Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview
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dangers; blackface came then to function as a distancing mask behind which Stein flaunted her own whiteness. If racial distancing is unequivocal in Stein's stereotyping of certain of the frame characters, a more complex ambivalence is at work in the triumphant survival of Rose Johnson at the end. And if the story concludes with the demise of the two blues women--the disappearance of Jane Harden from the narrative and the death of Melanctha--the lessons of the blues live on in Jeff Campbell: "Jeff always had strong in him the meaning of all the new kind of beauty Melanctha Herbert once had shown him, and always more and more it helped him with his working for himself and for all the colored people" (207); and finally, the syncopated rhythms of ragtime endure beyond the narrated events in the style of the narrator herself.

In writing "Melanctha" Stein found herself caught in a complex web of racial contradictions. She was both powerfully drawn to African-American popular musical culture at the turn of the century, which offered her representations of strong, vibrant women unavailable to her in other artistic traditions, and she was repulsed by these images out of fear of being assimilated to them through her double identity as a Jew and a lesbian. These dual tendencies are fully inscribed in the racial discourse of "Melanctha."

Quoted in James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company ( New York: Praeger, 1974), 77.
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ( New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 34. All further references are to this edition and will be placed parenthetically within the text.
Gertrude Stein, "A Transatlantic Interview 1946," in Gertrude Stein: A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas ( Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1971), 15-16; "Composition as Explanation," in A Stein Reader, Gertrude Stein, ed. Ulla F. Dydo ( Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 498.
See, for example, Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 59-65.
Quoted in The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein, ed. Donald Gallup ( New York: Octagon Books, 1979), 54.
Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists ( London: Verso, 1989), 77-78; for a similar application of Williams's theories to Pound and Eliot, see North, The Dialect of Modernism, ch. 4.
Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 6.
Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 200-229.
Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, Housing Conditions in Baltimore ( Baltimore: Charity Organization Society, 1907), 12, 16.
Quoted in Elizabeth Sprigge, Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Work ( New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), 23, 39; Robert Crunden, American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 165, 177.
Gertrude Stein, Q.E.D. in Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writing ( New York:


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