Stein, Gertrude: General Commentary
GERTRUDE STEIN: GENERAL COMMENTARY
MARY E. GALVIN (ESSAY DATE 1999)
SOURCE: Galvin, Mary E. "'This Shows It All': Gertrude Stein and the Reader's Role in the Creation of Significance." In Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers, pp. 37-50. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.
In the following essay, Galvin analyzes the purpose and significance of Stein's subversion of traditional assumptions about literary language, form, and precedents in terms of her position as lesbian writer.
Next to Sappho, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) is probably the most famous lesbian writer in recorded literary history. However, although the nature and duration of her relationship with Alice B. Toklas has long been common knowledge, until recently most Stein critics when considering her work have chosen either to disregard politely Stein's sexual "difference" or to act as if this "difference" in Stein really made her no different from other "men of genius": that she simply assumed the male role and acted out her relationship with Alice heterosexually, in the timeworn tradition of the great poet and his companion/servant/muse.
In either case, we can see heterosexist assumptions operating to erase the significance of lesbian existence in the creation of modern literature. The first approach simply ignores sexuality and gendered positions as relevant in reading Stein. This is a surprisingly "generous" move when we consider that the gender of the writer has been taken into account critically since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Yet with Stein, many critics seem to have been content to accept her as an honorary "man," in the generic, universal sense. Stein's inclusion within the canon of modernist poetry depends on a willingness to disregard her gender and her sexuality, except perhaps to note in passing that she is one of the few "female" participants in the category, "Significant Writers of the 20th century."1
The second approach, to acknowledge Stein's lesbian existence but recast it in bourgeois, heterosexual terms, helps bring her life, if not her work, into the realm of the "thinkable." Critics favorable to Stein attempt to render her life respectable in these terms, while those who insist on her lunacy find that her inability to be authentically heterosexual constitutes the source of great "anxiety" in both her writings and her life. Both of these positions assume a fundamental heterosexuality, which, even if it is somehow strayed from, is still the standard.
The idea that a lesbian is really a man trapped in a woman's body, is only one of several ways that the straight mind can acknowledge lesbian existence and yet still manage to dismiss it as culturally or epistemologically insignificant. By acknowledging a "difference" that is in fact the same, the straight mind, with its limited range of what is thinkable psychosexually, does not need to make any structural shifts in order to accommodate anything "other" than that which is already contained within the perameters of its dichotomies.
In more recent years, with the rise of feminist literary criticism and the increasingly visible lesbian and gay liberation movement, it has become more acceptable to discuss Stein's lesbianism as a relevant factor in any critical assessment of her life and work. One of the more popular strategies for reading Stein as lesbian is to insist that there is a Steinian code by which she can speak to Alice erotically, without drawing censure from her larger public.
Advocates of this hermeneutic approach often claim that although Stein's code is arbitrary, it can be cracked, and once we have our cribsheet filled in, we can readily interpret everything from her frequency of orgasm to her guilt complex at having failed heterosexually oriented familial expectations. While the motives for devising such an ingenious critical approach to Stein may be genuine in terms of accepting, even honoring, the lesbian behind the "man of genius," the major shortcoming of this method is that it rests on principles that are antithetical not only to Stein's approach to composition, but also to her articulation of a nonhierarchically based lesbian existence.2
Gertrude Stein was a relentless advocate of what she termed "democracy." While this particular term, along with its counterpart, "equality," have been perhaps irretrievably corrupted for us late-twentieth-century readers, conceptually, the ideas these terms represent are still quite fresh. In more contemporary terms, Stein's "democracy" translates into our grappling with the nonhierarchical, the nonpatriarchal, with new ways of thinking that embrace multiplicity.
Indeed, such a discourse is very strange to our patriarchally entrenched linguistic consciousness, and many readers have felt intimidated, or even threatened, by Stein's strange discourse. For example, her aversion to punctuation has been received with varying degrees of hostility and confusion, yet she avoided it because she found it to be too directive. As Judy Grahn says about Stein's use of (or lack of) commas, "She thought this was condescending to and undermining of the independence of mind of the reader."3 By eschewing grammatical structuring, with its privileging of the noun-verb phrase and its insistence on temporal closure, Stein was extending this democratic attitude toward language itself.
To some extent, the hostility some readers have felt toward Stein's irreverent deconstruction of "meaning" and her abdication of the privileged position of knowing (authority) is understandable, in light of how much of our social order depends on such principles. Usually, the occurrence of certain expected structures constitutes its own sort of "code," which allows the reader certain shortcuts to comprehension. Without these structures in place, people tend to feel ungrounded, sensing that all their assumptions about reality and their place in it have been dislocated. In many ways, this is analogous to how lesbian existence is received under heterosexism. To acknowledge the presence and difference of lesbian existence, even unconsciously, is unsettling of the "comfort" provided by heterosexist structures.
On an unconscious level, then, the fact that Stein actually was a lesbian and not particularly secretive about it probably fed into the critical resistance toward accepting the challenge of her experiments. This resentment can sometimes take the form of feeling excluded, as if one were being left out of the joke.
We can see why some believe she was writing in a secret lovers' language to Alice. But if this were true, why would she bother to seek publication and to elicit responses from many readers, even of the unpublished manuscripts? While it is true that Alice was probably the first reader to take her seriously and the one to give her the most support most consistently (her brother Leo mocked her), there is no reason to presume she was writing only for Alice.
From the outset of her writing career, Gertrude Stein was outside the literary establishment. Trained in psychology and medicine, and subsequently living in Paris, she was an interloper in the field of American letters. The writing she produced, always composed of relatively simple words and phrases, drew directly from colloquial diction; Stein's use of a finite vocabulary eschewed the use of "literary" diction. Through a combination of repetition and variation, Stein found she could create emphasis and degrees of emotional intensity without relying heavily on adjectives and nouns to further her descriptions. In this way she could begin to move away from the categorizing tendencies of these particular parts of speech.
By abandoning nominalism, a staple of traditional literary poetics, Stein also severed her dependence on metaphor. If she felt any clarification was necessary, she would repeat her "meaning" (her original word choice) in a slightly different verbal context. In this way, she avoided drawing resemblances between two dissimilar beings, since doing so would have falsified the unique being of the person, place, or thing described. Stein was always acutely aware of the variety, the multiplicity of identity, of "being."
Thus, her writing, always in an American idiom, defies hermeneutic approaches in its repetitive, sparsely punctuated, and illogical form, yet manages to engage us through its effective use of sound and tone. This kind of writing is best read aloud, for it is then that we can fully appreciate the "insistence" for which she was aiming:
They did then learn many ways to be gay and they4
were then being gay being quite regular in being
gay, being gay and they were learning little
things, little things in ways of being gay, they
were very regular then, they were learning very
many little things in ways of being gay, they were
being gay and using these little things they were
learning to have to be gay with regularly gay with
then and they were gay the same amount they had
While it is exceedingly popular to consider Stein a singular "genius" existing in isolation without connection to poetic predecessors, particularly other lesbian or even female predecessors, I see Stein as a direct descendant of Dickinson. In her linguistic experimentation, Stein, like Dickinson, often plays with the multiplicity of language: its ability for ambiguity, equivocation, and unstable meanings.
In both poets, we can witness a propensity for disrupting categorical distinctions, and therefore the "truths" they establish. Whereas Dickinson does leave just enough traditional structure in place to make interpretation feasible, Stein pushes her poetics of disruption into the realm of the rationally unrecognizable.
If Dickinson's poetics are like a ghost that haunts convention, displacing objects and expectations, then Stein's poetics are like a volcanic eruption, permeating and undermining structure and form on every level, from the "balanced completion" of the sentence to that of the paragraph, through genres, and ultimately addressing the larger assumptions of culture and tradition itself.
One such set of assumptions that Stein's writing undermines is the concept of literary language and form, and the need for critical interpretation. The passage quoted above, taken from "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," is fairly self-evident in its content. Only if one is operating from a critical base that assumes the symbolic, that sense is concealed rather than revealed through language, can one be puzzled by the "meaning" of the passage. It's "about" two women who learn how to be gay and then do so "regularly." The "difficulty" in reading this passage comes only when a reader refuses the obvious and retreats to the familiarity of heterosexist assumption. Of course, Stein is playing with this propensity to think "straight" in her choice of the word "gay," which puns directly on the different, but not mutually exclusive, denotations accorded the word.
In "The There That Was and Was Not There," contemporary lesbian poet and theorist Judy Grahn writes: "For years I thought: 'She is difficult,' until one day it occurred to me to say it the other way: 'She is easy. I am difficult.'… Suppose it is not that she is veiled and obscure but that we, her readers, are. We are veiled by our judgments" (Grahn, 5).
Of course, the veil of heterosexism works to obscure the lesbian content of "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," but the obscurity is not inherent in Stein's use of language. In a further example of this cultural obscurantism, many readers have taken the presence of "some dark and heavy men" as well as "some who were not so heavy and some who were not so dark" to imply that Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene had heterosexual liaisons. But just the fact that the two women knew and "sat with" some men does not mean they are not lesbian. Contrary to popular mythology, lesbians do not hate men and often have friendships as well as other relationships with a variety of men. And these men could, of course, be gay men. The fact that some of these men were "dark and heavy" (and some were not!) could contradict another heterosexist stereotype—that gay men tend to be pale and thin as well as lispy and limp-wristed. When Stein mentions these male associates of Helen and Georgine, she states, "They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then, where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then."
In her personal life, Stein was not "in the closet." Anyone who came to visit her understood the nature of the relationship between Alice and herself. In fact, her overt lesbianism eventually became a source of great distress for Ernest Hemingway, who would have preferred her to be more closeted. There is little reason to assume she was closeted in her writing. In her subject matter, Stein tended to draw on the "actualities" around her—people, objects, and events she had known.
Yet, even as she drew on these "actualities," it is really the use of language itself and its interactions with consciousness that constitutes her main theme. Unlike her contemporaries the imagists, Stein's concern with consciousness led her to abandon any pretense of "objectivity." Hers is a writing of intersubjectivity—and the psychosexual aspect of her own subjectivity was decidedly lesbian.
One of the accusations hurled at Stein by her detractors is that her writing is solipsistic, self-occupied, and self-centered. Yet in her search for the "bottom nature" of her characters, for the "essence" of objects and foods, she was really seeking to discover and record the inner being, the consciousness of the world around her. Paradoxically, she realized, particularly in writing her first "poetry" cycle Tender Buttons, that the only access she could have to these other "inner beings" was through her own consciousness. Thus, she discarded the illusion of objective knowing and its concomitant poetics of "objective" description, and located her writing firmly within her own consciousness as it played in contemplation across the surface of its subject. This "self-centering," as Judy Grahn calls it, ironically, was not self-occupied, but was geared toward what she termed "listening."
Stein herself always considered her writing to be accessible to anyone who would listen. She believed strongly in the intelligence of her readers, and in publishing her writing, she was inviting her readers to listen alongside her to the inner being of the subject at hand, as well as to the play of her own consciousness in its encounter with her subject. Thus, the subjectivity in her writing is not solipsistic, but an extension of subjectivity from and to others, a layering of multiple subjectivities. In order to create this writing of intersubjectivity, she knew she had to forego any attempt at representationality. Not only would a poetics of resemblance compromise the unique inner being of her subject matter, but it would also burden her language with associations and meanings that would interfere with the immediate experience of "listening."
In this one aspect, at least, Gertrude Stein was not unlike many of her contemporaries, who were concerned with divesting the English language of its cultural baggage and reclaiming its poetic possibilities from an overwrought sentimentality. But while others were occupied with wresting new meanings from the language to express the radical sentiments of a new age, Stein went a step further, attempting to divest language from the burden of representationality itself.
In "Patriarchal Poetry," Stein explores the traditional role of linear sequence in the creation of "meaning." Rather than de lineating her comprehension of the way this discourse functions, however, Stein simply demonstrates her knowledge through parody:
What is the difference between a fig and an5
apple. One comes before the other. What is the
difference between a fig and an apple one comes
before the other what is the difference between a
fig and an apple one comes before the other.
When they are here they are here too here too
they are here too. When they are here they
here too when they are here they are here too.
As out in it there.
As not out not out in it there as out in it out
in it there as out in it there as not out in it
there as out in as out in it as out in it there.
Next to next next to Saturday next to next
to Saturday next to next next to Saturday.
This shows it all.
Patriarchal language, and by extension heterocentric thinking, depend on a categorical approach toward identity. In this passage, Stein demonstrates her understanding of how the concept of "difference" depends on a dichotomous distinction that hangs on the simple negative "not."
Typically, in this system of discourse, "not out" is equivalent to "in it." Yet, this is only part of the story. The initial passage, "What is the difference between a fig and an apple. One comes before the other" illustrates the role temporality plays in categorical concepts of identity. This temporal structure is usually maintained through the linear sequence of grammar. Thus, when she plays with the distinction between "out" and "in" without the guiding structure of grammatical subordination, Stein shows us that the distinction cannot hold through a simple dichotomous negation alone. Such a distinction must also exist in a larger structural context, one that privileges a certain notion of time as linear sequence.
Taken together, these combined elements of patriarchal poetry, definition through exclusion, and adherence to "proper" sequence, allow the arrogant and grandiose claim to complete knowledge: "This shows it all." At the same time, by parodying the certitude of such a technique, Stein herself is claiming to have uncovered something important about the way such a poetics defines a consciousness. Her playful traversal of linguistic boundaries has enabled Stein to reveal these boundaries at work in our consciousness. Thus, her writing also "shows it all."
In her explorations of linguistic structure in its relation to consciousness, Stein returned again and again to the problem of grammar. For it is here that we find the keystone to both linear and hierarchical thinking:
In Stein's work the linear plot inherent in English language sentences falls away. The noun is no longer the all-important main character surrounded by subservient modifiers and dependent articles and clauses, the verb is no longer a mounted hero riding into the sentence doing all the action, while the happy or tragic ending of objective clause waits in the wings with appropriate punctuation to lead us through the well-known plot to the inevitable end period.
She let the characters (which in some of her writing are parts of speech or numbers, not people or other creatures) spin out from their own internal natures as she let them happen from within themselves rather than placing them in an externally directed context. She discovered them as she uncovered them layer by layer through the rhythms of their speech or parts of speech, and the patterns of their daily lives, she listened to them as her eyes listened to Cezanne's intensity of color, carrying this idea of equality further to where everything in a given field is seen as equally vital, life is perceived as a dance in which every element contributes to every other.
Throughout her career, Stein experimented with various ways to achieve this effect. As she herself has written, she took her initial cue from Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and other early modernist painters. Stein began converting words from bearers of meaning and identity into plastic entities, treating them in their purely sensory character. She did this by arranging them next to each other, setting up and exploring spatial and tactile relations among them rather than the more conventional syntactic, semantic, logical ones.
For the reader, these relations can only occur in the present moment, since they are unique to the text, yet do not depend on what precedes or follows in it. The absence of a linear syntax (on the level of the sentence) or a narrative progression (on the level of overall structure) strips the text of any temporal reference to anything else in the text.
Thus, in reading her text, we must inhabit the "continuous present" of the text at all times. Since this focus on language without the linear structure of past-present-future is so foreign to our typical ways of thinking through language, Stein brings to the forefront of our awareness the linguistic structures on which our thinking usually depends. Through what is absent, we become conscious of the role linguistic structures usually play in our creation of "meaning."
When the text frustrates our attempts to formulate a coherency of significance, we are made aware of the extent to which our "consciousness," as it is socially constructed through language, depends on the concepts of meaning and identity to hold it together. Any "meaning" that may arise from reading Stein's text stems from the confluence of linguistic habit with the reader's subjectivity, which includes personal experience, outside knowledge, and leaps of the imagination, all interacting within the context provided by the text itself.
Just as she sought to work nonhierarchically within the linguistic field of her writings, Stein also sought to establish a nonhierarchical relation to her readers. Stein's poetics of intersubjectivity depends on the participation of the reader, with her culturally inculcated desire for meaning and the openness of her own consciousness as it plays across the text in search of this meaning.
By taking words from their expected context and placing them outside the confines of typical grammatical structure, Stein is creating a linguistic space where words can be more flexible. Taken out of the clearly defined roles of a patriarchal discourse, they begin to resonate with their own potential, as the reader is thwarted in her attempt to determine the author's intent.
Since Stein is not interested in conveying any definitive "meaning" through her text, her writing is void of the patriarchal concept of the author's "intent." Rather, Stein seeks only to convey the play of her consciousness through language. She is abdicating her "authority" over "meaning," thereby subverting a hierarchical power and creating a more "democratic" relationship to her reader.
In playing fiercely with the multiplicity of language, Stein breaks down the distinction between author and reader in the search for "meaning." The absence of exact meaning is for Stein a space she opens up into a broad vista of significance, which she invites the reader to step inside to experience together with her, in the only time the text allows, the continuous present. The fluidity of language use she achieves by foregoing the hierarchizing structures of grammar allows each word in the text to reverberate with possible significances, and the reader's participation is crucial in this process.
Even when Stein's work focuses on her relationship with Alice, she invites us to participate in her play of consciousness as its language dances across the page. In what is perhaps her "most lesbian" poem, "Lifting Belly," Stein calls her disruptive poetics of intersubjectivity into action, so that the reader is invited into a lesbian world, the world viewed through a lesbian consciousness.
It is clearly evident that Alice played an important part in Stein's life, art, and sense of personal identity. Early on, in her portrait of Melanctha, Stein observed that everyone has loving in them and that this loving is a central aspect of identity. Nearly ten years later, in "Lifting Belly," Stein chose to write about the significance of the particular kind of loving she and Alice shared, and to explore the effects this loving was having on her own sense of being.6
Written while Gertrude and Alice were staying in Majorca during the First World War, the poem centers on the daily life and conversation shared by the two lovers. Although Alice had already been living with Stein for about seven years, Leo had moved out of 27 Rue de Fleuris only the previous year. The time period in which "Lifting Belly" was written (1915-1917) constitutes what must have been a "honeymoon" period in their relationship. Thus, it is fitting that the poem Stein wrote during this period comprises her fullest linguistic exploration of her relationship with Alice.
The poem places the two women in relationship with each other, and with the world and people around them. As they converse on various subjects with varying degrees of seriousness and silliness, they return again and again to the title phrase, "Lifting Belly."
Grammatically, the phrase constantly shifts roles. It is an action, a person, an event, and more. While the phrase has an obvious sexual connotation, Stein places it in an wide array of contexts so that the words begin to multiply with significances never before imagined. Thereby she destabilizes and expands its "meaning." Everything the lovers discuss in the poem is discussed in relation to "Lifting Belly." "Lifting Belly" becomes the lens through which the lovers view and speak of the world. It is their lesbian consciousness:
Lifting belly is an occasion. An occasion to
please me. Oh yes. Mention it.
Lifting belly is courteous.
Lifting belly is hilarious, gay and favorable.
Oh Yes it is.
Indeed it is not a disappointment.
Not to me.
Lifting belly is such an incident. In one's life
Lifting belly is such an incident in one's life.
I don't mean to be reasonable.
Shall I say thin.
This makes me smile.
Lifting belly is so kind.
It is fairly common knowledge among lesbians and gay men that the process of "coming out" involves more than simply acknowledging and deciding whether or not to act on one's sexual inclinations. Because the decision to "come out" is made in the context of a culture that is hostile, or at best indifferent, to nonheterosexual choosing, this "personal" decision affects our relationship with the culture at large.
Coming out necessarily entails a "difference of view," since to accept the dominant view would render our lesbianism "impossible." This difference of view has been described by Audre Lorde as an "erotic knowledge," a knowledge that "empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence."7 In "Lifting Belly," Stein is both celebrating and exploring the power of this erotic knowing in her life. She wants to share with us, her readers, the effects of "such an incident in one's life."
Lifting belly is such an experiment.
We were thoroughly brilliant.
If I were a postman I would deliver letters. We
call them letter carriers.
Lifting belly is so strong. And so judicious.
Lifting belly is an exercise.
Exercise is very good for me.
Lifting belly necessarily pleases the latter.
Lifting belly is necessary.
Do believe me.
Lifting belly quietly.
It is very exciting.
Why do you stand.
Did you say you thought it would make any
Lifting belly is not so kind.
Little places to sting.
We used to play star spangled banner.
Lifting belly is so near.
Lifting belly is so dear.
Lifting belly all around.
Lifting belly makes a sound. (Yale, 13-14)
In devising techniques that are decidedly unlike traditional "patriarchal poetry," Stein does not set out to describe her relationship with Alice for us; a descriptive voice would automatically cast the reader as an outsider to the relationship. Rather, she wants to draw us into the play of her lesbian consciousness. She does this by bringing us into the poem as active participants in the wordplay of the language. For, above all, "Lifting Belly" is playful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
WINEAPPLE DISCUSSES STEIN'S RELATIONSHIP TO FEMINISM
Gertrude Stein was iconoclastic, intelligent, and querulous. Her prose cleansed both the language and our habits of reading it. But willing to comment on and contradict herself with an insouciance positively Whitmanesque, in our day she has herself become something of a cipher, seized by those who found in her prose, and then in her person, the shibboleth of a cause. But she was neither the Mother Goose of Montparnasse nor the Mother of Us All.
Was she a feminist? "Degeneration" renders the question obsolete. Its author was brash, untried, and rife with the conflicts a more poised Stein would later conceal or convert into literary muscle: she who would never be a mother advised motherhood; she who would be virtually canonized as one of the most creative and liberated women of the century counseled the mundane and conservative—but not for herself. And this lesbian Jew who loved democracy, inspiring women and men to discover themselves, also spoke a nativist language, urging white middle-class American women to submit to a round of putative or biological givens.
The paradoxes of "Degeneration" are the paradoxes of Gertrude Stein, neither radical nor philistine, feminist nor foul; in "Degeneration" she is a twenty-eight-year-old woman grappling with her life and on its threshold. She is alive, complex, jam-packed with contradiction—and the biographer's true find.
Wineapple, Brenda. Excerpt from "Gertrude Stein: Woman Is a Woman Is." The American Scholar 67 (winter 1997): 107-12.
As she explores the eroticism of vision she shares with Alice, Stein also explores and celebrates the language in its erotic possibilities. The poem abounds with rhymes, homonyms, and associational relations among words and phrases. Bristling with what today might be called jouissance, Stein's text is an energy field, and we are invited to dance within the charged atmosphere of instability and overdetermination of meaning.
This is the way I see it.
Lifting belly can you say it.
Lifting belly persuade me.
Lifting belly persuade me.
You'll find it very easy to sing to me.
What can you say.
Lifting belly set.
I can not pass a door.
You mean odor.
I smell sweetly.
So do you.
Lifting belly plainly.
Can you sing.
Can you sing for me.
Lifting belly settled.
Can you excuse money.
Lifting belly has a dress.
Lifting belly in a mess.
Lifting belly in order.
Complain I don't complain.
She is my sweetheart.
Why doesn't she resemble an other.
This I cannot say here.
Full of love and echoes.
Lifting belly is full of love. (Yale, 30-31)
While it may be tempting to read "Lifting Belly" as a "dialogue" between lovers, the text itself resists such a reading. One of the greatest hindrances to a dialogic approach is that the poem is devoid of quotation marks or any other clear differentiation of speakers. The effect of the absence of clear reference marks is similar to that of Dickinson's ambiguously referenced pronouns: in both poets, ambiguity allows for a richly evocative multiplicity of significance. To try to sort out which lines can be attributed to which lover is not only impossible, but undoes what Stein has accomplished. Throughout "Lifting Belly," she is not trying to exclude the reader, but to create a shared linguistic space.
Rather than struggling to reassert an order intentionally eschewed by Stein, the poem might be more fruitfully engaged by giving ourselves over to the text as it is written. While it is true that the poem conveys a sense of intimacy between the lovers, the lack of attributive punctuation works toward inviting the reader into this intimacy. We must bring our own consciousness, full of imagination and inventiveness, into the text.
We cannot stand outside the poem in judgment of its "meaning" or its structure; we must participate in the construction of its "meaning" or else it remains meaningless. "Lifting Belly" is about relationship, the relationship shared by Gertrude and Alice, and the difference their lesbianism made in their relationship to the world, their consciousness of the world, and the events around them. Through a complex strategy of presenting us with a "dialogue" lacking quotation marks, in which a continually repeated and redefined "subject" ("lifting belly") is discussed with a deter-minedly ambiguous reference to other subjects, Stein makes the reader a participant in the conversation rather than an eavesdropper. In this way, Stein draws her readers into a relationship with her lesbian loving and perceiving. She is inviting us into the continuum of lesbian existence.
Lifting belly is so kind.
Darling wifie is so good.
Little husband would.
Be as good.
If he could.
This was said.
Now we know how to differ.
Now we say.
Little hubbie is good.
She did want a photograph.
Lifting belly changed her mind.
Lifting belly changed her
Do I look fat.
Do I look fat and thin.
Blue eyes and windows.
You mean Vera.
Lifting belly can guess.
Lifting belly is so pleased.
Lifting Belly seeks pleasure.
And she finds it altogether. (Yale, 49)
In "Lifting Belly," Stein brings to the forefront the play of the signifier as it joyfully traverses the boundaries of logic and identificatory meaning. Just as Stein's nontraditional use of language allowed her to experiment with nonhierarchically based forms of expression, her lesbian connection with Alice allowed her to experiment with nonhierarchical forms of human relationships.
Throughout the poem, several "roles" are mentioned: baby, pussy, caesar, bunny, husband, wife, mother, man, bird. But the lack of quotation marks makes it impossible to know which of the lovers to attribute lines to, so that the ambiguity of the speaker's identity feeds into the ambiguity of the roles named. The taking on of sexual/gender roles in the poem is arbitrary and temporary. Stein is playing with our expectations for such roles to be stable and consistent, just as she disrupts our expectations in regard to the grammatical functions of words. By inviting the reader into her linguistic dance, she is inviting us to experience the playful construction of identity, as consciousness, sexuality, and language collide within the energy field that is her text.
In the meantime listen to Miss Cheatham.
In the midst of writing.
In the midst of writing there is merriment. (Yale, 54)
- For an excellent historical overview of Stein criticism, see Michael J. Hoffman, Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986). Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970) and Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) were indispensable to me in writing this chapter.
- I am indebted to Benstock for her argument advocating a reassessment of this approach and for the suggestiveness of her own reading strategy, particularly as delineated in Women of the Left Bank, 158-193. For approaches that favor this "lesbian hermeneutics," see Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces; Elizabeth Fifer, Rescued Readings: A Reconstruction of Gertrude Stein's Difficult Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land, Volume 1 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988); Lisa Ruddick, "A Rosy Charm: Gertrude Stein and the Repressed Feminine," in Hoffman, Critical Essays, 225-240; Cynthia Secor, "Gertrude Stein: The Complex Force of Her Femininity," in Women, the Arts, and the 1920's in Paris and New York, eds. Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1982), 27-35; and Catherine R. Stimpson, "Gertrice/Altrude: Stein, Toklas, and the Paradox of the Happy Marriage," in Mothering the Mind, eds. Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley (New York: Holmes and Meyer, 1984), "Gertrude Stein and the Transposition of Gender" in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), "The Mind, the Body, and Gertrude Stein," in Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (Spring 1977): 489-506, and "The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein" in Poetics Today 6, nos. 1-2 (1985): 67-80.
- Judy Grahn, Really Reading Gertrude Stein (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1989), 10.
- Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 566.
- The Yale Gertrude Stein, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), 128.
- For an insightful and specifically lesbian reading of this poem, see Rebecca Mark's introduction to Lifting Belly, published in book form by Naiad Press, 1989.
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, N. Y.: Crossing Press, 1984) 57.
CLAUDIA ROTH PIERPONT (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "The Mother of Confusion: Gertrude Stein." In Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, pp. 33-49. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
In the following essay, Pierpont narrates key events of Stein's life, highlighting their influence upon her writings.
"Pablo & Matisse have a maleness that belongs to genius," Gertrude Stein scrawled in a notebook, sometime in her early Paris years, about the two painters she planned to join in re-creating Western art. She was an aspiring writer just past thirty when she met the paired geniuses, in 1905, and their spectacular audacity helped her to determine her own ambitions: to overturn the nineteenth century's constraining rules and prejudices, and to find new words for people's secret inner lives. Stein—a Jewish woman who'd studied psychology at Harvard—had fled America to join her brother on the Left Bank in 1903, to write an anguished novel while he painted mediocre nudes. It was at that moment, when modern art was being born, that the Steins began to buy the best and most shocking paintings; before long, the best and most unshockable people were stopping by to view their riotous, thick-hung walls—and were staying for dinner. Although Leo had begun the collection, Gertrude was the one Picasso wanted to paint and the one he called Pard, using some cowboy slang he'd picked up in American comic strips. Casting off her stays and starting a new novel, she began to think it possible that she, too, might be a genius—that she might do in words what Picasso and Matisse had done in paint—and if maleness was a necessary part of it, well: "moi aussi perhaps," as she added in her notebook. That was not a problem but an opportunity to demonstrate a truth of her own secret inner life.
The first decade of the new century was barely over before she had achieved a version of her goal: the first indubitably modern literary style. Before James Joyce—as she volubly insisted all her life—before Dada or Surrealism, before Bloomsbury or the roman fleuve, Gertrude Stein was writing books and stories that were formally fractured, emotionally inscrutable, and, above all, dauntingly unreadable. This achievement has given the Library of America a particularly difficult task in assembling two hefty volumes of Stein's selected works. How best to represent her legacy? It is often forgotten that Stein commanded a broad literary range, from the psychological realism of her earliest fiction to the journalistic accounts of life in occupied France during the Second World War. The work that made her famous and still earns her canonical status is, of course, the barrage of janglingly repetitive lyric obfuscation that has come to be known as Steinese. "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," she wrote, with the philosophic kick of a nursery Wittgenstein. "The sister was not a mister," she warned, out on a sexual edge, and then provided her own commentary: "Was this a surprise. It was." Although she did not write "Yes! We Have No Bananas," it isn't surprising that the song has been accused of betraying her influence.
It was by perpetrating such suspiciously significant nonsense, somewhere between the studies of Freud and the logic of the Red Queen—"Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded" one cautionary title runs—that Stein entered our language as the bard of a culture of confusion, the vastly imperturbable mother of an age that had given up on answers. Yet no one took more vivid pleasure in the questions than she did, or set them out in a more brilliant company, beginning with the famous salon where she gathered Picasso and Matisse and Braque (who was so strong and so amiable that he would help the janitor hang the bigger pictures) and Derain and Juan Gris and Apollinaire. And after the Great War had blown this brilliant world apart, her rooms filled with charter members of the next cultural resurgence, and then the next, as there entered Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cocteau, Tchelitchev, Christian Bérard, Cecil Beaton, Thornton Wilder, Virgil Thomson, and Richard Wright. For decades, there seemed no end to her gifts of renewal. She was host, sponsor, critic, instigator, frequently foe, and sometimes friend again of some of the century's finest provocateurs, and it was often hard to tell whether her life was a party or a revolution. But her intent was serious ("desperately" serious, as Alice B. Toklas put it), and she knew all along that the stakes were as high as the opposition was fierce, albeit nervous. "They needn't be so afraid of their damn culture," she erupted early on, and, for once, hung back in estimating her powers: "It would take more than a man like me to hurt it."
How did a girl born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1874 turn into such a disruptive fellow? Her grandparents had sailed from Germany to Baltimore in time to take opposing sides in the Civil War—a difference of opinion that she thought well established the Stein familial spirit. She was the youngest of five, although she seems to have felt herself to be the youngest of seven, so often did she dwell on two siblings who had died before she was born—an infant boy and a stillborn girl—and without whose deaths neither she nor her brother Leo would have been brought into the world. Both Leo and Gertrude had perceived some regret on their parent's parts at the quality of the substitution. This was one of the things that drew the youngest pair so close together, along with the knowledge that they were smarter than everyone else they knew.
The family moved from Allegheny to Vienna when Gertrude was a baby, and then to Paris (where she added French to her English and German) and, finally, to the wilds of Oakland, California, in 1880, when Daniel Stein forbade his children to speak any language but "pure" American English. A cold and domineering man of minimal formal education, he went on to make a small fortune by investing in San Francisco cable cars, and provided well for the children whose lives he overloaded with tutors and lessons and ambitions. Leo recalled his childhood as a torturous regime lived out under his father's disapproval, while his softhearted mother was too weak to make any difference; Gertrude would only allow that she considered it a foolish idea to have had an unhappy anything, let alone something as important as a childhood.
But there can have been little room for bluster back in 1886, when their mother began to show symptoms of abdominal cancer. Years of wasting pain and withdrawal turned Milly Stein into something of a household wraith before she died in 1888, when her younger daughter was fourteen. In The Making of Americans, the massive novel Gertrude Stein wrote about her family—the first stunningly original disaster of modernism, finished in 1911, written as though from deep within a halting, troubled mind—she suggests that Milly's illness had rendered her so nearly invisible that neither her husband nor her children noticed when she finally disappeared.
Sometimes then they would be good to her, mostly they forgot about her, slowly she died away among them and then there was no more of living for her, she died away from all of them. She had never been really important to any of them.…Mostly for them she had no existence in her and then she died away and the gentle scared little woman was all that they ever after remembered of her.
Stein's notebooks, however, tell a different story: "All stopped after death of mother."
In fact, the household fell into chaos, while eighteen-year-old Bertha struggled to make up for a maternal presence that no one else would even acknowledge was missing. But if Gertrude had thought her mother negligible, she found her older sister sorely disgusting: "pure female," she wrote in her notebook for The Making of Americans, "sloppy oozy female … good, superior, maternal." Alone and untended, Gertrude left high school—her most thorough early biographer, Brenda Wineapple, states that she simply vanished from all records—and plunged into what she later called her "dark and dreadful" days. She took to reading with a kind of violence, buying piles of books (often with advice from Leo) and gulping them in great haphazard quantities. And she developed an almost equally violent need for food—"books and food, food and books, both excellent things," she wrote. Her discovery of food as a way back to early childhood, to "the full satisfied sense of being stuffed up with eating," marked her first divergence from the ways of her beloved Leo, who was just discovering how much he preferred to starve.
The case against Daniel Stein was set out many times by his two youngest children. They hated him, and yet they respected his power; they feared him, yet they wanted to be like him, if only for self-protection. More ambiguously, The Making of Americans contains some bizarrely dreamlike scenes that, among Stein scholars, have long raised the question of incest. (In the clearest example, a grown daughter accuses her father of having introduced her to an unnamed vice, and her words cause him to fall down paralyzed.)
In 1995 the biographer Linda Wagner-Martin, having studied Gertrude's notes for the novel, concluded that it was Bertha who had been sexually approached by their father: Gertrude wrote of his "coming in to her one night, to come and keep him warm." Complicating matters further, Gertrude elaborated by referring to a similar incident she had undergone with an uncle, her father's brother Solomon. "Scene like the kind I had with Sol," she wrote, and added, in a strangulated shorthand, "like me what he tried to do." Whatever actually took place, it is striking that just at those moments when she approaches what she cannot say, even in her own notes, this cautious writer begins to sound like quintessential Gertrude Stein. "Fathers loving children young girls," she goes on, and it appears that at least one branch of modern literary style may derive from a fearful evasion of meaning, and from the necessary invention—and wasn't that necessity "pure female"?—of a secret code.
"Then our life without a father began, a very pleasant one" was Stein's typically cloudless way of addressing the death of Daniel Stein—by apoplexy, three years after the death of his wife. Certainly his death precipitated a release of productive energy in his younger daughter. In 1893 she followed Leo to Harvard—this was a year before the Harvard Annex for Women became Radcliffe College—where, studying English and psychology, she turned out a quantity of notebooks in which her private turmoils were forced into traditional narrative forms. Her idols were George Eliot and Henry James, but her first work to be published was "Normal Motor Automatism," a psychological report she produced under the aegis of William James, who was doubtless responsible for rerouting her toward psychology as a science rather than, as in his brother's work, psychology as an aspect of literature.
In 1898 she went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins, planning to study the mysterious female affliction known as hysteria. Freud's book on the subject had been published three years before, but the frailties of women had preoccupied Stein since her childhood. Now she found refuge in the theory, not uncommon at the time, that a few rare women are born exceptions to their sex. To be extremely accomplished or intelligent or determined—to aspire to genius—was to be, by definition, less female. Although a friend persuaded her to present a public paper on the benefits of women's education, the last thing she was interested in was the cause of women's rights. As far as she could see, the only thing most women excelled at was having babies.
She did well in her first years of medical school, when the work centered on the classroom and the lab, but she had a great deal of difficulty when it came to visiting wards filled with sick human beings. And then, in her third year, she fell passionately in love with a young Bryn Mawr graduate who was permanently attached to another female medical student. The woman was responsive yet elusive. Instead of studying, Gertrude pined; she planned her life around seeing her beloved, or not seeing her. Sabotaged by the very parts of herself that she had been trying to cut off—the emotional, the uncontrolled—she failed her final exams and did not graduate. But by then, of course, she claimed she didn't care. She no longer wished to be a doctor. She had discovered that the only way to relieve her suffering was by writing. She was a novelist after all.
Virginia Woolf believed that no woman had succeeded in writing the truth of the experience of her own body—that women and language both would have to change considerably before anything like that could happen. She also believed that those who struggled toward the liberation of language—like herself and Stein and Eliot and Joyce—were bound to fail at least as often as they succeeded, and in this respect she judged Stein's "contortions" a generational misfortune. Woolf was eight years Stein's junior, and in many ways her experience and ambitions ran a parallel course: the death of her mother when she was thirteen; the influence of her dangerously overbearing father; the sexual "interference" inflicted by her stepbrothers; her love of women; her literary interest in male and female aspects of character and in an androgynous ideal. Also, like Stein, Woolf had enough money to write exactly as she pleased, and that was surely a major factor in allowing these two individuals, so different in their gifts and temperaments, to become the opposing poles of risk-all modern writing in a woman's voice.
The anguished novel Stein wrote when she joined her brother in Paris was an account of the love affair that had been tearing her apart. Stein's first full literary achievement, Q.E.D. —standing for quod erat demonstrandum, the conclusion of a geometric proof—was one of the few works she never tried to publish; although not explicitly erotic, it was plainly open about the fact that all three members of its sexual triangle were women. No explanations, no apologies, no wells of loneliness. Stein seems to have written the book as a kind of exorcism, incorporating in it actual letters and conversations, with the goal of restoring her serenity and never losing it again.
The book is fascinating not only for the information it provides about Stein but for the Jamesian acuity of its psychological portraits. It is hard to predict how far Stein might have gone in adapting this tradition—she was then twenty-nine—but the autobiographical narrator hints at why the attempt would be abandoned. She has always had a "puritanic horror" of passion, she confesses, and the pain of this love affair has rendered it absolute. "You meant to me a turgid and complex world," she rebukes her beloved—protesting also against the Jamesian tasks of emotional probing and dissection—before she heads off for a better or at least more soothing world of "obvious, superficial, clean simplicity." What she didn't know yet was how to find it.
After a year of frantic travelling, Gertrude moved in permanently with Leo in his apartment on the Rue de Fleurus. Because her erudite brother didn't approve of Q.E.D., she wrote only late at night, hurrying to bed just before dawn so the birds would not keep her awake. During ordinary hours she was more than ever Leo's pupil, with everything to learn about the flourishing art of painting. When Leo took her to see the work of a young Spanish painter in a gallery owned by a former circus clown, she initially refused to chip in her share of the funds required to make a purchase. She thought the long figure of a nude woman had ugly, monkeylike legs and feet. The dealer offered to cut off the offending parts and sell just the head, but the strange Americans eventually returned and bought the whole thing. Picasso's Woman with a Bouquet of Flowers was soon followed into the Steins' salon by many other Picassos, as well as Matisses and Cézannes. But, most important, it was followed by Picasso himself, who thought Leo a dreadful bore but recognized in Gertrude a companion spirit. He had barely met her when he asked to paint her portrait. Uncharacteristically, he struggled with the subject mightily: after more than eighty sittings, he wiped out the naturalistic head and quit. He returned to the canvas only months later, and what he finally produced was not Gertrude Stein as she then appeared—no one thought the portrait looked like her—but the grandly masked monstre sacré she would become once she had forged her genius and had paid the price.
It was while she was sitting for her portrait, in the spring of 1906, that Stein thought out much of the book that first won her literary renown. Inspired by Flaubert's meticulously understated A Simple Heart (which Leo had set her to translate as an exercise in French), Stein's Three Lives is a trio of stories about the grim existences of three women—two German-born servants and one poor black—who drift toward their fates in the airless atmosphere of a small American city. Stein's achievement was to make the writing seem as if shaped by the inner states of her characters: the childishly simple diction of those who had never willingly opened a book, the repetitiveness of those who had not much to think about or who were unused to being heard. The book was not published until 1909, and then in a tiny edition that Stein paid for herself. The reaction was astounding on almost any scale. "A very masterpiece of realism" was the general tenor of reviews. Many writers and critics began to see Stein's little book as the start of a truly American, unliterary literature, homely and vernacular and existentially unpresuming—a response suggesting that many writers and critics knew no more of the people she was supposedly writing about than Gertrude Stein did.
Like everything that she had written (but had not published) up until then, Three Lives is about Stein's autobiographical obsessions. Here are the vile but attractive father and the mother whose death is hardly noticed, the better-loved dead babies, and a continuous replaying of the tormented love affair, complete with psychological observations transposed from Q.E.D. But there is a change: the narrative voice is now so apathetic and the emotional temperature so low that it's no wonder the characters seem half-unconscious. The cause is not their social downtroddenness but the fact that Three Lives catches Stein in the very act of administering the emotional anesthesia that marked her style forever after.
The success of Three Lives coincided with two other important developments in Stein's life: Picasso's return from a summer in Spain with his first Cubist canvases, and the deepening of her relationship with Alice B. Toklas. The result was an explosion that shattered all her effortful old forms. The sudden outpouring of small, fragmented "portraits" and other glittering esoterica is usually said to have been inspired by—depending on one's source or one's inclination—either her desire to write like a Cubist or her need to conceal the erotic joy of her new attachment. Certainly, Cubism was vital to Stein, because it provided her with an intellectual rationale for doing exactly what she already urgently wanted and needed to do: keep her eyes on the surface. Facet it, mirror it, spin it around, and repeat it ad infinitum, but never go back underneath.
When Gertrude first met Alice in the fall of 1907, she thought her the same type of "pure female" as her sister Bertha, and she was wary. "She listens, she is docile, stupid and she owns you," runs one notebook entry. A tiny, brittle woman, dressed in exotic fringed shawls that seemed to emphasize her ever-remarked-on Semitic features—"an awful Jewess, dressed in a window-curtain" was Mary Berenson's typical assessment—Alice also gave signs of possessing, according to Gertrude, "an exquisite and keen moral sensibility." And there was no doubt that she knew a genius when she met one. (Actually, she claimed that she heard a bell ring whenever she met one.) Furthermore, she was absolutely certain (now that she'd seen it) of the world in which she wanted to live. This was a very different world from the one she'd come from, back in San Francisco, where for the past ten years—since her mother's death, when she was nineteen—she'd borne the domestic burdens of a household made up of her father, her grandfather, and her younger brother. None of whom she, gladly, ever saw again.
Stein and Toklas were formally "married" in the summer of 1910, outside Florence, and that fall Alice moved into the Stein ménage on the Rue de Fleurus. And so it was that Alice B. Toklas "came to be happier than anybody else who was living then," as Stein wrote in Ada, a biographical portrait of her bride. Because Alice, for the first time since the death of her mother, had someone to tell her charming stories to: "some one who was loving was almost always listening." Listening and loving, loving and listening—the paired satisfactions now nearly replaced books and food. Notably, at this time Leo began to display symptoms of chronic deafness, and to starve himself in fasts that lasted as long as thirty days; he claimed to be writing a book on painting, but he couldn't produce a word. Just as Gertrude was becoming the man that being a genius required her to be ("I am very fond of yes sir," she wrote), Leo was turning into the very model of the mysteriously afflicted, hysterical woman she had once been so interested in trying to cure. But no longer.
With someone now listening to her so well, Gertrude began to pour out words without hesitation, revision, or second thoughts. Privately, there are the sweet-breathed burps and coos of utter infantile contentment: "Lifting belly fattily / Doesn't that astonish you / You did want me / Say it again / strawberry." The work she offered to the world made even fewer concessions to standards of sense and communication:
One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were following was one who was charming. One whom some were following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were following was one who was certainly completely charming.
So runs the first paragraph of Stein's "portrait" of Picasso, which was published by Alfred Steiglitz (along with her "portrait" of Matisse) in Camera Work in 1912, a year before the Armory Show introduced modern art to le tout New York—with loans from the Stein collection—and made Gertrude Stein about as notorious as the painters whose outrageous principles she was said to share. ("The name of Gertrude Stein is better known in NY today than the name of God!" Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote to her ecstatically, and Stein replied, "Hurrah for gloire.") She didn't mind that most of her fame came in the form of parody and ridicule. "They always quote it," she pointed out in what may be her most truly modern observation, "and those they say they admire they do not quote."
All this was too much for Leo. He had hated Cubism from the start, and he didn't hang back from declaring Gertrude's work "Godalmighty rubbish." By late 1913 brother and sister were no longer speaking, and he soon moved out. The collection of paintings was divided more or less equitably, with Gertrude taking the Picassos and Leo the Renoirs; they split the Cézannes between them. (Picasso painted her an apple to make up for one of the Cézannes she lost.) Although Leo later tried to resume contact, she did not respond. "I have very bad headaches and I don't like to commit to paper that which makes me very unhappy," she wrote in one of her notebooks. More than thirty years remained of their lives, but Gertrude and Leo never spoke again. Alice claimed that Gertrude had simply forgotten all about him.
Stein had won enormous freedoms, but she chose to confine herself to a comfortably narrow space. In the midst of sexually explosive Paris, where the members of Natalie Barney's lesbian circle flaunted their glamour and their liaisons and their belly-dancing parties, Gertrude and Alice ran a salon that was a model of middle-class decorum. Despite occasional unorthodoxies of dress—Alice's window curtains, Gertrude's tents—and the Roman-emperor haircut Gertrude eventually got, they played the roles of two charmingly eccentric ladies who just happened to be man and wife (a fact as perfectly obvious to all as it was presumed unmentionable).
The effects of self-confinement on Stein's writing, however, were cruel. Beyond the occasional flash of wit or happy juxtaposition, her chains of words and repetitions come to suggest an animal's relentless pacing—cramped and dulled and slightly desperate. One feels that just outside the strict boundaries imposed by her pen lurked fathers and brothers and arguments and wars. In life, she could be head-on and courageous. During the First World War, she imported a Ford van and learned to drive it (except in reverse) to deliver supplies to hospitals all over France, and after the war she and Alice wrote to the many lonely American soldier "godsons" they had adopted. But nowhere in Stein's "literary" writing did she take in the experience: the wounded, the fear, the tenderness. She was writing less then anyway, giving over much of her time to advising and instructing (and sometimes to feeding and supporting) a group of young writers who found their way to her fabled door; in the twenties, as if by decree, the painters dispersed and the writers appeared. Among these, first in place and most fiercely devoted, was the twenty-three-year-old Ernest Hemingway, who sat at her feet and learned to write like a man.
"Gertrude Stein and me are just like brothers," Hemingway crowed to Sherwood Anderson in 1922. He brought her his stories to read and criticize, and they talked for hours while his wife, Hadley, was none too gracefully monopolized by Alice. (Holding off "wives of geniuses" was a stressful part of Alice's occupation; some had to be cornered behind large pieces of furniture.) He credited "Miss Stein" with getting him to give up newspaper reporting and to concentrate on his serious writing. He commended her method of analyzing places and people. And it was on the Rue de Fleurus that he was advised to go to Spain to see the bullfighting.
In 1925 reviewers of Hemingway's first volume of stories, In Our Time, recognized stylistic debts to Stein that were unmistakable: drastically short and unadorned sentences, repetition, a "naiveté of language" that suggested a complex, inarticulate emotional state. But for Hemingway the style clearly served as a kind of dam against an opposing sentimental pressure that was rarely if ever felt in Stein's prose. The new American hero was syntactically disengaged, because he'd been through hell and had already felt too much; his semiautism was part of his sexual equipment in a world in which physical courage was destiny and the only truly frightful things were women and emotion. Virginia Woolf—who used "virile" as an insult—particularly deplored Hemingway's exaggeration of male characteristics, for which she blamed the "sexual perturbations" of the times. (This was in 1927, and she was reviewing his aptly titled collection Men Without Women.) Woolf might have felt differently if she had traced the most famously virile of modern styles to its origins in the work of a woman—albeit a woman who liked to call herself "a roman and Julius Caesar and a bridge and a column and a pillar" (when all Virginia ever called Vita was "a lighthouse").
Are there male and female characteristics in writing? Male and female sentences? Is the comma a languishing feminine ruse, draining the strength of the tough male verb into a miasma of girlish uncertainties? Writing is self-exposure, and in the postsuffrage, neo-Freudian twenties the fear of what might get exposed was everywhere. Stein believed that the use of a comma was degrading and a sign of weakness because after all you ought to know yourself when you needed to take a breath. Woolf suggested that any woman who wrote in a terse, short-winded style was probably trying to write like a man. But at the heart of their difference is the fact that Woolf didn't see why a woman should want to do anything like a man; feminine generosity was life itself, and the necessary source of male achievement. One could hardly get further from Stein's perception of the sexes' division of properties. The two women met once—at a party in London, in 1926—and the revulsion was mutual. On Woolf's part, this was a matter of class and snobbery. "Jews swarmed," she wrote of the event in a letter to her sister. On Stein's part, there was defensiveness and bravado, surely based on a perception of the chilly atmosphere and perhaps, too, on the glaringly anomalous presence of a purely female genius.
By the late twenties, Stein and Hemingway had battled often, and they finally parted ways. She never spoke of what had come between them; he could hardly stop speaking of it. Sometimes he claimed that it was Alice, jealous of his relationship with Gertrude ("I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it"), who had caused the break. He also claimed that after Gertrude went through menopause she wanted no men around her except homosexuals—her "feathered friends," as he called all those whom he resented for usurping his place in the nest. Undeniably, there had been a change in the salon. Although Gertrude and Alice were as reserved as ever, they did live increasingly within a kind of tacit homosexual freemasonry. Indeed, it seems to have been this very reserve which was part of the attraction for such cautious old-world gentlemen as Frederick Ashton and Virgil Thomson and others from the highly sexually encoded worlds of music and theater and dance. In Stein's new role as a professional collaborator writing opera and ballet librettos, and also as a friend, she seems to have developed the appeal of a more or less inverted Mae West: a good-humored woman in male drag, a warm and wise mama who not only took in all her gay sons but was gay herself.
None of which was known to the public, of course, when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in 1932, suddenly turned the world's most famously obscure writer into the best-selling author of a Literary Guild selection. From the start, Stein had thought of the Autobiography —actually it is her own biography, written from the dazzled point of view of her companion—as an embarrassingly traditional, moneymaking venture, on a different level from the meaningfully experimental work she still composed at night. In fact, this magical book doesn't resemble anything else in Stein's work—or, for that matter, anything else in American literature. Its only models seem to be those other famed "Alice" books, by Lewis Carroll, and the social surrealism of Oscar Wilde, which further muddles the question of the sexual significance of a writer's style.
The book is a modern fairy tale: the story of a golden age of art in Paris, when geniuses regularly came to dinner and were cleverly seated opposite their own paintings so that everyone was made especially happy, although everyone was happy anyway—this was back before death and divorce and success—and Henri Rousseau played the violin and Marie Laurencin sang, and Frédéric of the Lapin Agile wandered in and out with his donkey. And into the middle of this wonderland walks the sensible American Alice B. At her very first dinner, she finds herself next to Picasso, who gravely asks her to tell him whether she thinks he really does look like her President Lincoln. "I had thought a good many things that evening," she reports quite as gravely, "but I had not thought that." Ever temperate, Alice is the quiet but quizzical eye at the heart of the storm. Her equanimity, like her pleasure, is absolute. The book indulges in some small revenge—Leo is not mentioned by name, Hemingway is imputed to be a coward—and it leaves us with a sense of loss that is as profound as it is muted. Once, there was so much life all around that one had to hurry to bed before dawn to have any hope of sleep: "There were birds in many trees behind high walls in those days, now there are fewer."
With the book's success, Stein fell into a profound depression. Even her new gloire didn't help, at first; she was fifty-nine, she was having her first major success, and it was for the wrong thing. In Four in America, a particularly reader-resistant work she completed about this time, she rose—briefly, rather thrillingly—to a clear explanation of her intended goals and values:
Now listen! Can't you see that when the language was new—as it was with Chaucer and Homer—the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there? He could say "O moon," "O sea," "O love," and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can't you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just wornout literary words? …
Now listen! I'm no fool. I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a … is a … is a …' Yes, I'm no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.
Alas for good intentions. When Stein returned to America for the first time in thirty years, in 1934, to attend a performance of Virgil Thomson's opera (to her libretto) Four Saints in Three Acts, she also gave a series of lectures around the country. Directly exhorting her audience, Stein made headlines (Miss Stein speaks to Bewildered 500) but clearly failed to win the understanding she was after. The work of the woman who claimed to believe so fervently in the immediacy of language and the recovery of meaning remained synonymous with obscurity and confusion. (In the 1935 movie Top Hat, Ginger Rogers giggled that an indecipherable telegram "sounds like Gertrude Stein.") Any attempt to assess Stein's literary achievement raises many old questions—not only about her judgment and credibility but about the relationship of theory to art in the troubled history of modernism.
When Stein and Toklas returned to Paris in the spring of 1935, Toklas took it upon herself to ship copies of Stein's manuscripts back to America for safekeeping. This was the full extent of their preparations for the possibility of hard times ahead in Europe. Stein couldn't believe that anything would really happen, and certainly not to them—two elderly Jewish ladies with a bit of fame and no political interests. Their political indifference was now dangerously compounded by Stein's long-standing way of handling all serious unpleasantness: pretend it isn't there, and then tumble into nonsense or baby talk, so that perhaps it will be persuaded that you are not there, either—or, at least, that you are not a reasonable target. In her early Paris days, she had written to a friend who had apparently mentioned the Russian pogroms against the Jews, "The Russians is very bad people and the Czar a very bad man." In the mid-thirties, her thoughts about Hitler were hardly more sophisticated. She and Alice were staying in the countryside, at Bilignin, in 1939, when war broke out. They hurried to Paris in order to close up their apartment. Then, taking one Cézanne and Gertrude's Picasso portrait, they returned—against all advice—to Bilignin, which soon fell under the jurisidiction of Vichy. And there they spent the war.
How did they survive? Largely, it seems, through a French admirer and friend who was appointed head of the Bibliothèque Nationale under the Occupation and issued several requests that they not be disturbed. They lived quietly and scrounged for food; they sold the Cézanne and liked to tell visitors surprised at the quality of their dinner that they were eating it. They watched the German army march into the land and, a long and burning time later, straggle out; German soldiers were billeted for a time in their house, as were American GIs when at last they arrived. This experience is recounted clearly and movingly in a book Stein completed in 1944, entitled Wars I Have Seen. Sadly, the book is out of print, and its failure to meet a modernist criterion has kept it from inclusion in the Library of America compilation. Yet it is one of the few of Stein's works that might be called essential, because it tells the ending of the fairy tale.
There is much here that is richly, lovingly observed, about the women's daily life and that of their neighbors and about French pragmatism and courage. Typically, whatever could not be lovingly observed is passed over—or nearly so. For now history almost catches up with Gertrude Stein, and forces her into confrontation. One feels her struggling with the effort not to look away: the very term "collabo"—which is all she manages to spit out of it—causes her to stumble on the page, falling into a repetitive stutter that seems not a mannerism but a kind of seizure. Her attempt to address anti-Semitism begins with an early memory of the Dreyfus Affair, but she hasn't advanced beyond a sentence when she segues into senseless babble: "He can read acasias, hands and faces. Acasias are for the goat.…" "Acasia" is not even a word (and Stein never made up words; she thought such arrogant idiocy to be the province of Joyce). "Acacia" is the name of a tree, but "aphasia" means the loss of the ability to speak. It is as though Stein were making her own diagnosis, or as though a part of her reason were watching the rest of her mind run away.
After the war, back in Paris, the famous salon was filled with GIs eating Alice's chocolate ice cream. Gertrude wrote down what they said and how they said it as though they were the new poets of the age. She adored them, she celebrated them: they were, after all, young men and heroes. But something in her attitude was changing. Along with the ice cream, she dispensed correction; she worried that the great liberators were taken in by the flattery and politeness of the postwar Germans, or that they saw the world in terms of movies. By and large, it seems to have dawned on her that there was a lot these callow demigods ought to learn before the world was put in the hands of men, even the best and noblest men, ever again.
Although she was over seventy and weak with cancer, Stein was very eager to work. In late 1945 she began a second opera project with her old friend Virgil Thomson. It was his idea that the setting be the American nineteenth century; it was her idea that the hero be a heroine, the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Stein completed the libretto for The Mother of Us All just before her death, in July 1946. Although the work is predictably baffling, Stein maintains an exceptionally strong dramatic focus on the character of Susan B. She had done a considerable amount of historical research—shocking in itself, given her usual methods—and it is Anthony's public concerns that dominate the text: the disparities between the sexes, and her passionate conviction that women are stronger and must lead.
For men are afraid, Stein's heroine observes: "They fear women, they fear each other, they fear their neighbor, they fear other countries and then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other, and when they crowd together and follow each other they are brutes, like animals who stampede." As for women, they are afraid not for themselves but only for their children: "that is the real difference between men and women." Stein shows Susan B. at the end of her life, when she knows that all her work has failed. She has helped to win the vote for black men, but she will die before it is granted to women, white or black. When someone attempts to comfort her by saying that women will vote someday, her despair only deepens: she dreads that when women have the vote they, too, will become afraid—that they will become like men.
How astonishing that Stein can now voice her lifelong wish—"women will become like men"—as a dreaded possibility. A new sense of the value of what women had traditionally done and been may even have given her succor in these last months, as she looked back on her own life as the mother of so much and so many. Perhaps by then she had realized that in her years of giving and feeding and advising and encouraging and (is there another word for it?) mothering—in the continual dispersal of herself to men whom she loved and admired, to geniuses and soldiers and cowards alike—she had inadvertently lived the life of the most profoundly womanly of women, and that it had been good.