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On Gertrude Stein

Ulla E. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923-1934 (Northwestern University Press, 2003)

In 1928, the year after Werner Heisenberg discovered his uncertainty principle, Bertrand Russell commented in the Saturday Review of Literature on this shift in the fundamentals of perception:

A series of different apparitions, changing gradually as time goes on, are linked together under one name. If one of these apparitions runs away with a leg of mutton, it is thought right and just that one of the others should be shut within the four walls of a prison. If we did not imagine that the person we imprison is the same as the person who stole the leg of mutton, we should be less convinced of our right to shut him up, and if we went on to realize that there are no legs of mutton and no prison walls, we should feel still more reconstruction of our traditional notions to be called for.

Gertrude Stein’s friend Dorothy Dudley Harvey copied the Russell passage into a letter to Stein—who was then fifty-four years old, famous as an art collector and literary personage but distressingly under-published as a writer, living with Alice B. Toklas on the rue de Fleurus in Paris in the winter and, in the summer, renting a country house in Belley, near the Rhône. "I thought at once of you," Harvey tells Stein, "and wondered…if you have not been one of the metaphysicians as an artist, with whom the physicists have just now caught up."

Layered into this anecdote is a sketch of Stein’s place in twentieth-century letters. Gertrude Stein pursued in syntax the theories of perception and experience propounded by her teacher William James, and by thinkers like Einstein and Heisenberg; she activated in poetics the deconstruction of pieties about family, nationality, and genre catalyzed by World War I; she translated into verbal terms the flattened, multi-perspectival observations of Cezanne and Picasso. She knew and corresponded with everyone from Edith Sitwell to William Carlos Williams; she lectured at Cambridge and the University of Chicago. Nevertheless, Stein remains the unassimilated Modernist, whose work arises from and celebrates private conversation, improvisation, and meditation—especially intimate conversation between women—as much as it does public colloquy with other avant-gardists.

Conceived in almost tactile proximity to language, Stein’s writing requires from its reader a similarly patient, playful, pungent attitude. Lazy lolling back against conventions of narrative and sentence-structure will not do. Rather, the reader must be interested, as Stein is, "not to let the looking be predominating but to have the listening and talking be predominating but to once more denude all this of anything in order to get back to the essence of the thing contained within itself" (Lectures in America, 1934). Elsewhere, she explains her offering ("it") to readers ("they") by not explaining it: "That is by the way so to speak do they hear let it be what they have as they need all alike for the place in the sense" ("Finally George A Vocabulary Of Thinking," 1928).

Arriving at the place in the sense, getting to the essence of the thing within itself, is the joy and challenge of reading Stein. But it isn’t easy, and it helps to have a guide. Perhaps the most comprehensive and surely the most interesting study of Stein’s compositional process yet attempted, Ulla E. Dydo’s formidably informative Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923-1934 is a gazetteer of the origins, development, connotations, and reception of Stein’s work. Covering the prolific decade in which she wrote many of her best-known pieces, including "Composition as Explanation" (1923), Four Saints in Three Acts (1927), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), The Language That Rises addresses the difficulty of categorizing such texts as "essay," "drama," "poetry," or "fiction." The important thing to notice, Dydo argues, is Stein’s reliance on key concepts such as "description," "grammar," "landscape," or even "writing."

To understand Stein is "to strip away the context" to the "primacy of naked words," to open the ear/eye conduit so that speech rhythms may be married to print patterns, and passive reliance on familiar punctuation or word-order turn to active participation in the immediate cadences of text. Scanning the page in complacent expectation of transparent meaning built from standard paragraphs, the indolent reader will be bulldozed by cascades of antecedent-free pronouns, un-comma’d clauses, and non sequiturs. The galvanized and self-directed reader will, by contrast, dive in energetically, perhaps even reading out loud. Thus joined to its rightful twin of dynamic voice, Stein’s writing punctuates itself—as anyone who has seen a well-staged Stein play knows (the Polybe + Seats company, based in New York, offers opportunities). As Dydo explains, "She does not empty into descriptions pocketfuls of information like stones gathered on a walk. Rather she places things in relation by similarity and difference…she arranges the world in words that are not representations but analogues…’It’ is what we describe, what we write, what we paint, what we see. The world. Anything. Everything."

Pursuing this nearly atomic attention to experience-as-language, Stein was greeted in her lifetime with a misunderstanding inflected by sexism that still tints her reputation. Dydo writes:

Most publishers and editors refused her as illiterate or mad, a faker or simply a capricious lady. What little was published left many readers angry. They turned the tables on her, blaming her for writing incomprehensibly rather than themselves for failing to comprehend. They ridiculed her and her work. No one writes her off as a charlatan anymore. But anyone reading Stein must understand what it was like for an artist to live under incessant, condescending assaults upon herself as a writer, a person, and a woman.

This understanding of the linkages between Stein’s personal struggles, her artistic output, and the culture in which and against which she worked is the core of Dydo’s study—as she states, "how Stein wrote is a central question of this book." For answers, Dydo has turned to the source, scrutinizing every pencil-stroke in Stein’s archive at Yale’s Beinecke Library, culling telling anecdotes like that of the Dorothy Harvey letter, and foregrounding for the first time in Stein studies the importance of what Dydo calls the carnets and cahiers. Painstakingly reconstructing the day-by-day development of individual texts, she makes clear how the writing in Stein’s carnets—tiny notebooks mixing preliminary scraps of compositions with shopping lists and love notes to Toklas—flows back and forth into the manuscript cahiers, from which Toklas typed drafts that Stein then re-revised. Tracing these evolutions, Dydo sheds light on Stein’s composition process—not impenetrable or nonsensical, but a deliberate and constantly recalibrated investigation of what Dydo calls "the precipitates of actuality."

Such examination of textual development amounts, in turn, to a biography of the creative wellspring that was Stein’s almost forty-year relationship with Toklas. Dydo deciphers their homey erotic code at least enough to let the reader enter opaque passages such as this from A Lyrical Opera (1928): "Sectional a cow in sections all at once constitutional a constitutional cow how ever strong. This is balm to have it come and to be left odorously. Thank you for this." Cow equals orgasm, we find—and the strong bodily constitution thus constituted from sections or episodes of balmy repetition, as if in a private lovers’ nation where the pastoral tradition, simple gratitude, and earthy sensuality synchronize and self-govern while remaining independent—opens out its meaning lusciously. Dydo provides many similar interpretive clues, tracks revisions of specific texts, and explicates numerous biographical and occasional references, puns, elisions, and allusions. In the process, she chronicles not only Stein’s ménage with Toklas, but her travels, her reading and art connoisseurship, her frequently quarrelsome exchanges with friends, family, hesitant would-be publishers, and ardent acolytes, her reaction to the two World Wars, her complex relationship to France and the French language, and her insistent, critical self-identification as an expatriated American crafting a provocatively polyvalent American English.

Researched in collaboration with the painter William Rice and published in the series "Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies," edited by Marjorie Perloff and Rainer Rumold, Dydo’s Language That Rises is indispensable for anyone who wants to read Stein with insight as well as pleasure. Dydo is Professor Emerita at the City University of New York, editor of A Stein Reader (1993) and co-editor of The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (1996), and she has spent her professional life immersed in Steiniana; she calls her delving into the carnets and cahiers "a detective story." But it is more an almost mediumistic sympathizing with the living process of invention. The book is filled with useful extras, such as reproductions of manuscript pages, an annotated chronology, extensive footnotes (sometimes testily correcting other critics’ errors), and a "Selected Bibliography" including not only Stein’s complete publication history and monographs about her, but related materials dealing with poetics, painting, theater, life in Modernist Paris, the Harlem Renaissance, and biographies of Stein confederates like Carl Van Vechten, Virgil Thomson, Juan Gris, and Francis Picabia.

At 600-plus pages, Dydo’s opus represents a veritable apprenticeship to the exacting master embodied in Stein’s manuscripts, and her exhaustive close-readings can partake in the deliberate exhaustion Stein likes to visit upon her audience. But, like Stein, Dydo can be read in snatches; this is less a book to plow through for information than a kind of intimate encyclopedia to sit with, browse in, digest. Dydo’s love for her subject, furthermore, does not preclude tart critical remarks. It is instructive to note, for example, how the magisterial, egocentric Stein—who referred to herself both as Toklas’ "Husband" and her "Baby," and roughly admonished macho swashbucklers like Hemingway—worked through anxiety and writer’s block, often via invocations to her muse and amanuensis, "Wifey," Toklas.

Tirelessly engaged with the nuances and variants of Stein’s work, Dydo always keeps in sight the central point that Stein’s poetics of attention foster a concomitant acuity in readers’ minds. The prison discussed by Bertrand Russell is, after all, established when we mistake metaphysical for physical truths—and, as Russell implies, such belief in immutable boundaries, stable identities, preconceived notions, and tidy categories can have dire consequences both for the individual body and the body politic. As Stein might put it:

Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.

Patriarchal Poetry at peace.

Patriarchal Poetry a piece.

Patriarchal Poetry in peace.

Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.

Patriarchal Poetry as peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry at peace.
("Patriarchal Poetry," 1927).


They are preoccupied with practically suppressing dismay with advantage this is why why bother. Tell the old gentlemen not to bother. ("Arthur A Grammar," 1928).

"In a sense," writes Dydo, "all her work is a demonstration of the possibilities of grammar for democracy." We need that now.

Frances Richard’s collection of poetry, See Through, was published by Four Way Books in 2003. She is also a nonfiction editor of Cabinet, and a frequent contributor to Artforum. She teaches at Barnard College and lives in Brooklyn.


Frances Richard

Frances Richard is nonfiction editor of the literary journal Fence; a member of the editorial team at the art and culture magazine Cabinet; and a frequent contributor to Artforum. Her first book of poems, See Through, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2003. She teaches at Barnard College, and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2004

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