Gertrude Stein: The New Literature

Article excerpt

That they have nothing outside of themselves to say should not be disturbing, even in literary plays, because no literature, once you are out of school and have heard everything, is interesting for what it has to say--Donald Sutherlaud, Gertrude Stein (1951).


What distinguishes Gertrude Stein (b. 1874) from nearly all of her chronological contemporaries in American literature (e.g., Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Vachel Lindsey, et al) is that, even a century after her birth, most of her works remain misunderstood. The principal reason for such widespread incomprehension is that her experiments in writing were conducted apart from the major developments in modern literature. Neither a naturalist nor a surrealist, she had no interest in either the representation of social reality or the weaving of symbols, no interest at all in myth, metaphor, allegory, literary allusions, uncommon vocabulary, synoptic cultural critiques, shifts in point of view or much else that preoccupied writers such as James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust. Unlike them, she was an empiricist who preferred to write about observable realities and personally familiar subjects; the titles of her books were typically declarative and descriptive, rather than symbolic or allusive. Like other modern writers, she was influenced by developments in the non-literary arts; yet Stein feasted upon a fertile esthetic idea that the others neglected--to emphasize properties peculiar to one's chosen medium and it alone. As her art was writing, rather than painting, Stein's primary interest was language--more specifically, American English and how else its words might be used. Indicatively, the same esthetic idea that seems so acceptable in modernist painting and music was heretical, if not unthinkable, in literature.

From nearly the beginning of her creative career, Stein experimented with language in several ways. Starting from scratch, she neglects the arsenal of devices that authors had traditionally used to vary their prose. Though she was personally literate, her language is kept intentionally unliterary and unconnotative. Her diction is mundane, though her sentence structure is not, for it was her particular achievement to build a complex style out of purposely limited vocabulary. An early device, already evident in Three Lives (drafted around 1904), is the shifting of syntax, so that parts of a sentence appear in unusual places. Adverbs that customarily come before a verb now follow it, and what might normally be the object of a sentence either becomes its subject or precedes it. These shifts not only repudiate the conventions of syntactical causality, but they also introduce dimensions of subtlety and accuracy. Instead of saying "someone is alive," Stein writes, "Anyone can be a living one." As the critic Norman Weinstein points out, the present participle indicates "the process of living." Some parts of speech are omitted, while others are duplicated; and nouns, say, are used in ways that obscure their original functions as a particular part of speech.

Especially in The Making of Americans, which was also drafted in this period, Stein inserts extra gerunds into otherwise normal clauses. Around this time she also began to remove adjectives, adverbs and internal punctuation, thereby increasing the ambiguity. Because parts of speech are scrambled, it is impossible to diagram even such a superficially simple sentence as this: "Any one being one being in any family living is being one having been saying something." And paraphrase is similarly counter-productive. Such devices not only tend to make her sentences more prolix than normal (in Stein's idiosyncratic heresy), but they are invariably more striking as well. Even rather commonplace perceptions become more witty and, in their ways, more elegant:

   Everybody called Gertrude Stein Gertrude, or at most Mademoiselle
   Gertrude, everybody called Picasso Pablo and Fernande Fernande
   and everybody called Guillaume Apollinaire Guillaume and Max
   Jacob Max but everybody called Marie Laurencin Marie Laurencin. …