Making Gertrude accessible

Props to Joan Retallack and Lyn Hejinian for their recent work on Gertrude Stein. If you keep finding reasons to avoid picking up Stein again, these essays will inspire you to go for it.

In The Poethical Wager (2003) Retallack offers “The difficulties on Gertrude Stein, I & II,” in which she posits that the kind of ‘positive feedback loop’ that generates fractal self-similarities and variations might be an illuminating way to think about Stein’s writing process. Retallack suggests that “to compose authentically out of one’s contemporary situation is to live in the new time that one is taking part in making through the at of composition.”

In The Language of Inquiry (2000), Lyn Hejinian offers “Two Stein Talks.” In “Language and Realism” she points out that Stein’s “Tender Buttons” provides three vantage points from which one can triangulate a reading: linguistic, psychological, and philosophical. In “Grammar and Landscape” Hejinian observes that landscape and grammar were “what Stein herself was simultaneously writing and thinking about (the two for her are almost inseparable) during the twenties and early thirties…”

Let me know if you have some favorite Gertrude apologists.

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3 thoughts on “Making Gertrude accessible

  1. Stein’s writing can be annoying. Her earlier work–specifically, Three Lives–is the only “straight” writing she ever did. The Making of Americans, in its original uncut version, kisses narrative goodbye and suggests making language itself the subject of a story, such that the “events” in the lives of its characters bear only a tangential relationship to occasion of its writing. I have made the point that the prose of Making closes the door on late Henry James and opens the way for later meta-fictions including Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, etc. Historically, I think this makes sense; a nice irony is remembering that Stein’s professor at Radcliffe was William James (Henry’s brother), who encouraged Gertrude’s interest in “automatic writing” closing a kind of aesthetic circle: Psychology and writing and feminism at one point in time. To my mind, Stein’s most interesting work follows immediately after Making. Tender Buttons, Lucy Church, Dix Portraits, Geography and Plays, How Writing is Written. Her later “experimental” pieces seem repetitive; the critical pieces and autobiographical excursions each designed to address a peculiarly synthetic sense of her public (and readership); so we come away thinking she never had a clear conception of just who the abstract works were addressed to–certainly not Alice–perhaps to Thornton Wilder or Sherwood Anderson or Carl Van Vechten (friends and supporters). Try reading some of the works of the 1920’s–can you honestly say they demonstrate anything more than a slavish, dogged, insistence on nesting and incremental variation (rather like knitting)?

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