13 Gertrude Stein’s Serious Play

Gertrude Stein’s Serious Play

Gertrude Stein is more talked about than read. Nonetheless, snippets of her work have infiltrated North American English. There’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (from “Sacred Emily” [1913, published 1922]) or a variation thereupon. Or “There is no there there,” her impression of suburban Oakland, California (Everybody’s Autobiography [1937]). Note the simplicity of those sentences: the way they are anchored by nouns and names, with barely a comma or semicolon in sight. Stein’s writing can be described as cute, a sometimes flattering word whose connotations of childishness, femininity, and consumer culture clash with the overt values of Modernism (Ngai). Yet despite her work’s simplicity and charm, Stein has become synonymous with difficulty (e.g., Cecire).

Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stein saw a resurgence of interest in the late twentieth century with the rise of feminist criticism and queer theory. Decades before Stonewall, there she was: a radically experimental, fat, butch Jewish lesbian. And Americans loved her. Or at least, enough Americans loved her earn to her coverage in magazines and newspapers across the country, and a sold-out lecture tour in 1934. But Stein remains stubbornly resistant to being made into a model for women’s, LGBT, or Jewish causes. She was indifferent to the women’s suffrage movement and had little to say about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.

Did Stein contribute to a feminist literary canon in the way that Gilman did? Some critics say no. Others would say that the question misses the point. As you recall, Gilman called for a new type of writing that would break with the “androcentric” conventions of western literature. Stein’s body of work is one example of what such a literature could look like. She eschewed linear (one might say “phallic”) narratives where tension builds toward a climax, in favour of stories that unfold in a gradual, iterative, sometimes circular manner. Her work brims with everyday, sensual pleasures—sex, yes, but also eating and playing with her dogs. If we look to Stein for a political agenda or a moral, we are bound to be disappointed. But when we investigate her work on its own terms, we will surely discover something new.

The Early Years: Naturalism and Beyond

Optional: To hear Stein reading from The Making of Americans, visit PennSound’s webpage “Gertrude Stein.” If you only have time for one clip, we recommend Fragment 3.

Stein was born into an upper-middle-class family, the granddaughter of religious Jews who had left Bavaria (modern-day Germany) seeking economic opportunity and cultural freedom. As an adolescent, she immersed herself in the Anglophone literary tradition, from Elizabethan poetry to the novels of Henry James. But her formal training was as a scientist. She went to Harvard, where she took classes in neuroanatomy, chemistry, and zoology, as well as graduate-level classes in psychology. William James (Henry’s brother, whom we introduced in Unit 1) was a professor and mentor to her.

In the Harvard Psychological Laboratory, Stein conducted a series of experiments dealing with the relation between “motor automatism” (the motions a person makes without being fully aware of them) and personality. Through this research, she became convinced that people’s character was expressed more fully through small, habitual actions than through life-changing events or big decisions. It was also during this time that Stein found herself embroiled in a lesbian love triangle, the basis of her first novella, Q.E.D. (written in 1903 and published in 1950, after Stein’s death). In 1897, Stein entered the Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she continued her study of the brain and assisted in the delivery of babies in Baltimore’s African American quarter. Being exposed to the vernacular speech patterns of African Americans and recent immigrants from western Europe left an indelible mark on Stein’s writing, which is particularly apparent in Three Lives (1908). Gertrude and Leo both dropped out of medical school and moved to Paris in 1903, where their lives as art collectors and socialites began in earnest. Alice B. Toklas moved in with them in 1910.

Between 1902 and 1911, Stein worked on a novel called The Making of Americans. The novel starts out as the story of two immigrant families like her parents’, and gradually morphs into something different: “a history of every one who ever can or is or was or will be living” (The Making of Americans 211):

Slowly every one in continuous repeating, to their minutest variation, comes to be clearer to some one. Every one who ever was or is or will be living sometimes will be clearly realized by some one. Sometime there will be an ordered history of every one. Slowly every kind of one comes into ordered recognition. More and more then it is wonderful in living the subtle variations coming clear into ordered recognition, coming to make every one a part of some kind of them, some kind of men and women. Repeating then is in every one, every one then comes sometime to be clearer to some one, sometime there will be then an orderly history of every one who ever was or is or will be living.

Repeating then is in every one, repeating then makes a complete history in every one for some one sometime to realize in that one. Repeating is in them of the most delicate shades in them of being and of feeling and so it comes to be clear in each one the complete nature in each one, it comes to be clear in each one the connection between that one and others to make a kind of them, a kind of men and women. Repeating is a wonderful thing in being, everything, every one is repeating then always the whole of them and so sometime there surely will be an ordered history of every one. More and more then this is a clear thing. Every one has their own being in them, every one has repeating always in them always of the whole of them, always the kinds of them come to be clearer and the division again into kinds of them. Sometime then there will be an orderly history of every kind of men and women and that will be very interesting. (The Making of Americans)

We can think of The Making of Americans as the Naturalist “experimental novel” taken to its logical extreme. Individuals are abstracted to their “kinds” or “bottom natures.” But an individual’s kind is not self-evident (as, for example, in McTeague, where characters’ personalities were evident from their bodily shape and facial structure). One’s “kind” only reveals itself through prolonged contact with an observer—that is, Stein herself. The only problem was that this history could never be complete. With her training in biology, Stein knew that repetition always meant, as she put it, “subtle variations.” She had learned from Darwinism that no organism is exactly the same as its parents, and from William James that no one has the exact same thought twice. That meant that the closer one looked, the more kinds of people one would find. Moreover, Stein realized that in her attempt to describe people in a narrative mode—describing them always with an eye to their past or future—she had lost her grasp of people in the present. And so Stein brought The Making of Americans to a close, at 925 pages
long. As she reflected in a 1934 lecture:

While I was listening and hearing and feeling the rhythm of each human being I gradually began to feel the difficulty of putting it down. Types of people I could put down but a whole human being felt at one and the same time, in other words while in the act of feeling that person was very difficult to put into words. (“Lectures in America” 276)

Many of Stein’s subsequent writings took up the challenge of capturing the “rhythm” of a person, or a group of people, as they existed at one moment. We know that sounds strange and abstract; some examples will clarify what we mean. Stein called these short texts portraits.

Before continuing, read “Picasso.” Then read “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” or listen to the original audio recording of Stein reading it at PennSound’s webpage “Gertrude Stein.” Better yet, do both.

“Picasso” and “If I Told Him”

Fig. 3. Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein (1905–1906), via Wikimedia Commons

What is a portrait? A portrait is a painting or visual representation of a real person. Its title is usually the name of its subject. A portrait commissioned by a king, queen, or military leader is intended to stir reverence for its subject, whereas a portrait of a common person may elicit a complex mixture of emotions. In any case, the portrait is expected to resemble the subject.

Around the turn of the century, many painters began to approach portraiture differently. Some infused their portraits with symbolic rather than literal emblems of the subject’s personality. Some experimented with perspective, making the subject recede into the background or depicting him or her from multiple positions at the same time. Some responded to the rise of photography by venturing into abstraction, deliberately obscuring some individuating details of their subject.

Optional: To see some ways Modernist painters challenged the conventions of portraiture, visit MoMALearning’s webpage “What Is Modern Art?

Question for Reflection: We’ve already read at least one story that uses visual depictions of people to reflect on literary characterization and/or the act of writing. How would you
compare those texts’ use of visual art to Stein’s?

Spending time among painters and art collectors gave Stein a new way of thinking about representing people using words. In metaphorical terms, Stein freed herself of the burden of conveying psychological “depth” and embraced the possibilities of a flat canvas. A verbal portrait “did not require Stein to claim that one could somehow enter into another person’s consciousness as one might with a fictional character” (Meyer 156). Released as well from the central artifice of Realism (making up people who seem real), Stein appealed to a burgeoning
celebrity culture with her sketches of famous artists and their lovers.

Since Pablo Picasso painted Stein’s portrait in 1905, it was only fitting that Stein would return the favour. “Picasso” (1909) is a representative work in the early style of The Making of Americans. It refers to individuals as “one,” reflecting Stein’s fascination with counting and the relation between individuation and abstraction. “This one” is a pointing phrase (more
technically, an indexical), in keeping with the convention whereby the name of a person and the title of a portrait are taken to point to the same individual. There is Stein’s whimsical notion of character traits as substances “inside” a person that “come out” of them over time. And of course there is that “repeating.” The similarities among phrases add coherence to Picasso’s character, while the differences between phrases show him to be a living and changing person.

We don’t know whether Stein was thinking about her first portrait of Picasso when she wrote “If I Told Him” in 1923. By that time, Picasso was famous enough that Stein and Toklas could no longer afford to buy his paintings, though they remained friends.

How does this portrait differ from the first? Let’s start with the subtitle. A complete portrait could be a portrait that is ready for exhibition, or a portrait in its entirety. How is a complete portrait different from a completed portrait? Speakers are more likely to use completed in reference to the creator of a work than the work itself. Noting that the word “of” sometimes
means by (as in “the works of Shakespeare”), the subtitle names three possible subjects. Stein could be writing about Picasso; she could be writing about the process of making a portrait of Picasso; or she could be writing about a portrait that Picasso has painted. The line between artist and subject, or person and thing, is deliberately blurred. If we take “If I Told Him” as
a work about a portrait (a portrait of a portrait?), we can describe it as an instance of ekphrasis. An ekphrastic poem describes or reflects on a work of art in another medium, such as sculpture or painting; John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) and W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938) are perhaps the most famous examples in English.

The piece begins with the nervous back-and-forth of an internal monologue. We are inserted into a conflict where the source of the conflict (tell him what?) is less important than its rhythms. The internal rhyme of “told him” and “Napoleon” is easier to detect in the audio recording, and it underscores the imbalance of power between the characters. Is Picasso a “king”? A tyrant who is destined to fall? How many different ways is the word exact used? What does it mean as a verb (“to exact”)? Is “exact resemblance” a paradox? Not all of these questions have definitive answers, but puzzling over them will help you appreciate Stein’s slanted take on the arts.

A portrait is usually “judged” for its “resemblance” to its subject, or at least to onlookers’ preconceived notion of him or her. By the time Stein wrote “If I Told Him,” her friendship with Picasso was one of the most famous things about her. American and European newspapers had taken to describing her as a “Cubist” writer. The usefulness of that description is up for debate. In any case, Stein was being judged as derivative of Picasso, which would make her both a “copy” of a European and a copy of a man. As Brian Glavey writes:

[Stein’s] own identification with [Picasso’s] masculine position was something she had constantly to defend from the taint of the copy:

Who comes first. Napoleon the first.

Who comes too coming coming too, who goes there, as they go they share, who shares all, all is as all as as yet or as yet.

Now to date now to date. Now and now and date and the date.

Who came first Napoleon at first. Who came first Napoleon the first.

Who came first, Napoleon first. [“If I Told Him”]

Stein undermines Picasso’s priority while praising it, possibly deflating his superiority with a sexual joke at his expense. Her repetitions likewise take the wind from his sails: by the eighteenth first, the word has lost something of its original meaning. These repetitions then turn to Picasso’s patriarchal privilege: ‘He he he he and he and he and and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he. He is and as he is, and as he is and he is, he is and as he and he and as he is and he and he and he.’ With this litany of the masculine pronoun, Stein teases the mocking sound of laughter out of a representation of Picasso’s megalomania: hee hee hee. (Glavey 47)

Hee hee hee, indeed: Stein was very serious about play. The portrait ends with a coy, perhaps maternal, injunction to “Play fairly” and a sombre note about history. Before continuing, read “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene.” (Available in Unit 4 and the Resources tab in Moodle)

“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”

[Gertrude Stein] always says she dislikes the abnormal, it is so obvious. She says the normal is so much more simply complicated and interesting.

-Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Alice, ch. 4)

“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” (written between 1908 and 1910) is another transitional work in Stein’s catalogue. It is more of a narrative than most of her portraits, yet more spare and abstract than her early novellas. The piece is based on Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire, two American painters who came to the Paris, took part in Stein and Toklas’s salons, and eventually moved in together. In telling the story of Helen and Georgine falling in and out of love, Stein uses a deliberately circumscribed vocabulary. Once again, Stein is showing how the meaning of a word shifts subtly with each repetition, not unlike the feelings between two people change over time.

The names Stein gave to the women are both tactile puns: Fur(r) has been suggested as a sexual innuendo, and Skeene resembles both skin and skein, a roll of yarn for knitting or weaving.

In 1910, the word “gay” usually meant cheerful or brightly coloured, and critics still debate whether Stein meant anything beyond that. To put that silly question to a rest, let’s examine the way the word is used within the text. You’ve probably already noticed how frequently “gay” appears. Hopefully, you’ve also noticed that it rhymes with many of the other oft-repeated words: “stay” and “every day,” the first syllable of “regularly,” and even “they” and “again.” One can hear the ordinariness of gayness in this text. It is not disruptive to the flow of the women’s lives (here you might compare the word “queer,” which was also being used to denote gays and lesbians around the time Stein was writing).

What does “being gay” mean at the beginning of the portrait? How does its meaning change? Why does its meaning change? Does the text present being gay something a person is, or does it refer to what they do? (Versions of this question have occupied historians of sexuality for more than 50 years. Recall that for Stein, along with her mentor William James, the things we do “regularly” were the essence of character.) Is Stein suggesting that “being gay” is an attribute of pairs or groups of people, not individuals? Finally, what is Stein implying when she remarks that both women “sat regularly” and “went regularly” with men?

“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” was published in Geography and Plays (1922), Stein’s first collection of her short writings. It reached a broader audience when it was published in Vanity Fair in July 1923, along with a parody called “When Helen Furr Got Gay with Harold Moos,” which critic Laura Behling has characterized as homophobic. If you’re interested in 1920s attitudes toward sexuality, or in the ways avant garde writing was received in the mainstream press, consider writing about this issue of the magazine for your multimodal project.

Stein’s Popularity

As we wrote at the beginning of this topic, Stein is currently labelled a “difficult” writer and, as a result, rarely read. But that was not the case in the early twentieth century. Newspapers of the 1910s filled spare column inches with “Steinian” coverage of baseball games and mosquito infestations (Diepeveen 391). In 1934 (the year of Stein’s American tour), the upscale department store Bergdorf Goodman advertised a women’s hat with the slogan “A rose is a pose is a rose is a pose” (Tischler 14). Across all of these examples, Stein’s difficulty was an invitation rather than a barrier. The advertising copy writers did not need to understand every word of Stein to make use of her. Surprisingly (or not), some of Stein’s least charitable critics were psychologists (Skinner; “The Psychology of Modernism in Literature”; Stafford).

Stein’s greatest admirers have always been other writers, theatre artists, and musical composers. In the rest of this unit, we will study two writers whom Stein inspired and mentored. The first, Sherwood Anderson, recalls:

It was generally agreed that [Stein] had done a thing we Americans call ‘putting something across’—the meaning being that she had, by a strange freakish performance, managed to attract attention to herself, get herself discussed in the newspapers, become for a time a figure in our hurried, harried lives. (Anderson 5)

But Anderson saw in Stein’s work the opposite of a plea for attention in literary circles. He saw a return to the linguistic raw material of everyday life:

For me the work of Gertrude Stein consists in a rebuilding, an entire new recasting of life, in the city of words. Here is one artist who has been able to accept ridicule, who has even forgone the privilege of writing the great American novel, uplifting our English speaking stage, and wearing the bays of the great poets, to go live among the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words, and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city. (8)

We will discuss the techniques Anderson learned from Stein in the next topic.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Modern American Fiction Copyright © by Thompson Rivers University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book