Gertrude Stein, William James, and Habit in the Shadow of War

By Olson, Liesl M. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Gertrude Stein, William James, and Habit in the Shadow of War


Olson, Liesl M., Twentieth Century Literature


   Sow an action & you reap a habit; sow a habit & you reap a character;
   sow a character and you reap a destiny.
   --William James (1)

   She worked everyday. She dictated her works to Alice Toklas who wrote
   them down. She lived like anyone more or less. She went out to
   market, bought food. She had that awful dog. She had to take it out
   for a walk all the time.
   --Paul Bowles (630)

   And anyway except in daily life nobody is anybody.
   --Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography (109)

Gertrude Stein, one of modernism's earliest experimenters and the celebrated mother of the avant-garde, called attention throughout her life to the ordinary functions of her not-so-ordinary life. Stein's emphasis on habit, both in her autobiographical works and in her fiction and poetry, seems to contrast startlingly with her bohemian years in Paris--her friendships with the great painters of the twentieth century, her rotating salon of artists and intellectuals at 27 rue de Fleurus, her longtime lesbian partnership with Alice B. Toklas, and the innovative, often baffling style of her texts. Gifted with an ability to recognize promising young artists when they were still relatively unknown (Picasso, Hemingway, and Braque, to name a few), Stein was by all accounts "modern" before modernism had fully arrived. In "Composition as Explanation" Stein self-confidently claims that it would have taken her contemporaries another 30 years to appreciate the masterpieces that she could recognize early on, except that World War I catapulted Europe into the modern age. The war, according to Stein, effectively forced the acceptance of a new modernist aesthetic.

But what Stein wrote about her pioneering approach to art stands out against her love of habit, something we often associate with conventional, even old-fashioned, living. To Paul Bowles, 20 years old when visiting Stein in 1931, her habits seemed markedly run-of-the-mill (630). One might say that Stein (like Wallace Stevens) deflated the myth of the eccentric writer; she was rooted in domestic habits and, more to the point, made these habits the subject matter of her work. T. S. Eliot emphasized the distinction between "the man who suffers and the mind that creates" (41), but the relationship between Stein's life and work, marked by habit, consistently became the material for her writings. Stein's household felicities--her late mornings, her love of large meals, her relationships with her servants, her attachment to Basket the poodle (and subsequent poodles named Basket)--constituted a life of specific routines that, even when the two world wars ravaged Europe, she was exceptionally reluctant to give up. While the wars undeniably changed Stein's life and had an enormous influence on her work, they also had the effect of establishing even more indispensable habits for Stein; and this renewed emphasis on habit becomes the subject matter for her World War II writings. Habits seem both to mask the disruption that war creates, dissolving the consequences of the world into the space of the home, and paradoxically to work as a way in which war itself can be represented, as the importance of habits is dramatically amplified.

Stein rates habit--rather than, say, innovation--as the singular most animating force in the English literary tradition. Similarly, William James--Stein's mentor, with whom she studied in the 1890s when she was a student at Radcliffe--celebrates habit as a result of the freedom to choose, and the subsequent indication of a fully formed character. (2) James's belief in habit is striking in and of itself, but even more so in light of a dominating ethos against habit articulated by influential writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James's pragmatist progenitor, and Walter Pater, one of literary modernism's key precursors. Stein, in one sense, inherits James's positivism (he sees habit as a means toward self-improvement), and yet she does not understand habit primarily in terms of productive action. …

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