Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

CARLA L. PETERSON


The Remaking of Americans: Gertrude Stein's "Melanctha" and African-American Musical Traditions

Shortly after completing Three Lives in 1906, Gertrude Stein wrote a letter of lament from Paris to her friend Mabel Weeks: "I am afraid that I can never write the great American novel. I don't know how to sell on a margin or do anything with shorts or longs, so I have to content myself with niggers and servant girls and the foreign population generally." To explain her aesthetic choices and to underscore her affinity with such "foreign" peoples, Stein appropriated the language of the uneducated and in particular of black dialect: "Leo he said there wasn't no art in Lovett's book and then he was bad and wouldn't tell me that there was in mine so I went to bed very missable but I don't care there ain't any Tschaikowsky Pathetique or Omar Kayam or Wagner or Whistler or White Man's Burden or green burlap in mine at least not in the present ones. Dey is very simple and very vulgar and I don't think they will interest the great American public. I am very sad Mamie."1

What Stein's lament first addresses is her early ambition to write a great novel that would be American, and to do so from a position abroad in France. Stein would later attribute her inspiration for Three Lives to two great European modernists-- Flaubert, author of the composite Trois contes and obsessed pursuer of le mot juste, and Cézanne, innovator of a new technique of heavy block brush strokes. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein recalled: "She had begun not long before as an exercise in literature to translate Flaubert Trois Contes and then she had this Cézanne [portrait of a woman] and she looked at it and under its stimulus she wrote Three Lives."2 Still later she asserted that it was the aesthetic sensibility of these two Frenchmen that had enabled her to put into practice a new "realism of composition": distinctions between central and subordinate ideas disappear, "one thing [becomes] as important as another thing [and] each part is as important as the whole." In the literary text, such realism of composition is characterized by "a constant recurring . . . a marked direction in the direction of being in the present" that results in the creation of a "prolonged present."3

Critics have argued that Stein's development of such modernist literary techniques converged with modernist painters' new interest in African art, in particular the mask that flattens out surfaces and abstracts individual features.4 I would argue, however, that in Three Lives Stein's aesthetic inspiration is equally American, as Grant Richards, a British publisher who rejected her manuscript, was all too well

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