I have been entertained and exasperated by Gertrude Stein for four decades. The summer of 2010 I put my experiences in words, surveying her work chronologically as a succession of nine epochs:
1904-1905: Beginning again and again
1903-1911: The difficulty of putting it down
1907-1912: Portraits of anybody and anything
1909-1914: Using everything
1913-1926: Funny things for fun
1915-1933: Oh yes I organize this
1923-1933: Practice of oratory
1927-1937: Death starts history and fears
1935-1946: No object to be obtained
Beyond the pleasure of organizing my thoughts and feelings, I wanted to insist that there is pleasure to be had in Stein's work, and that the pleasure is accessible.
1904-1905: BEGINNING AGAIN AND AGAIN
About a hundred years ago, Gertrude Stein was learning how to write poetry. Which, for her, was a matter of learning how to write nonsense.
She began the 20th Century traveling through Europe. She lived in New York City, briefly, and then returned to Paris in 1903. There she joined her brother Leo at 27 rue de Fleurus, where she begins to write in earnest.
Her writing, from the first, was unlike anything done before. She combined the most serious kind of literary aspirations with a skepticism about conventional modes of writing that was quite complete. She could do what she wanted because a modest independent income made it financially irrelevant whether or not her writings were published or read.
Her first book, Three Lives (1903-6) is, on one hand, a conventional fin-de-siècle study of the frailty of friendship, the confinement of family life, and the impossibility of escape. And on the other hand, this is what you find on the page:
Jeff Campbell never knew why Melanctha had not come to meet him. Jeff had heard a little talking now, about how Melanctha Herbert had commenced once more to wander. Jeff Campbell still sometimes saw Jane Harden, who always needed a doctor to be often there to help her. Jane Harden always knew very well what happened to Melanctha. Jeff Campbell never would talk to Jane Harden anything about Melanctha. Jeff was always loyal to Melanctha. Jeff never let Jane Harden say much to him about Melanctha, though he never let her know that he loved her.
It is a fiction, with characters and a story, but it is a very strange fiction. Conventions as old as Homer about how a storyteller delights, and catches the sympathy of the audience are being flouted. Instead of variety there is minimalism—minimalism of vocabulary, minimalism of syntax, minimalism of incident.
The vocabulary is primitive, the most basic English. Any suggestion of allusiveness, exoticism, erudition or literary intellectualism is suppressed. Like her contemporaries Maeterlinck, Jarry, and Raymond Roussel, Stein employs words and constructions that bewilder by their simplicity. As the book’s characters are German- and African-American, there is a hint of mimicking non-standard English. But the diction goes beyond anything required by realism. The words and names that Stein uses are repeated again and again, with such insistence that, for the reader, they start to detach from their meanings. Technique, in School or Paris fashion, determines content.
The sentences are arranged with a blunt parallelism. Again there is a suggestion of mimicking colloquial speech—colloquial anaphora, epiphora, periphasis, pleonasim—but it goes beyond any kind of realism. The paragraphs have the effect of monumental inscriptions, completely indifferent to the conventional literary attempts at fluency or grace.
Rose Johnson never asked Melanctha to live with her in the house, now Rose was married. … It could never come to Melanctha to ask Rose to let her. It never could come to Melanctha to think that Rose would ask her. It would never ever come to Melanctha to want it, if Rose should ask her, but Melanctha would have done it for the safety she always felt when she was near her. Melanctha Herbert wanted badly to be safe now, but this living with her, that, Rose would never give her. Rose had strong the sense for decent comfort, Rose had strong the sense for proper conduct, Rose had strong the sense to get straight always what she wanted, and she always knew what was the best thing she needed, and always Rose got what she wanted.
Events are presented in a way that drains them of drama: details and connections are suppressed, the import is not mentioned. Descriptions are legislative rather than vivid, taking the form of a general observation—a formula. The verbal formula is presented as the most comprehensive account of the person’s subjective and objective biography, something that does not change, but remains always the same.
And incidents are described again and again, as if the text were a sketchbook, and the whole was not a unified composition but rather a random compilation of distinct attempts at registering individual acts of perception. It is like what Meyer Schapiro saw in Cézanne:
… by multiplying discontinuities and asymmetry, it increases the effect of freedom and randomness in the whole. It is a free-hand construction through which his activity in sensing and shaping the edge of the table is as clear to us as the objective form of the original table. We see the object in the painting as formed by strokes, each of which corresponds to a distinct perception and operation. It is as if there is no independent, closed, pre-existing object, given once and for all to the painter’s eye for representation, but only a multiplicity of successively probed sensations …
The effect is of stasis, rather than drama. Instead of narrative progress, there is theme-and-variation. The reader, deprived of the distraction of sentimentality, is left to sort out the dismal events without any hope or pity.
The attitude towards the reader has changed. Instead of a sense of serious collaboration with the reader, there is a sense of provocation—the attitude of Whitman, of Laforgue, of Rimbaud, of modernism. And after this, came Ernest Hemmingway, Samuel Beckett, Natalia Ginzburg, the absurdists, the existentialists, the New Novel.
But already in Three Lives, Stein is more radical than the writers who subsequently learned from her. In Three Lives the primitivism, the repetition, the parallelism, the embedded alternative accounts comprise an entirely new kind of writing. Writing whose construction is not dramatic but additive, discrete units arranged one after another. In this kind of writing, the individual units don’t have any sense, only the whole. The sense of individual words, phrases and sentences is ironic or doubtful. Already in her first book it is impossible to take any individual sentence Stein writes at face value. She has begun to untie her words from conventional sense.
1903-1911: THE DIFFICULTY OF PUTTING IT DOWN
But radical as her experiment was, Three Lives was still grounded in the English sentence. Sentences provided a structure and stability within the experiment, like academic figure drawing grounded the experiments of her painter colleagues. In Stein’s next extended composition, The Making of Americans, (1903-11) she strains the English sentence to the breaking point.
It begins in the style of Three Lives, but after 150 pages, it takes a turn. The narrator promises to present a complete system of character-types that will explain every possible kind of person:
There are many kinds of loving in men, more and more this will be a history of them, there are many ways for women to have loving in them this will come out more and more in the history of women as it is here to be written, there are many ways for men to have loving in them, there are many ways that loving comes out from them, there are many ways for women and for to have loving in them, this is a history of some of them, sometime there will be a history of all of them. There are many kinds of men and many millions of each kind of them, there are many ways of loving that men have in them and their way of loving makes their kind of man, there are many ways of loving in men and having loving come out from them and this comes in many of them from the nature of them their bottom nature in them that makes their kind of men, sometimes from the bottom nature in them mixed with the other nature or nature in them nature that are the bottom nature, the way of having loving in them, of other kinds of men. There are many ways of having loving in them in men, there are many ways of having loving in them in women, more and more there will be a history of them, sometime there will then be a history of all of them.
The bluntness has become inscrutability. The effect of theme-and-variation has become even more insistent. Attention has shifted from “a” and “that” to “the” and “this.” Or, as Bertrand Russell would, write a couple years later in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, “We dealt in the preceding chapter with the words all and some; in this chapter we shall consider the word the in the singular, and in the next chapter we shall consider the word the in the plural.”
In the third section, Mrs. Hersland and the Hersland Children, the narrative and fictional elements have shrunk to bare names. And the narrator increasingly interrupts the narration to address the reader directly, commenting on her struggle to understand and to express all she knows. But neither the philosophical passages nor the literary passages are composed as arguments. Statements are presented, repeated with additional clauses, restated, repeated in different tenses, and repeated again. The effect is not of discursive prose, but of a work of music composed of words. Nothing is argued. In the end, it’s not clear that anything has even been asserted, even though Stein never abandons grammar or the sentence.
Here, Stein inaugurates the practice of inserting literary and linguistic observations in her writings, which she will continue for the rest of her career. Many commentators mine these remarks, and cite them as evidence of Stein’s view of her work and practice. I can’t imagine anything more absurd. Stein was too clever to ever perpetrate a manifesto. And if she did compose an ars poetica, she was too cheeky to leave it anyplace obvious. Even in her later lectures she was engaged in creation, not argument. None of her statements mean anything in isolation. That Stein wrote it does not equal she believed it. But it does indicate the depth and breadth of her anticipation of your, mine, anybody’s readings, and how toying with us was a large part of what her writing was. By the seventh section of Making of Americans (Alfred Hersland and Julia Dehning) the fiction is barely a pretext. It becomes less and less like a novel about the families of Gossols ...
I am not knowing anything being different from what it is. Very many are knowing everything being different from what it is. Once this was to me an astonishing thing. Now it is not to me at all an astonishing thing. …
... and more and more like Parmenides, in the translation of Kirk, Raven & Schofield:
It never was nor will be, since it is now, all together, one, continuous. For what birth will you seek for it? How and whence did it grow? I shall not allow you to say nor to think from not being: for it is not to be said nor thought that it is not; and what need would have driven it later rather than earlier, beginning from the nothing, to grow? …
By the eighth section, the assertions become tautologies: “When one is a young one one is a young one.”
Which is to say, irrefutably and absolutely true, but empty of signification.What to make of it? It might be a philosophical joke: the author assures us she is engaged in expounding a universal history of humanity, but, after a thousand pages, never gets around to explaining the system, and actually presents only a few random illustrations. It’s too much like George Eliot’s Chausabon, promising but never delivering a universal history of all mythologies.
The repetition, schematization, suppression of anecdote, nuance, variety, and color are stupefying. It is notoriously the first of the grand follies of literary modernism—an unreadable lump. But if you are willing to go along with it, the heavy cadences have a grave beauty. As the sentences ring changes, tiny variations spark glimpses of scenes, characters, and actions. The effect anticipates by three years the paintings of Picasso and Braque, where a shimmering surface is interrupted, here and there, by hints of figures, volumes. It radiates a massiveness that is also weightless, meditative, solitary, still. It was as if she were trying to write a fiction that was irrefutable.
And Stein is not just anticipating Cubism, but anticipating art of four decades hence. In 1961 Andy Warhol compiled a marathon film Sleep of short bits of footage repeated over and over. It is a kind of sketchbook, a view of the same take over and over again. As the repetitions multiply, the image of John Giorno begins to disintegrate: the head, torso, arms become strange, unfamiliar independent objects. The repetitions continue. You grow to hate that image. You start to get dizzy. The film is going on and on with or without you. It just keeps coming. The silence is absolute. It creates a dream-state, a sense of elevation, otherworldliness.
Similarly, The Making of Americans begins with the striving of the characters, but becomes, by repetition and tautology, the story of the striving of people in general, and finally the story of the striving of the narrator, operating within a shimmering, opaque operations of her art.
1907-1912: PORTRAITS OF ANYBODY AND ANYTHING
Susan Sontag made a case for Stein as a fundamentally comic writer, which is attractive but only partially true. There is no getting around the darkness of her first works. If Stein discovered a way to lightness—and she undoubtedly did—the question is, how?
Between 1905 and 1910, Stein became intensely involved with the two leaders of the School of Paris, Matisse and Picasso.
And in 1907 Alice Toklas began to be part of Stein’s life, and her brother Leo began to leave it. Toklas revolutionized her life, providing not only support for her experiments, but a structure to facilitate the transformation of sketches into drafts, and drafts into typed manuscripts.
Picasso painted Stein’s portrait while she was working on The Making of Americans, from 1905 to 1906. The portrait is one of the essential documents of Modernism, and inescapably part of Stein’s persona. In terms of Picasso’s development, the portrait documents the exact moment he abandoned the pastel sfumato of his earlier Blue and Rose manners (the treatment of the Stein’s body), in favor of bluntly delineated totems, confrontational, severe and opaque (Stein’s face).
The deliberate primitivization may be a recollection of a polychrome wood 12th century Madonna, with owl eyes, he had seen while in Gósol (whose name appears as “Gossols” in Making of Americans). He may have also had in mind Gauguin, who had a retrospective at the 1906 Salon d’Autumne.
By 1907 Picasso was exploring even more extreme schematization. He painted a Mother and Child—a motif laden with sentiment—that consists of red ovals on a navy circle, and a brown circle on emerald. An experiment in simplicity, it asks How severe can a picture be, and still register familiar feelings?
And that same year Picasso painted a Woman in Yellow with an impossible torso and arms, the first of decades and decades of Picassoesque monsters. The figure is torqued, flexing under terrific stress. Power radiates out of her, but the face is impassive. The background drapery has become a spiky crystal cavern. Everything soft is banished.
For years already, Stein’s other painter acquaintance, Matisse, had been simplifying forms into flat patches of un-modeled color, with deliberately primitive drawing, and acid harmonies. His paintings were without anecdote, emotionally blank, uncanny, and emphatic. They were stoutly constructed works designed to hold their own against the world, against distraction.
In 1906 Leo Stein bought Matisse’s Joy of Life, whose title suggests a poster for utopia, which it is not. After 101 years it still might be the work of a lunatic. Matisse had the audacity to appropriate motifs from Titian and the Impressionists, but with all the “life” left out. Some figures blend into the landscape and some figures jut abruptly out, between broad patches of moss, rose pink, sulfur.
The next year, 1907, Leo Stein bought Matisse’s Blue Nude/Memory of Biskra, with a fingerless upraised paw, a grotesque ribcage, a tubular stomach, an expressionless mask of the face. An anthology of female anatomy rendered with unlovely violence. It is as if Matisse had heard of the subjects of conventional painting, without ever seeing one. It is untouched by any tradition of drawing, color, characterization, composition. The same year he painted an apotheosis of crudity and violence, and titled it Luxe.
Stein observed the painters in her life replace facility with crudity, nuance with schematization, dreaminess with bluntness. These paintings of Picasso and Matisse have become familiar enough to blunt their strangeness. Stein’s writing in a primitivist manner remains outrageous.
With the example of the painters and the encouragement and practical assistance of Toklas, Stein turned from universal histories to the here and now, in writings she called “portraits.” They are not character sketches, encyclopedia entries, or eulogies, but literary analogies to the portraits of Matisse and Picasso.
The first portrait, Ada (December 1910), was significantly of Toklas. It begins in the continuous tense idiom—“being one being living”—of Making of Americans, but Stein lines the tautologies with incidental details, the epiphenomena the novel suppressed. And it tells young Stein’s favorite story—a woman enduring her suffocating family. But this time it ends literally happily: “And certainly Ada all her living then was happier in living than anyone else who ever could, who was, who is, who ever will be living.”
The portraits sometimes contain characteristic details, but many do not. Or the allusions may be so private as to be unknowable for readers. Most of the portraits could be assigned to different subjects. I don’t know that too much weight should be given to their status as likenesses.
Stein was certainly aware of the tradition of literary portraiture from Theocritus and La Bruyère, down to the profiles of journalism—but it doesn’t seem relevant. She created her own genre, by appropriating it from the visual artists around her. Like her subsequent appropriations of painterly genres of still-life and landscape, the portrait gave her a pretext and a format, within which she could write.
The early portraits recapitulate her tautological mode, but with a difference. In the portrait of Harriet (1910), nothing happens, but lively happenings are hinted at:
She said she did not have any plans for the summer. No one was interested in this thing in whether she had any plans for the summer. That is not the complete history of this thing, some were interested in this thing in her not having any plans for the summer.
Stein employs modifications of her tautological mode in a series of portraits from early 1911 Two Women, Orta, or One Dancing, Matisse, Picasso. In Bon Marché Weather, the stern narrator of Three Lives and Making of Americans is displaced by other voices, less earnest and less tongue-tied:
Very pleasant weather we are having. Very pleasant weather I am having. Very nice weather everybody is having. Very nice weather you are having. …
Very nice eating everybody is having. Very nice eating I am having. Very nice eating they are having. Very nice eating you are having. …
Very comfortable traveling they are having. Very comfortable traveling you are having. Very comfortable traveling I am having. Very comfortable traveling everybody is having.
Alternately, Stein pushed the severity of tautological mode to extremes. As in Four Dishonest Ones (1911):
They are what they are. They have not been changing. They are what they are.
Each one is what that one is. Each is what each is. They are not needing to be changing.
One is what she is. She does not need to be changing. She is what she is. She is not changing. She is what she is.
The tautologies become emptier, and sense becomes an incantation in Galeries Lafayettes (1911):
Each one is one and is that one and is especially that one and is that especial one and is accustomed to being that one, is used to being that one, is quite used to being that one, is very well accustomed to be that one, is certainly very well accustomed to be that especial one, is very well accustomed to be especially that one, is very well accustomed to be the one that one is being, is one that is being one and each one is one and there are many of them and each one is any one and any one is one, is an especial one, and each one is one, and there are many of them and each one is any one of them and any one of them is an especial one, and each one is one, each one is the one that is being that one, and each one is one, and each one is being the one each one is being, and each one is one, and each one is being each one, and each one is being the one each one is being and each one is one is the one that one is being, each one is being one is one being the one that one is being. Each one is one. There are many of them. Each one is one. Each one is one being the especial one that one is being.
Again painterly analogies seem relevant. During the summer of 1911 Picasso’s torqued monsters began to dissolve into a shimmer of glints and sharp edges (e.g. The Accordionist). During that same year Matisse painted his Red Studio, in which figure and scene interpenetrated and became indistinguishable.
The following year, Stein synthesized the tautological portrait mode in Two, which is a kind of ars poetica and double portrait of her brother and herself:
She would not have a decision and deciding that she would not be saying, she would be having a decision in meaning that reflection is interpretation and interpretation is decision and decision is regarding meaning and regarding meaning is acting and acting is expression and expression is not resisting winning and not resisting winning is submitting and submitting is leading and leading is declaration and declaration is beginning and beginning is intending and intending is deciding and deciding is creating and creating is not contending and not contending is destroying and destroying is submitting and submitting is decision …
1909-1914: USING EVERYTHING
While Stein was writing the first portraits, she was also working on two extended compositions that she had begun in 1909: A Long Gay Book and G.M.P. Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Both begin the tautological mode:
Loving is something. Not loving is something. Loving is loving. Something is something. Anything is something. (A Long Gay Book)
They stayed when they stayed. They all stayed when they stayed. They all respected what they said when they said what they said. They all said what they said. They all stayed. (G.M.P. Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein)
In both books, a couple dozen pages later, the tautologies become more like inventories:
Standing and expressing, opening and holding, turning and meaning, closing and folding, holding and meaning, standing and fanning, joining and remaining, opening and holding. It is a way the way to say that being finished is all of waking, it is a way to say that not doing again what is being done again is a way of intending to assist an only one. (A Long Gay Book)
The time that is lost is the time that is german, the time that is lost is the time that is american, the time that is lost is the time that is american, the time that is lost is the time that is bulgarian, the time there is lost is the time that is russian, the time that is lost is the time that is hungarian, the time that is the time that is norwegian, there is a time that is japanese and it has that way of being the time that is lost and the chinese way is all of that way and the swedish way is anyway of that way and there is an english way. (G.M.P. Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein)
Then, in A Long Gay Book, even the pretence of an inventory breaks down:
All the pudding has the same flow and the sauce is painful, the tunes are played, the crinkling paper is burning, the pot has a cover and the standard is excellence.
And the books end:
Etching. Etching a chief, none plush. (A Long Gay Book)
If the best full lead and paper show persons and the most mines and toys show puddings and the most white and red show mountains and the best hat shows lamp shades, if it is the sterns are sterner and the old bites are bulging and the best the very best of all is the sunshine tiny, is the hollow stone grinding, is the homeless wedding worrying. (G.M.P. Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein)
Ulla E. Dydo dates this shift “from abstract, patterned, rhythmical repetitions to a vocabulary of short, concrete, and even broken words and brief, sharp, declarative sentences that do not follow habitual grammatical order and paragraphing” to the first half of 1912, when Stein and Toklas explored Spain.
No more theme-and-variation, no more tautology, no more inventory. There words are arranged typographically in the form of a sentence, but the words have no coherent syntactical structure. Stein has achieved nonsense.
Nonsense but not meaninglessness.
These texts are anthologies, each one a selection of words of various tones and registers, combining the descriptive, analytical, sensual, sentimental, allusive, pastiche.
The disestablishment of narrative and disestablishment of description intensifies into a disestablishment of the sentence, which would not necessary result in nonsense. There’s plenty of ways of making fragments cohere. But here Stein eludes assertion. These anthologies are paratactic: the words and phrases are composed outside of the sentence. They are not abstract, not a response, not descriptions.
In other texts Stein wrote about that time, the inventories reappear, but transformed into lyric flights:
Cap and corn, auditor, interest and exertion, aim and audience, interest and earnest, and outset, inside in inside. (Braque, 1910-13)
Clinch, melody, hurry, spoon, special, dumb, cake, forrester. Fine, cane, carpet, incline, spread, gate, light, labor. (IIIIIIIIII, 1910-13)
It is often possible to tease out concrete biographical or historical referents. There are often puns, place-names and other details that can be read as clues. But this is forgetting that the obscurity is intentional. It is not meant to be removed by research into Stein’s life, study of the manuscripts, inventories of furnishings. The texts are not codes to be decoded. Stein found a way around significance (importance, seriousness) by deflecting signification (coherence, communication).
During a trip to Granada in the spring of 1913, Stein embarked on a series of still-lifes, which she continued through the fall, as her brother Leo moved out of 27 rue de Fleurus. It as not a genre she would pursue afterwards, but it gave rise to the most perennially popular of her difficult books, Tender Buttons.
Tender Buttons contains single lines or phrases that seem to be perfectly ordinary colloquial English discourse. But which, on closer examination, are completely extraordinary in import.
Water astonishing and difficult altogether makes a meadow and a stroke. …
Dining is west. …
There are paragraphs, which—in the guise of perfectly ordinary blocks of English prose—provide the reader with, a vast plain of discourse rigged with trap doors, impossible ladders to vertiginous perspectives, vistas couched behind the props, … a whole landscape, furnished with improbable equipment, posted with caution signs, billboards, paintings, and the air thick with unseen parties in animated conversation.
Is there an exchange, is there a resemblance to the sky which is admitted to be there and the stars which can be seen. Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty.
The tone is not confrontational, but tranquil bemused, affectionate.
Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing.
It is suffused with the presence of homely beauty. From chronicler of familial angst Stein became a seer of the everyday. Nothing could be more tonic for an age drowned in cheap fantasy:
Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession.
Around the same time, Wittgenstein remarked in his Notes on Logic, “Distrust of grammar is the first requisite for philosophizing.” Possibly, but Stein delighted in grammar, the gravitational tug of conventional syntax.
The reason that nothing is hidden is that there is no suggestion of silence. No song is sad. A lesson is of consequence.
She even imitates Apollinaire or Max Jacob:
A single image is not splendor.
Or maybe it’s a taunt directed at Ezra Pound, who, around the same time, defined “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
After inventing literary analogies to the painterly genres of the portrait and the still-life, in April 1913 Stein appropriated the landscape with her first play What Happened / A Five Act Play. She called them plays or operas and they occupied her for the rest of her life. The spatial motif also seemed to free her from the remaining vestiges of syntax:
More in any wetness.
Sixty three certainly.
More in orderly. Seventy
five. (A Curtain Raiser, 1913?)
Which can be explained as voices overheard haggling in a market. But the concision serves to delineate no picturesque scene. Out of twenty-one words, ten are numbers. Stein proposes to make art out of the least evocative words in the language. She also hints at a dampness around the abstractions, unaware and indifferent to the uses to which they might be put. Names of numbers: a theme for Bertrand Russell!
For decades to come Stein will experiment with numerical systems as a way of organizing and dis-organizing her writing.
Besides voices, Stein experimented with visual effects:
By the white white white white, by the white white white white white white, by the white white white white by the white by the white white white white. (Americans, 1913)
No No No No No No.
No no no, no no no. (Meal One, 1914)
Idle. (One or Two. I’ve Finished, 1914)
And in Sacred Emily (1913) a dozen pages of vehemently anti-colloquial writing nevertheless evokes tenderness:
Murmur pet murmur pet murmur. …
Night town a glass.
Color mahogany center.
Rose is a rose is a rose.
Page ages page ages page ages.
What are master-pieces? One kind are works radically outside any predetermined nature or culture. The methodology that produces them cannot be known at the start, but comes out in the making. The result is usually ugliness, but later can be turned to other ends. In the years before World War I Stein pursued her experiments and produced monstrous books. But with changing circumstances in her life, the production of monsters became the production of delight.
1913-1926: FUNNY THINGS FOR FUN
Once you’ve done away with the sentence, what is there to say? What can you say? How do you go on? From 1913 to 1926, Gertrude Stein reaped the harvest of her radical experiments with language, in a extraordinary series of anthology texts.
The dissolution of the sentence permited a mix of observation, exclamation and quotation that celebrated everyday life. Yet Dish (1913) inaugurated a series of texts, skirting abandon, that glimpse the beyond-speech, where speech becomes a gesture, provoking and decorative. In Lifting Belly (1915) the tortured self-consciousness of Making of Americans has been replaced by the relief of discovering that, “In the midst of writing there is merriment.”
Ladies Voices (A Curtain Raiser) (Spring 1916) inaugurated a series of plays in which fairly colloquial bits of sociable chatter create Firbankian comedy. Here is the complete text of Act II:
Honest to God Miss Williams I don’t mean to say that I was older.
But you were.
Yes I was. I do not excuse myself. I feel that there is no reason for passing an archduke.
You like the word.
You know very well that they all call it their house.
As Christ was to Lazarus so was the founder of the hill to Mahon.
You really mean it.
An Exercise in Analysis (1917) consists of twenty pages of acts most of which are a single phrase long, beginning winningly with “A Play / I have given up analysis.” Most are completely conventional conversational tags. But highlighted in this way, put on display, without the context or referents, they become strange, acquiring emptiness.
Not even the 1914-1918 war, which indelibly marked the work of so many of her contemporaries, could dampen Stein’s new levity. Relief Work in France (1917) treats it as an occasion for quaint expressions of Can Do:
The right spirit. There are difficulties, and they must be met in the right spirit.
This is an illustration of the difficulties we have in many ways.
Then we go on.
In Tourty Or Tourtebattre; a story of the great war (1917-20), Stein goes about as far into darkness of the century’s defining nightmare as she will ever get, treating it as an occasion for domestic disruption: “We should not color our hero with his wife’s misdeeds.” There is a continuity here with her reportage from Occupied France decades later.
Counting Her Dresses, A Play from 1917 to 1920 is already making history out of the School of Paris. “The meaning of windows is air” sounds like Apollinaire (“Le fenêtre s’ouvre comme un orange”) and the in-joke of
Which is an illustration for Saint Matorel, a Max Jacob novel. … I re-entered the woodcut and peace reigned in the desert of art. … Then, choking back sobs of humiliation, I wrote this piece, but with lots of absurd literary flourishes.
Stein’s modernism was triumphing—but the heroic era was over. In Tourty Or Tourtebattre it has even become possible to be glib about technique:
Reflections on Sister Cecile lead us to believe that she did not reflect about Friday but about the book in which she often wrote. We were curious. She wrote this note. This is it. Name life, wife, deed, wound, weather, food, devotion, and expression. What did he ask for. Why I don’t know. Why don’t you know. I don’t call that making literature at all. What has he asked for. I call literature telling a story as it happens. Facts of life make it literature. I can always feel rightly about that.
In A Circular Play (1920), not even the discipline of writing is taken seriously:
One does not run around in a circle to make a circular play.
Do not run around in a circle and make a circular play.
It is not necessary to run around in a circle to get ready to write a circular play.
And in the same year, Photograph toys with axioms for a manifesto:
A language tires.
A language tries to be.
A language tries to be free.
Finally, also in 1920, the heroic struggle with language and writing is translated into a hiccup:
That’s it. Four repetitions, not five. The most general form of not only literature but all writing: “This stands for a thought.” No need to write the thoughts out. No need to elaborate.
In these anthology texts, writing has come to a standstill, having revealed the conditions out of which it cannot escape. Attempts to produce a “thoughtless” writing, through automism or chance, are futile: the procedures themselves are wholly intellectual, as is the choice of presentation.
Schematicism alternates with fullness: A Sonatina Followed by Another (Spring 1921) fills thirty-two pages with the figure of a sleeping woman—one of Picasso’s perennial motifs:
Pussy said that I was to wake her in an hour and a half if it didn’t rain. It is still raining what should I do. Should I wake her or should I let her sleep longer.
And domestic bliss:
Can we count a nightingale. Can we escort one another. Can we feed on artichokes and olives and may we sell anchovies. No we may buy eggs. And now often do you say, I argue often about words and houses. … How can I thank you enough for holding me on the ladder for allowing me to pick roses, for enjoying my fireside and for recollecting stars.
The next year, Objects Lie On a Table / A Play offers a more general account of contented domesticity:
Do you like to see funny things for fun.
Objects lie on a table.
We live beside them and look at them and then they are on the table then.
Objects on a table and the explanation. …
Now then read for me to me what you can and will see. I see what there is to see. You want to show more effort than that. And now how do you do. I have done very well. The objects on the table have been equal to the occasion. We can decorate walls with pots and pans and flowers. I question the flowers. And bananas.
In the summer of 1923, no longer based in a Paris atelier, but in a house in Bilignin, in the country, she began revising earlier portraits of essential others in her life: Toklas (As a Wife Has a Cow, A Love Story) and Picasso (If I Told Him) , and Carl Van Vetchen (Van Or Twenty Years After). The extended work of the first half of the Twenties, A Novel of Thank You, seems to be another extended portrait of Alice:
To really make a story true this must be you. What did she do for me. She thought of arranging something so that I asked and so it came about that it was nearly at last and afterwards it meant more. What else did she do for me. She suggested that it would be just as well as many more have held it. It held very well. What did I do for her. I arranged that she had a friend and that that friend would show to advantage.
Much of Stein’s writing between the Wars evokes a long summer of contentment. Like Matisse at Nice, the struggle ceases to be the only theme.
1915-1933: OH YES I ORGANIZE THIS
But Stein never stopped struggling; she never became complacent. She ceaselessly questioned her tools and technique and, in the way of modernism, discovered new subject matter, new moods, new effects.
One of the things Stein struggled with between the wars was the challenge of the extended work.
This was a problem Stein shared with her avant-garde contemporaries: How to scale-up their earlier intimately-scaled experiments? The Soviet avant-garde made, for a while, art, propaganda, theater, products, and movies for a whole revolutionary state. The Bauhaus attempted to make modern design a commodity like any other. Schoenberg systematized free tonality into serialism. Painters from Rivera and Siqueiros to Matisse and Dufy found opportunities to paint public murals on an architectural scale. The Ballets Russes enabled Picasso, Gontcharova and other painters to create unified theatrical environments.
What about Stein’s long works of this period? Are they compositions—to use her word—or just collections of shorter works?
The results are mixed. Natural Phenomena (1925) revives mechanical repetition. A Birthday Book (1924) and An Instant Answer or A Hundred Prominent Men (1928) employ numerical schemes. The results are tedious, though the later includes an extraordinarily graphic paragraph:
The forty-sixth prominent man is the one who connected them to their country. My country all the same they have their place there. And why do you tell their names. I tell their names because in this way I know that and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one make a hundred. It is very difficult to count in a foreign language.
The most immediately accessible longer works achieve a unity through uniformity of tone. Lifting Belly (1915) sails along for fifty pages on high spirits. An Exercise in Analysis (1917) and A Sonatina Followed by Another (1921) are similarly unified through a lightheartedness, where Patriarchial Poetry (1927) is unified by faux belligerence. Lend a Hand or Four Religions (1922) employs repeition to the point of incantation, evoking an old-time call and response, in which the musical, the numerical, the religious are fused.
Another kind of extended work is a collection, and during the Twenties and Thirties Stein published the books of shorter pieces that made her notorious—Geography and Plays (Christmas 1922), Useful Knowledge (1929), How To Write (1931), and Operas and Plays (1932). The first and last are relevant to Stein’s sense of composition, in that they collect pieces in very different modes and moods, and make a unity out of diversity.
The two novels of the Twenties, A Novel of Thank You (1920-6) and Lucy Church Amiably (1927) pretend to have the structure of conventional novels by playful allusion and pastiche.
The supreme extended anthology text is Stanzas in Meditation (1929-33), in which Stein avoids all the usual literary ways of whining, nagging, preaching, confessing, swaggering, lecturing, seducing. She limits herself to function words, filler words, numbers, mid-century turns of phrase—everything that “good writing” edits out. And the result is an august strangeness. It is a surprising stunt and exhilarating. It is not just music, but the pleasure of the connotations being free: a freedom and simplicity that is not merely literary:
Oh yes I organize this. But not a victory
They will spend or spell space
For which they have no share
And so to succeed following.
This is what there is to say.
Once up a time they meant to go together
They were foolish not to think well of themselves …
1923-1933: PRACTICE OF ORATORY
Besides the lyrical short and long anthology texts Stein produced in the productive year 1923, she also started writing anthology texts which were largely made up of allusions to syntax, language, words and her own writings, treated variously with introspection, amusement, doubt, and mock-scientific sobriety. An Elucidation (1923) explains that,
If I say I stand and pray. If I say I stand and I stand and you understand and if I say I pray I pray to-day if you understand me to say I pray to-day you understand prayers and portraits.
You understand portraits and prayers.
And Practice of Oratory (1923) demonstrates that
Practice of Orations.
Four and their share and where they are.
Practice of Orations.
A. b c and d.
Practice of orations.
Which seems the cheerful older sister to Louis Aragon’s Suicide (1924)
A b c d e f
g h i j k l
m n o p q r
s t u v w
x y x
Stein is including her responses to language as she is writing. She is treating it as part of the landscape.
Even portraits like Edith Sitwell and Her Brothers the Sitwells (1926), become the occasion for a a meditation on fundamentals:
Description is relating reinstating. Description is reinstating really really really more reinstating. Reinstating connecting description. Description connecting reinstating. Description how do you do description. How do you do description.
… A poem makes chances. What is a description. A description allows after all allows, after all after all allows. Back to their name.
The tea party has been interrupted by Parmenides. But of course Parmenides has never really been away.
That same year the Sitwells and England prompted Stein to lecture at Cambridge and Oxford, resulting in Composition as Explanation, Stein’s first popular lecture. A decade after her destruction of the sentence it’s a shock to come across this conventional apology for her work—conventional both in ideas and expression. It has the air of table-talk, and it most of it had been aired many times at Rue des Fleurs. Her main trope is cycles of taste for modern art:
For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling. When the acceptance comes, by that acceptance the thing created becomes a classic.
… Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.
The argument and the presentation can be seen as Stein’s version of the various revivalist and pastische modes in circulation among the 1920s Parisian avant-garde: neo-classicism, Cocteau’s Call to Order and Les Six, neo-romanticism, even Stein’s advocacy of the paintings of Frances Rose.
She went on to produce a series of popular lectures. They are sucessful entertainments and explore a novel voice. She not only writes in fairly conventional sentences—which she had never entirely abandoned, at least in her plays—but also employs argument, hence continuity. The result is a kind of sophisticated simplification, imposing by insistant repeition key words and slogans—direct and indirect writing, description, the continuous present, “what is the use of telling another story,” “a play was exactly like a landscape,” “a sentence is not emotional a paragraph is,” “remarks are not literature,” “I am I because my little dog knows me,” … etc.
It is a revival of the primitivizing style of Three Lives. It can be very compelling—it’s Stein, after all—but unreliable as a guide to her work.
It’s important that these apologies were written to be performed. An invitation to lecture in England, and subsequently in the U.S., provided occasions and Stein responded avidly. Which raises the whole question of performance.
When Stein started writing plays, she meant them for the theater. When Mabel Dodge proposed to publish some of them in 1914, Stein refused emphatically, “I do not want the plays to be published. … They are to be kept to be played.”
The arrival of Virgil Thomson in Stein’s circle in the Twenties created new opportunities for performance. First in Thomson’s settings of Susie Asado (1926), and in 1927 Preciosilla, and Capital Capitals and Four Saints in Three Acts.
Thomson’s setting of Four Saints the foundational work of Stein criticism. The text was such that it could have been set in the style of William Walton or Anton Webern, but Thomson adheres to the contours of conversation—such contours of conversation as are present in the text. The words are articulated, not subjected to abstraction in the manner. The result is an amplification of the text analogous to Debussy’s musical evocation of Mallarmé’s Faun. It is delicious, funny, moving and eminently playable. John Cage praised how “It does not clutter up the memory, but it elevates the spirit.” When it was produced in 1934, it transformed Stein’s notoriety to celebrity.
But Thomson’s setting has proved dangerous, in the sense that it has authorized and popularized a reading of Stein’s work as campy School of Paris Americana. While those things are certainly present, they’re far from the whole story.
Thomson’s Missouri hymn tunes and parlor songs filtered through Nadia Boulanger are subtle and effective, and make an indellible impact. Along with the photographs of Carl Van Vetchen and George Platt Lynes, Thomson’s music has authorized the pop image of Stein as the female Casey Stengel of Montparnasse, spouting zany non sequitors to a celebrity-packed salon—an image that defined Stein for the rest of her life.
Not that Stein did anything to live it down. During her lecture tour of the U.S. in the Thirties, on the contrary, she started writing on politics. In A Political Series (1935) she thows up her hands over the economy and the New Deal:
Is Franklin Roosevelt trying to make money be so that it has no existence that it ceases to be a thing that anybody can count, so that nobody can any longer believe in it or is it all electioneering.
Having opinions about radically reforming the economy was normal in the Thirties, and quite understandable. Stein’s sense of the incomprehensibility and unreality of the modern economy mirrors that of her fellow vanguard expatriate Ezra Pound, as in his Canto 52 (1939):
And of the true base of credit, that is
the abundance of nature
with the whole folk behind it …
This popular culture image of Stein, created through music, photographs, quips and lectures has probably done more damage to her reputation than her work’s difficulty. However through the murk of Lectures in America shines one of Stein’s comic masterpieces, Poetry and Grammar (1934):
A noun is a name of anything, why after a thing is named write about it. A name is adequate or it is not. If it is adequate then why go on calling it, if it is not then calling it by its name does no good.
Articles are interesting … They are interesting because they do what a noun might do if a noun was not so unfortunately so completely unfortunately the name of something.
Poetry is concerned with using with abusing with losing with wanting with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. It is doing that always doing that, doing that and doing nothing but that. … So I say poetry is essentially the discovery, the love, the passion for the name of anything.
Ultimately what’s exasperating about the apologies is that their popularity has obscured her more significant meditations on language and writing, realized in the analytic anthology texts written between 1928 and 1933.
How to Write (1928-30) contains things that look like assertions, but might not be assertions. For example:
There is no use in finding out what is in anybody’s mind.
OK, fine: Stein rejects psychology. But in the original context of Saving the Sentence this actually appears as:
There is no use in finding out what is in anybody’s mind. There is no use in finding out what is in anybody’s mind.
Stein’s beloved device of repetition has a way of draining the assertive force out of the words. Likewise, in Arthur A Grammar:
Supposing she was ready.
Supposing she was ready before I was.
Supposing she was ready before I was before they came.
Supposing she was ready after they came.
Supposing she was ready before I was after they came.
Supposing she was ready before I was before they came after they came. Supposing she was ready before I was before they came.
Grammar before announcement.
Foliage is in the trees.
Grammar. Thought far out.
What is the difference between resemblance and grammar. Think. What is the difference between resemblance and grammar.
Resemblance is not a thing to feel. Nor is grammar.
Language and the inevitable bafflements of language, are taken with easy humanity as part of the landscape Title, Sub-Title (1930), proposes:
Grammar in relation to a tree and two horses a title a sub-title. Grammar in relation to a tree and horses. Grammar in relation to a tree and two horses. I have invented many titles and I have invented many subtitles. What is in this sense the meaning of invention. In grammar have to think why a fugue and also why exercises are expected and delay nothing.
Stanzas in Meditation (1929-33) freely mixes the analytical, sentimental and sensuous:
Think of anything that is said
How many times have they been in it
How will they like what they have
And will they invite you to partake of it
And if they offer you something and you accept
Will they give it to you and will it give you pleasure
And if after a white they give you more
Will you be pleased to have more
Which in a way is not even a question
Because after all they like it very much.
It is very often very strange
How hands smell of woods
And hair smells of tobacco
And leaves smell of tea and flowers
Also very strange that we are satisfied
Which may not be really more than generous
Or more than careful or more than most.
This is the mode in which Stein is a serious thinker on writing, not in the platform slogans.
1927-1937: DEATH STARTS HISTORY AND FEARS
According to Ulla Dydo—who knows more about Stein’s work than anybody—the writings of the end of the Twenties register a new sensibility caused by her new home-base: Bilignin was not only about work and private life in the pastoral setting. Here Stein entered a community that changed her life, her perceptions, and her work. Between 1924 and 1927 she had composed the landscape that echoes lyrically through Lucy Church Amiably and the landscape plays. Now, however, she was no longer a private person meditating in the landscape but a resident in a house and a part of the social landscape.
This is the context in which Juan Gris died. In the first decade of the century, in Making of Americans, Stein wrote about mortality impersonally: “Any one has come to be a dead one.” In the second decade of the century, in Counting Her Dresses, she had playfully suggested that the heroic era was dead.
In 1924, Stein wrote Pictures of Juan Gris, an appreciation suitable for an exhibition catalog. It is notable in that, for the first time in almost twenty years she not only writes in sentences, but plays with continuity of argument:
Looking out what do I see, I see rains greens hills houses and their moon. What does he see. He sees he says so too. What does he see. He sees that he says so too.
This can be felt and as his.
Do you see it looks like that.
Now this happened. She wrote The Life of Juan Gris / The Life and Death of Juan Gris. It was her first attempt at eulogy.
Stein begins her commemoration of Gris’s death with a continuity unheard in her writing since Three Lives:
Juan Gris was one of the younger children of a well-to-do merchant of Madrid. The earliest picture he has of himself is at about five years of age dressed in a little lace dress standing beside his mother who was very sweet and pleasantly maternal-looking. When he was about seven years old his father failed in business honorably and the family fell upon very hard times but in one way and another two sons and a daughter lived to grow up well educated and on the whole prosperous.
Like the popular lectures, Juan Gris attempts to create a mythology. Stein presents a sophisticatedly simplified narrative of the subject and his—and her—vanished world. Juan Gris marks a new sense of herself as part of history.
That same year, Stein wrote Three Sitting Here, which Ulla Dydo argues is a portrait of Gertrude Stein (the author), Gertrude Stein (the portrait by Picasso), and Gertrude Stein, the resident of Paris. Eulogy and history and mythology are on Stein’s mind. In 1930 she writes a text History, or Messages From History, the plays An Historic Drama in Memory of Winnie Elliot and Louis IX and Madame Giraud, and The Pilgrims. Thoughts About Master Pieces, and We Came, A History:
What is history. Believe them it is not for their pleasure that they do it. History is this anything that they say and that they do and anything that is made for them by them such as they they do and anything that is made for them by them such as not speaking to them in case that he is turned away from them. This is historical. What did they do. … How do you like what you have heard. = History must be distinguished = From mistakes. = History must not be what is = Happening. History must not be about = Dogs and balls in all = The meaning of those = Words history must be = Something unusual and = Nevertheless famous and = Successful.
In the Thirties this discovery of history resulted in two of Stein’s most engaging extended works. The first, Four in America (1932-3) begins with a declaration of its premise:
If Ulysses S. Grant had been a religious leader who was to become a saint what would he have done.
If the Wright brothers had been artists that is painters what would they have done.
If Henry James had been a general what would he have had to do.
If General Washington had been a writer that is a novelist what would he do.
And, at least in the Grant section, the voice of the popular lecturer rediscovers song: “The silence and the silence comes the silence is not there.”
The old question of identity—Who am I?—is now complicated by fame: Am I the person everybody knows? And it isn’t such a leap from the question of fame to the question of biography: What does this famous Historical Name represent? What could he represent? She?
Hence the memoirs, starting with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932). It’s popularity and status as a classic does not mean that it is a settled thing. It still provokes questions: Is it true? Is it fiction? Is it charming? Is it exasperating? Well, yes.
It is not all that exceptional from her other writing—it is a synthesis of several elements: like a lot of her work between the wars, it is a pastische. It assumes the persona of Alice Toklas, whose bemused voice provides unity. The mask permits Stein to talk about herself in a way that seems not quite earnest. She can both play the part of her pop public persona and distance herself from it—pretend it isn’t really her. It also situates the book as both a kind of portrait and a kind of a play.
The poetry of everyday life is displaced by celebrity gossip and the riot at the Banquet for Rousseau.
After decades of abstract austerity, Stein unleases a torrent of stories and anecdotes as a kind of Acts of the Apostles of the Avant-Garde. The mythogizing of the popular lectures becomes a general mythography of the School of Paris. Chapter 5, covering the years 1907-1914 really evokes paradise. But already it has started to rot. As in Proust, there is an orgy of snubbing of celebrities (Berenson, Gide, Pound) while the favorites are petted with an insistance that is exasperating. Stein’s importance to Picasso is stressed with an insistance so undignified that it makes her sound like a desperate groupie.
From discovering herself of self as actor in history, Stein takes up the writing of history to guarantee her place in it. Without doubt she succeeded. Only she didn’t realize that history, for her, had not ended. Stein’s sequel to the Autobiography, 1937's Everybody’s Autobiography, should probably be exasperating but isn’t. While ostensibly about her triumphal tour of America, it is actually a collage of aphorisms. It is a return to the self-interrogation and doubt that inform her best writing. She begins to worry about identity. She begins to worry about the value of intelligence, the value of genius:
It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.
I did not care for anyone being intelligent because if they are intelligent they talk as if they were preparing to change something.
Something rawer than doubt comes out: disquiet. At first she dismisses it with a bit of the old panache:
About an unhappy childhood well I never had an unhappy anything. What is the use of having an unhappy anything.
And when she revists her childhood haunts in Oakland, at first she responds with one of her most quoted quips:
… what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.
But then comes an atypical outburst:
… and I asked to go with a reluctant feeling to see the Swett School where I went to school and Thirteenth Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street where we lived which I described in The Making of Americans. Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and over-grown the houses were certainly some of them those that had been and there were not bigger buildings and they were neglected and, lots of grass and bushes growing yes it might have been the Thirteenth Avenue when I had been. Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not any longer existing, what was the use
… I did not like the feeling, who has to be themselves inside them, not any one and what is the use of having been if you are to be going on being and if not why is it different and if it is different why not. I did not like anything that was happening.
… I did remember that but it did look like that and so I did not remember that and if it did not look like that then I did not remember that. What was the use.
Stein hasn’t evoked such dark feelings since, as she says, Making of Americans.
After the American tour, after Everybody’s Autobiography, Stein returned to Biligin and, in 1937, wrote La Baronne Pierlot. It is a bit of drollery, but also a portrait of a garden, and the keeper of a garden.
We had a friend with us he was an American. Madame Pierlot found him charming. He is. He is New England and he fought for France and he is sweet and she liked him. . She decided to arrange a marriage for him. He had left by then. I wrote to him and told him. He wrote back and said yes if she could find any one as fascinating as she was and had been. I told Madame Pierlot what he had written. Ah ça was all she had to say to him.
It is a valedictory piece, a final “landscape,” but one infused by Stein’s new sense of people and places, their history and pathos.
1935-1946: NO OBJECT TO BE OBTAINED
Stein’s last writings are often seen as something apart from the rest of her work—as either a failure to live up to her earlier, more difficult, work, or as a triumphant discovery of an accessible voice.
On one side is Ulla Dydo’s invaluable Stein Reader which includes nothing after 1938 because, it “concentrates on experimental work written ‘from inside’ and excludes her late public works written ‘from outside.’”
On the other side is Janet Malcolm, who picks up in Wars I Have Seen (1944) and decides that after forty years of goofing around Stein finally started writing: “When Stein finally finds her true voice, when she no longer needs to struggle against the here and now by retreating into silliness, the book becomes almost unbearably exciting and moving.”
Both views frame the works of the last eight years of her life as something unrelated to what came before. Which is wrongheaded, but not surprising. Something happened in the late Thirties and Stein’s work changed. The free-for-all of domestic trivia, fantasy, analysis and wordplay that had been her characteristic manner since 1913 was replaced by a new technique, and hence, a new content.
For one thing, the range of reference within each work narrowed. Instead of variety and collage, there was a stress on incantatory repetition and sophisticated simplicity. Of course these qualities have been present in her work since Three Lives, but they acquire a new edge.
Geographical History of America (1935) like Basho’s journal, passes from the didactic into the lyric, and the outcome of argumentation is not a conclusion but a cry:
… the newspapers tell about events but what have events to do with anything nothing nothing I tell you nothing events have nothing to do with anything nothing …
And in the word games of Listen to Me (1936), the absurdity acquires a sinister edge:
The second character. There is a second character.
The third character. There is a third character.
The fourth character. There is a fifth character.
The fifth character. There is no fifth character.
In Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938) the repetitions become rhymes, and the darkness becomes dread:
They all sleep in the dark with the electric light all bright, and then at the window comes something.
Is it the moon says the dog is it the moon says the boy is it the moon do not wake me is it the moon says Faustus.
No says a woman no it is not the moon, I am not the moon, I am at the window Doctor Faustus do not you know what it is that is happening.
Doctor Faustus do not you know what is happening.
… Here we know because Doctor Faustus tells us so, that he only he can turn night into day but now they say, they say, (her voice rises to a screech) they say a woman can turn night into day, they say a woman and a viper bit her and did not hurt her …
Though Stein’s Faust is closer to Beckett than Gounod, it’s still startling to see her take up such a heavily-weighted literary archetype. But then Stein’s work had always been populated with archetypes. The characters in Making of Americans were representatives rather than individuals.
Then the practice of writing portraits dissipated this weight, making a game of consciousness and identity. And during the period between the wars, when she took up saints and other historical figures, she treated them as static icons with fixed attributes. She saw them fixed in eternity, beyond struggle and change, delighting like angels in paradise, in contemplating their being.
But in the late Thirties identity became something serious again. The characters of Stein’s late works—Faustus, Rose, Ida, Susan B., Brewsie and Willie—do not exist blissfully outside of time contemplating their felicity. The story of their lives is not a meditation on a continuous present of contentment, but a meditation on a continuous present of struggle with hardship, fear, futility, discomfort, anxiety alternating with joy and awe.
And this struggle occurs in isolation. In Everybody’s Autobiography, Stein touches on a sense of alienation bleaker and more total than anything in her earliest books:
… but now since the earth is all covered over with every one there is really no relation between any one and so if this Everybody’s Autobiography is to be the Autobiography of every one it is not to be any connection between any one and any one because now there is none. That is what makes detective stories such good reading, the man being dead he is not really in connection with any one. If he is it is another kind of a story and not a detective story.
… the only thing that really bothers me is that the earth now is all covered over with people and that hearing anybody is not of any particular importance because anybody can know anybody. That is really why the only novels possible these days are detective stories, where the only person of any importance is dead.
In Picasso (1938) Stein recasts the argument in Composition as Explanation between struggle and classicism, and insists on the necessity for unpleasantness in art. For Stein, the value of the discoverer-artist like Picasso is that he rejects his culture’s complacency in the most radical manner—by rejecting the identity imposed upon him. This enables him to produce master-pieces, i.e. works radically outside nature, culture, identity. The methodology is not predetermined, but comes out of the practice of making.
Later the discoveries can be exploited for the uses of culture, i.e. the production of decoration, prettiness. But the first result cannot be pleasant:
In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not know what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness.
The great adventure of Modernism reflects a fundamental homelessness. When she writes about the past Heroic Age of cubism her words more relevant to the future—to pictures that Pollock would paint or music that Cage would compose ten years later:
Really the composition of this war, 1914-1918, was not the composition of all previous wars, the composition was not a composition in which there was one man in the centre surrounded by a lot of other men but a composition that had neither a beginning nor an end, a composition of which one corner was as important as another corner, in fact the composition of cubism.
And the Twentieth Century, far from a triumph
… is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself, it is a more splendid thing than a period where everything follows itself.
The World is Round (1939) has the pretext of being written for a specific child, Rose Lucy Renée Anne d’Aiguy (1928-1988). Typically, Stein approaches the task unlike anybody else.
Stein’s account of Rose, as she climbs up a hill are a hybrid of Pooh and Parsifal. Rose is struggling to reach a meadow at the top of the mountain, where she wants to sit in her blue garden chair. She climbs day and night. Along the way she is frightened by a dwarf, suffers from loneliness. Behind a waterfall:
It was written three times just how it looked as if it was done with a hair on a chair, and it said, oh dear yes it said, Devil, Devil Devil, it said Devil three times right there.
It is a book about nature, fear and awe—and the sublime. Rose’s assent becomes an evocation of the implacable silence and strangeness of the world.
Rose grew up to be Ida (1941). She even kept her dog named Love. But instead of Nature, grown-up Ida dealt with the World. It is a world in which everything is a bit off: “Ida lived with her great-aunt not in the city but just outside.”
Ida is urgent, anxiously awake, animated by disquiet.
So Ida was born and a very little while after her parents went off on a trip and never came back. That was the first funny thing that happened to Ida.
Sometimes the strangeness anticipates Southern Gothic:
An old woman who was no relation and who had known the great-aunt when she was young was always telling that the great-aunt had had something happen to her oh many years ago, it was a soldier, and then the great-aunt had had little twins born to her and then she had quietly, the twins were dead then, born so, she had buried them under a pear tree and nobody knew.
Nobody believed the old woman perhaps it was true but nobody believed it, but all the family always looked at every pear tree and had a funny feeling.
But more than anyone in Flannery O’Connor, Ida seems to anticipate the laconically annihilated heroines of Natalia Ginzburg, Marguerite Duras, and Joan Didion:
So Ida settled down in Washington. This is what happened every day.
Ida woke up. After a while she got up. Then she stood up. Then she ate something. After that she sat down.
That was Ida.
… They were married, it was not exciting, it was what they did. They did get married.
… She ate soft-shell crabs, she had two servings of soft-shell crabs and she ate lobster à la newburg she only had one helping of that and then she left.
Meanwhile, Stein found herself living under the Occupation.
Janet Malcolm finds it utterly incomprehensible that Stein and Toklas didn’t take advantage of their opportunities to flee to the U.S.; but what could be more natural? If Stein didn’t see in advance the consequences of the Occupation, living through it led to a new kind of witnessing in her writing, a new genre.
The voice of the popular lectures becomes the voice of a reporter covering battles, rumors, exploits. Where previously she made a mythology of her School of Paris milieu, now she makes a mythology of her country neighbors. In The Winner Loses: A Picture of Occupied France (published in the Atlantic Monthly, November 1940) , when Stein notes that the Occupation “was not like the last war, when all the men were dead or badly wounded,” you realize that she almost never mentioned any of the dead or badly wounded, for all her talk about the cultural upheaval of World War I. She notes this only now, twenty-six years later, in passing.
Where Stein the chronicler of Ida doubts the value of everyday existence, Stein the reporter is fired by accounts of her neighbors’ retenenue, the exaggerated correctness of behavior by which they defied the shame of defeat. All the more heroic because the end the end is unknown: “Well, then he had saved France and everything was over. But it wasn’t, not at all—it was just beginning for us.”
Stein’s big book about the war came three years later. Janet Malcolm is right about one thing—Wars I Have Seen (1944) is exciting and moving. Though once again Stein refuses to comply with our expectations. It begins with fifty-seven pages of reminiscences and musing:
I do not know whether to put in the things I do not remember, as well as the things I do remember. To begin with I was born, that I do not remember but I was told about it quite often.
… Well all this time I went to school and school in California meant knowing lots of nationalities. And if you went to school with them and knew about their hair and their ways and all you were bound later not to be surprised that Germans are as they are and French and Greeks and Chinamen and Japs. There is nothing afterward but confirmation confirmation of what you knew, because nobody changes, they may develop but they do not change and so if you went to school with them why should you not know them.
… What is there inside one that makes one know all about war. Death starts history and fears. And that begins very soon and dies out little by little or not at all or all.
As always, Stein is struggling to find the voice. When will she get to the story? But it’s of a piece with her other work—she is profoundly, deeply, thoroughly profane about everything. Things other people treat with great seriousness she does not. Not even Bataille could bring himself to be impious about the war; but for Stein such irreverence was who she was.
Then at page fifty-eight comes “To-day August 1943,” and the real reportage begins. And what does it consist of? Housekeeping, gossip, idle speculation about History and Humanity, and then bulletins from the front.
We spend our Friday afternoons with friends reading Shakespeare … and what is so terrifying is that it is all just like what is happening now … it is all just violence and there is no object to be attained, no glory to be won, just like Henry the Sixth and Richard the Third and Macbeth …
It covers the same topics as Anne Frank. And Stein and Toklas could have easily met Frank’s fate. If they had, the book would have been unbearable. Wars is a picture of European civilization in a moment when it really did break down. What was left was nature and ruins:
… the nineteenth century believed in progress and permanence, permanence and progress. And now. Well now there is neither the one or the other.
Even so, Stein didn’t include many real horrors she saw. Toklas, in her 1954 cookbook, includes a chilling anecdote from those times:
The Italians stayed until their country accepted the Armistice. When they heard the news, they tore up their military papers and left singing. There were about six hundred Italian soldiers in the neighborhood and the frontier was only 125 kilometers away. We hoped they would cross it safely. Later we heard that they had all been killed by the Germans.
Stein was not content with reportage. In 1945 she wrote a play, Yes is for a Very Young Man, in which much of Winner Loses and Wars I Have Seen recast as dialogue. The story of the curiously polite German interpreter is dramatized. The character Henry has the best lines: “I tell you all here and now, now and here, solemnly I tell you, if I ever again hear a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman pronounce that word discipline I’ll punch their head ….”
The wordplay and repetition give the dialog a orotund unreality, but it is in earnest, and it’s a presentation of genuine conflict. It was an experiment in conventionality.
In her next and final play, The Mother of Us All (1946), the urgency has already mellowed a bit. The 19th century pretext frees Stein to play. History once again becomes a historical pageant. Or, rather, history considered as a salon filled with historical figures arguing with each other, teasing each other, flirting.
What was Susan B. Anthony to Stein, who famously declared she was too bored to help the cause of women circa 1906? Or justice? Or sacrifice? Did Stein ever vote once in her life? The heart of it isn’t feminism, but the dilemma of a private person playing a role on a public stage. It flows along divertingly, avoiding solemnity until the very end. Susan B.’s words enhanced by Virgil Thomson’s music:
We cannot retrace our steps, going forward may be the same as going backwards. We cannot retrace our steps, retrace our steps. All my long life, all my life, we do not retrace our steps, all my long life, but.
(A silence, a long silence)
But—we do not retrace our steps, all my long life, and here, here we are here, in marble and gold, did I say gold, yes I sad gold, in marble and gold and where—
Where is where. In my long life of effort and strife, dear life, life is strife, in my long life, it will not come and go, I tell you so, it will stay it will pay but
(A long silence)
But do I want what we have got, has it not gone, what made it live, has it not gone because now it is had, in my long life in my long life .
Life is strife, I was a martyr all my life not to what I won but to what was done.
Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.
My long life, my long life.
It provides a beautiful conclusion to the opera, and is perhaps appropriate to the character, but it doesn’t work as a conclusion to Stein’s career. To the very end she had questions rather than convictions.
Her last novel, Brewsie and Willie (1945) is an attempt to expand the idiom of Ida to deal with all sorts of novel topics—industrialization, racism, religion—in an exclusively male milieu. Besides Ida, it combines something of the recent war reportage and the anthology texts of the previous war.
Stein’s heroes are archtypical American blowhards, venting about what they see in destroyed Europe, what awaits them back in the U.S. Their observations translate many of Stein’s longtime beliefs into a new idiom:
It used to be fine, said Willie, before the war when we used to believe what the newspapers and the magazines said, we used to believe them when we read them and now when it’s us they write about we know it’s lies, just lies, just bunches of lies, and if it’s just bunches of lies, what we going to read when we get home, answer me that, Brewsie, answer me that.
Nothing happens but talk. But it is not a drama of ideas; it’s a portrait of the repose that comes after catastrophe. That sense of clear-sightedness, when the future is radically unknowable, but open. The open landscape is not full of the promise of pleasure, as in her landscape plays of the Twenties. Instead, Stein senses a disconnect that will continue to haunt America, from Korea to Afghanistan:
While they were talking they did not know what country they were in.
And at the same time, as if in restitution for her assertion in Picasso about the necessity of ugliness, she was moved to write about Raoul Dufy (1946). It is a short text but dense with provocatively mixed elements. It contains reminiscences of the School of Paris after World War I. It contains stories about the Occupation and the Liberation. It argues that all art—painting, music, literature—is abstract, and hence calling some works abstract and others not is ridiculous.
Ultimately it is about reconciliation. Stein returns again and again to the fact that the two significant encounters she has had with Dufy’s work both took place in the context of war. She first encountered Dufy’s art of triumphant décor, just after World War I. Then, during an especially comfortless moment of the Liberation, she encounters his work again, and experiences it as a vision of hope. She begins and ends with the phrase:
One must meditate about pleasure.
Admonition? memorandum? encouragement? ethos?