The Sense of Gertrude Stein

By Lyons, Donald | New Criterion, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sense of Gertrude Stein


Lyons, Donald, New Criterion


"You have a foolish notion that to be middle-class is to be vulgar, that to cherish the ideals of respectability and decency is to be commonplace and that to be the mother of children is to be low. You tell me that I am not middle class and that I can believe in none of these things because I am not vulgar, common-place and low, but it is just there where you make your mistake." The speaker is Adele, a big young American girl from Baltimore; she's arguing with two rather bohemian fellow voyagers on a ship to Europe. Adele has

   thrown herself prone on the deck with the freedom of movement and the
   simple instinct for comfort that suggested a land of laziness and sunshine.
   She nestled close to the bare boards as if accustomed to make the hard
   earth soft by loving it. She made just a few wriggling movements to adapt
   her large curves to the projecting boards of the deck, gave a sigh of
   satisfaction and murmured "How good it is in the sun."

"They remained there quietly in the warm sunshine looking at the bluest of blue oceans, with the wind moulding itself on their faces in great soft warm chunks." Adele's companions in this Winslow Homerish scene object to her calling herself middle class, but she insists:

   "I never claimed to be middle class in my intellect and in truth ... I
   probably have the experience of all apostles, I am rejected by the class
   whose cause I preach but that has nothing to do with the case. I simply
   contend that the middle class ideal which demands that people be
   affectionate, respectable, honest and content, that they avoid excitements
   and cultivate serenity is the ideal that appeals to me, it is in short the

   ideal of affectionate family life, of honorable business methods."

      "But that means cutting passion quite out of your scheme of things!"

      "Not simple moral passions, they are distinctly of it but really my
   chief point is a protest against this tendency of so many of you to go in
   for things simply for the sake of an experience.... Experience for the
   paltry purpose of having had it is to be both trivial and immoral. As for
   passion ... you see I don't understand much about that. It has no reality
   for me except as two varieties, affectionate comradeship on the one hand
   and physical passion in greater or less complexity on the other and against
   the cultivation of the latter I have an almost puritanic horror and that
   includes an objection to the cultivation of it in any of its many disguised
   forms."

This is the situation, the issue, at the beginning of Q.E.D. (a.k.a. Things As They Are), Gertrude Stein's first novel, written in 1903 when she was twenty-nine, but not published until 1950, four years after her death. In Q.E.D., the heroine falls for and has clandestine meetings with Helen, "the American version of the English handsome girl," but is foiled and frustrated by Helen's unshakable emotional and financial dependence on Mabel, "the tension of [whose] long angular body sufficiently betrayed her New England origin." Mabel illustrates half of the dictum that "it is one of the peculiarities of American womanhood that the body of a coquette often encloses the soul of a prude and the angular form of a spinster is possessed by a nature of the tropics."

Q.E.D. was written a year after--and contains an explicit allusion to ("Like Kate Croy ...")--Henry James's Wings of the Dove, of which it is a kind of all-girl chamber development. Adele is, roughly, the Milly Theale to Helen's Densher and Mabel's Croy. The story ends with a strong echo of Croy's concluding "We shall never again be as we were"; Adele is alone reading a weaselly letter from Helen: "`I am afraid it comes very near being a dead-lock,' she groaned, dropping her head on her arms." Q.E.D., which begins the first volume of the Library of America's new two-volume Gertrude Stein, is evidence that Henry James may have been at least as potent an influence on Stein as his brother William, with whom she had studied psychology at Radcliffe in the early 1890s. …

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