WRITINGS, 1903-1932, 1932-1946
By Gertrude Stein
Edited by Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman
The Library of America
2 volumes, $40 each
I know a private scholar in Buffalo, an austere person who makes few purchases. He has only one moderately expensive pleasure. He subscribes to the Library of America. He loves the compact look and feel of its texts. He loves the luxury of classical American literature. He recently ordered and happily read William Bartram's "Travels and Other Writings."
Here, in magnificent selection, is the Library of America Gertrude Stein.
Guys pretty much still have a problem with Gertrude Stein. There's an irksomeness about her, a nettle in her sentence, a suave irony in her textual gaze, an immediate challenge to the rules of our language game. What is she saying? Who can understand this doodling dawdling domestic monologue, this philosophy in the kitchen? She goes on and on. Alas, many private scholars, irredeemably guys, might ignore this Library of America Gertrude Stein and look to their next classical selection.
Gertrude Stein sails grandly into the twentieth century, the author of "Three Lives" and "The Making of Americans" -- brilliant impossible combinations of William and Henry James, Flaubert and Zola. Her Jamesian naturalist fiction is absolutely singular. "The Gentle Lena," third life in "Three Lives," is drop dead beautiful.
Gertrude Stein established a fabulous salon for artists and writers in Paris, hung her favorite modernist paintings on her walls and advertised Picasso and Matisse. Young Ernest Hemingway came to 27 rue du Fleurus to go over the style of his early short stories.
Gertrude Stein lived openly, matter-of-factly, with Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong companion. In her sex writing she was Walt Whitman's sole woman peer.
There was a lot to her, too, and it was all so luscious. "Lifting Belly" is right out there, a richly humorous memoir of lesbian love talk. "A Long Gay Book," which isn't very long, directly addresses the Good Gray Poet. Like Whitman, Gertrude Stein is happily, serenely, everywhere in her work, gay.
"The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" is first and foremost a love story. Alice B. Toklas affirmed Gertrude Stein's genius, patronized Stein's contemporary male geniuses, advertised Stein's unread masterpieces and explained Stein's method of literary discourse. Alice B. Toklas loved and admired the strength and integrity of Gertrude Stein's life and work. Gertrude Stein, of course, is the author of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." You have to go to Benjamin Franklin to find an American autobiographical voice so sly, wry and fully packed.
Toward mid-century Gertrude Stein grandly wrote in nearly all the genres available to her: portraits, novels, poetry, essays, drama, treatises, biography, and with perfect aplomb, as if the property of the Patriarch were hers for the taking, without his permission, in noncompliance with his procedures and protocols. She put geography and history together. She put philosophy and poetry together. She invented grammatology. She wrote a very funny and very serious poem called "Patriarchal Poetry." She nailed solemn scary truths with poetic humor: "a rose is a rose is a rose."
Gertrude Stein is still the queen of one liners in American literature. Steinians cherish different ones. There are a lot to choose from. I like this one from "Everybody's Autobiography:" "My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles, and clear streams run on and disappear."
She amazed many male rivals who treated her at first with bemused tolerance, then with envious disparagement and finally with vengeful fury. Gertrude Stein grandly sailed on past their sinking, settling reputations to do, in her late period, operas ("The Mother of Us All") and folk documentaries ("Brewsie and Willie"). Among these frustrated rivals none was so bitter as her spiteful older brother, Leo, grudging and ungenerous to the last. The only interesting thing in Leo's memoir -- his sole significant work -- is his abusive belittlement of his sister's achievement.
It was a bad dream for the arrogant Leo Stein. Glory came, not to him, but to his ignoble little sister. As Gertrude Stein remembered it in "Everybody's Autobiography," Leo finally said terrible things to her about her writing. "The only thing about it was that it was I who was the genius, there was no reason for it but I was, and he was not there was a reason for it but he was not and that was the beginning of the ending and we always had been together and now we were never at all together. Little by little we never met again."
Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman have made a judicious selection of Gertrude Stein's important work. "Everybody's Autobiography" isn't here. It had to give way to "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." Stimpson and Chessman present the modernist jewels, the shorter works, and the accessible Gertrude Stein, autobiographer, lecturer. You won't confront here the intimidation of her long demanding work, the thousand pages of "The Making of Americans" or the four hundred pages of "How to Write," grammatology's composition manual.
I have no complaint with this edition.
Curl up some cool March evening with "Tender Buttons" (1914), Volume 1. Gertrude Stein became Gertrude Stein in this text. It will astonish you, defy you, play with you, do things in logic and language that will perforce open new circuits and capacities in your reading competence. "Tender Buttons" does the work of great innovative poetry. And then there's "Ida, A Novel," in Volume 2, a gossip novel, a celebrity bio and the strangest novel you have ever read.
As large as Whitman is in the nineteenth century, Gertrude Stein is in the twentieth.
"Unscrew the locks from the doors!" Whitman sang. "Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs."
To which, in "Stanzas in Meditation" (1934), still in the plight of her nonrecognition, Gertrude Stein seems to refer: "I call carelessly that the door is open -- Which if they can refuse to open -- No one can rush to close."
Time for you to come across that threshold and sit down with the Library of America Gertrude Stein.