty. Stein--the voice of her writing--is by turns matronly, child-like, and authoritative. Like a child, she will make over-simplified pronouncements as if they were revealed wisdom, and then be amused by them, with perfect delighted mischief. Her writing often seems to taunt, or tease the reader, as if it were a kind of game. This kind of behavior seems contradictory in a serious writer; she is challenging the limits of the relationship between author (artist) and reader (audience), asking what the ground-rules are, and imagining new play-books.
James and The Making of Americans
The Making of Americans is a steamroller of gerunds. The participial insistence--they were listening and they were making conversation a conversation about food as they were thinking and eating and tasting what was being said--has an accretive propulsive inertia that overwhelms the reader. The continuous happening of event in this flat time-line erases separate agency (individual volition), and makes everything two-dimensional. Tenses and individual perception are erased. Whereas James had sought to delve more and more deeply into the involved connotations and iterations of thought, feeling and implication through an increasing complexity of sentence structure and multiple points of view, Stein sought to escape from these complications by simply ignoring them or pretending they didn't matter. The abstraction of modern painting, in which form and recognition were stretched and transformed, had shown her that an attempt to alter reality was as interesting an enterprise as attempting to mimic or mirror it; she could create interesting works of prose without having to be accountable to the vivid outlines or relations of people, society or the phenomenal world of inanimate objects, colors, sounds, shapes, etc. It opened up a whole realm of possibility. Things could be things without having any other intended or necessary purpose. The Making of Americans today looks and feels like some immense monument to a dead tradition, almost a camp performance intended to block future efforts. I have described it, elsewhere, as a kind of cathartic throwing-off of the yoke of responsible narration; she could think of having disposed of that duty once and for all. The Great American Novel.
Stein and Cubism
Much has been made over the decades about the relation between Cubism as a technique of the modern movement in painting, and Stein's concept of literary form. Hemingway's early stripped down prose style in his first published stories appears to owe a debt to Stein's syntactic tricks--the build-up of conjunctive phrases, the reduction of event to a series of basic statements, the directness and lack of any descriptive or interpretive leavening. It's difficult to define precisely how Picasso's visual language affects Stein's work. There's a mosaic quality in some of the canvases which derives from Cezanne's patchy constructions; the Pointillists and the Fauves used bits or daubs to build up larger visual pictures. The closer you get to those canvases, the more they resemble computer generated screens, whose totality is revealed to be made out of dots. If an object could be seen from multiple angles simultaneously, then the limits of space in time in a painting might be overcome. The result could be intriguing but ultimately fragmentary. In writing--where time is a continuous tape running from the beginning to the end, with pauses and rests, and varying speeds, and nodes of meaning, and echoing relationships among words and things--you could literally examine things or groups of things, successively holding them up and turning them this way and that to reveal their opposite sides--their three-dimensional form(s).
Stein and Domesticity
Stein established a permanent lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, beginning in 1908, a relationship and commitment which lasted until Stein's death in 1946. The domestic world of their household was in many senses traditional, with Alice performing the "feminine" duties, while Stein produced her serious work and entertained guests in her atelier. The works of art and furniture which they acquired over the years were taken into this interior world, and became talismans of their highly articulated life together. In Stein's writing, the immediate settled locus of her speaking voice comes out of a strong sense of place, of being in place. This sense of being is the actual "subject" of much of her experimental writing, of the speaker's pace and wending of meditation. The voice of her work does not strive to get outside itself, or to reach out to the world at large for issues or interest; it is content to peruse things in idleness, in the quiet seclusion of her study. On the circumscribed common of her meditative surface, she toys with and regards things the way a curious child might. The thinking and circling and fidgiting are like knitting, or any domestic task one might engage in, in the protected precincts of the home. Also, we now know that Stein's and Toklas's relationship was characterized by a complex private language, hermetic and intense, emotional and meticulous. Both were creatively engaged with the world: Toklas handled the practical requirements of their life together, while Stein addressed the world of art and philosophy. Together they were a self-sufficient unit that functioned efficiently and got a lot done.
Stein and Genius
There is a sense of presumption in nearly everything Stein did, a cockiness which is partly the consequence of her financial position, and partly an over-compensating insistence to balance the anxiety of being a woman artist, a lesbian, a Jew, and a kind of gifted amateur among artistic (or literary) professionals. She was reportedly a haughty egotist, convinced of her own artistic genius, and she was not embarrassed to condemn younger writers and artists whom she regarded as her inferiors. At a time, during the 1920's, when her work was little more than a rumor in America (or anywhere for that matter), she presumed to tell Hemingway and William Carlos Williams what she thought of their attempts. She could be cutting and malicious. This sense of her own genius was a myth constructed partly out of her prescience in being among the earliest champions of Matisse and Picasso and Gris, and partly out of the astonishingly novel compositions, most of which she was obliged to self-publish, since there was no publisher who would dare to. By the time she came back to America, in the 1930's, the "reputation" of her "influence" and literary conjurings was large enough that she could use it as a launching pad to assume the populist image of the diminutive little grandmotherly figure, the genius she always had known herself to be.
Stein and populism
When Stein came to America after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , she was lionized and satirized in the press. Her lectures and interviews made her an object of curiosity but she understood how her public persona could be put to good use. She maintained a kind of double identity, one side the serious private experimentalist, the other the media puppet of A Rose is a Rose is a Rose, and she was content to let both versions co-exist. And when the Americans liberated France, she seized that opportunity to celebrate her own patriotism, welcoming the young soldiers and waving the stars and stripes for the cameramen. Whereas on the one hand, her exile from America symbolized a dismissal of the cruder aspects of American culture, its provincial commercialism, its artistic backwardness, she was not against showing the colors when it served her needs.
This only scratches the surface of a possible array of the aspects of Stein's character, and the different categorical headings one might enumerate. And I intend to cover more of them in future. Among the subject areas, I would include Stein and Class, Stein and Toklas, Stein and Jewishness, Stein and Hermeticism, Stein and Self-Publication, Stein and Sexism, Stein and Automatic Writing, Stein and Exile. Biographies of Stein provide fruitful areas of research as well. One good recent book about her is Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, edited by Wanda Corn and Tirza True Latimer [University of California Press, 2011].