Primary Stein: Returning to the Writing of Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude Stein in Europe: Reconfigurations across Media, Disciplines, and Traditions, edited by Sarah Posman and Laura Luise Schultz. Bloomsbury, 2015. 294 pages.
Happily and in a timely way, Janet Boyd and Sharon J. Kirsch's edited collection Primary Stein: Returning to the Writing of Gertrude Stein accomplishes just what it sets out to do, which is to shift attention away from Stein's life and the spurious allegations surrounding it and back to her writing as work that can be, and demands to be, read for its literary, historical, and linguistic value. A much-needed antidote to a very tired debate surrounding Stein's politics and position in history, Primary Stein assembles critical essays by leading and up-and-coming scholars in Stein studies and modernism that, in the main, locus on individual works in a variety of critical and historical contexts. Arranged such that they trace the arc of Stein's career, the essays address Stein's and Toklas's early publishing efforts (Gabrielle Dean); the influence of Stein's experimental writing upon that of Virginia Woolf (Rachel Blau DuPlessis); the sociosexual context for Patriarchal Poetry (Jody Cardinal); the intersections between Stein's work and Romanticism (Rebecca Ariel Porte and, separately, Sarah Posman); alternative lenses for reading--and teaching--Stein's rhetoric and drama (Kirsch and Linda Voris, respectively); and the relationship of American geography to Stein's prose (Janet Boyd). Included also is a playful new close reading of the often studied Tender Buttons (Neil Schmitz), Adam Frank's introduction of readers to Radio Free Stein, and Steven Gould Axelrod's incisive analysis of Mrs. Reynolds as an anti-Hitler novel. Axelrod's essay is particularly noteworthy in that it reads Stein's wartime politics through one of her works, in a refreshing departure from the widespread allegations about her loyalties that are based on willful elisions of her writing. Taken in aggregate, these essays open new critical avenues for further investigation at the same time that they suggest new ways for teaching Stein's writing in the classroom, a point underscored in the polyvalent meaning of the book's title.
Scholarship on Gertrude Stein's work has long been a fraught endeavor, marked by the notion that one must retrace the history of Gertrude Stein as a personage in order to discuss the work in a way that is not naively unaware of her lived history. It is hard to come up with any other major American writer who needs such constant reintroduction or, rather, permission to exist; and this precarity of position has meant that there have been many interruptions in discussions of the work itself. In the wake of two excellent biographies, James R. Mellow's Charmed Circle (1974) and Linda Wagner-Martin's Favored Strangers (1995), attention to Stein frequently has entailed a far greater emphasis on her life story and the famous company she kept at 27 rue de Fleurus. Often when the critical conversation has turned to Stein's writing, it has been freighted with assumptions surrounding her status as a woman--and therefore presumably feminist--artist, or else loaded with judgment of Stem's relationship to her Jewish identity. Part of what might be termed Stein's identity problem is due to the historically male-gendered category of modernist writer, a being traditionally exemplified in the form of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway (on whose style Stein clearly had an influence). Part of Stein's identity problem is also due to scholars' suspicions surrounding her relationship to the Vichy regime during World War II; the fact that she and Alice B. Toklas survived the war has prompted some to suggest she did so by contributing to fascism in Europe. Female and purportedly a "bad" Jew, Stein is still treated by many as tangential to the canon of modernism, even as her linguistic inventiveness and contributions to modernist innovation are as indisputable as they are overlooked.
Recently there has been a trend toward more favorable analyses of Stein as a celebrity. Recent works by Karen Leick (2009) and Timothy Galow (2011) elucidate the ways in which Stein rose to and came to define celebrity in the age of High Modernism, and Jonathan Goldman's Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity (2011) rereads modernism as a quintessential celebrity culture, retraining our view of modernism entirely while placing Stein at the center. Although discussions of Stein's celebrity status are certainly intriguing, and although we know that Stein enjoyed her own celebrity, we also know that she was quite concerned that her fame detracted from serious attention to her writing. In these admittedly smart twenty-first-century analyses of Stein and celebrity culture, once again the emphasis moves toward the person as social phenomenon, proving how rare close attention to the work itself continues to be.
One major exception to biographical approaches to Stein comes front the American community of conceptual poets loosely organized under the title Language writers, those poet/critics who have developed a range of poetic forms intended to break through normative systems of signification and the bourgeois capitalist cultural values that are supported by received literary forms. Key poets associated with the Language movement, including Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Joan Retallack, Charles Bernstein, and Juliana Spahr, have named Stein a formal precursor, citing her destabilization of syntax and attention to what Marjorie Perloff, quoting Velimir Khlebnikov, has called "the word as such" as useful models for the later work of interrogating language as a medium capable of unsettling the status quo (Perloff 1985, 215). For these critics, Stein the embodied woman is inconsequential to the shape and impact of her writing in the world; indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that the Language writers for many years have been a crucial force in keeping Steins work alive and at the forefront of serious discussions of modernist innovation and experimental aesthetics.
At the same time, it is largely because of this attention to the productive instability of Stein's work that many recent critical studies have emphasized the difficulty of making persuasive close readings of specific texts. With the important exceptions of Elisabeth A. Frosts The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (2003) and Deborah Mix's A Vocabulary of Thinking (2007), numerous analyses of Stein's writing have pointed to the limitations of close readings, arguing as many prominent critics have that Stein's great achievement is what Hejinian terms "the rejection of closure" (2000, 40).Yet this overarching critical and theoretical approach comes with certain pitfalls. Indeed, the insistence that Stein's meanings are ever open makes the prospect of close reading any single text seem something of a tool's errand, a naive approach to work that cannot be fixed in place. And as a result of this move to foreground the word, the rejection of closure, and what Retallack has called "the swerve" (2003, 1-3), it is now possible and even likely for teachers of Stein's writing to focus on linguistic and formal elements that cross many texts, as opposed to any single text as a work of literature that engages certain formal conventions, centers on a theme, or in fact tells a story. Because of this trend toward uncertainty, close readings of Stein's work have fallen out of fashion.
Primary Stein thus comes at a crucial moment, leading scholars and students away from the distractions that have pulled critical attention away from the writing while insisting on the importance of reading the work closely and with an eye to its unique contributions to American literature, drama, rhetoric, and modernism. The essays focus on Stein's texts and their distinct attributes and innovations, on her relevance to other writers and disciplines, on the correspondences between her texts and others in so-called Western literature, and on her place in the material history of modernism. DuPlessis writes of Stein's impact on the work of Virginia Woolf, drawing out the ways in which Stein's dispersive treatment of gender in "Forensics" would seem to be at odds with Woolf's ongoing attempts at new unities, even as Stein so clearly influenced Woolf's thinking. Kirsch takes up consideration of How to Write as a set of essays that do not dispense with rhetoric and argumentation but that rather rewrite argumentation anew. Jody Cardinal approaches "Patriarchal Poetry" as a text deeply in conversation with the sexology discourse pro mulgated by Havelock Ellis, while in an essay titled "Long Dull Poems" Rebecca Porte reads Stanzas in Meditation alongside Wordsworth's Prelude. Linda Voris's essay on the obscure "Subject-Cases: The Background of a Detective Story" is a fascinating exploration of Stein's compositional reframing of foreground and background, and from discussion of that piece Voris moves into examination of Stein's experiment with compositional space in her under-examined play, Lend a Hand. Adding to the burgeoning critical interest in temporality and spatiality in Stein's writing, Janet Boyd shows how Stein's uniquely American writing emerges from her sense of an expansive American geography. There are numerous other excellent examples of provocative new interpretations, including several essays dealing with Stein's World War II writings. Kristin Bergen writes of Stein's "break with the future" in her late works, arguing that in Brewsie and Willie Stein distances herself from her current historical moment and recedes from public view, situating herself in a past that she revolutionized. In an important return to the question of Stein the person, Phoebe Stein very helpfully traces the debate surrounding Stein's wartime politics, presenting a cogent and in-depth analysis of the shape and timeline of ill-informed accusations against Stein, even as she compiles the many convincing rebuttals coming from prominent poets and critics. In its comprehensiveness, Phoebe Stein's essay is essential reading for anyone teaching Stein in the classroom, providing as it does a clear and concise map of the most contested territory in Stein studies. And appropriately concluding the book, Axelrod's essay on Mrs. Reynolds is a fine example of fair-minded literary criticism that reads Stein's wartime politics through her writing. Coming full circle, then, Primary Stein completes its mission to return readers to Stein's writing.
Primary Stein also offers a research guide for Stein scholarship, pointing to the substantial archival holdings at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as the most useful compilations, bibliographies, and catalogues of secondary research. In the appendixes are a brief note from Nancy Kuhl, curator of the Stein and Toklas papers at the Beinecke, who outlines significant developments in the preservation and digital availability of the archives, as well as a hidden gem: Donald Gallup's 1947 overview of the history, breadth, and content of the Stein Collection at Yale as it was at mid-century. Reprinted in Primary Stein for the first time, Gallup's fascinating essay details Stein's own efforts to establish her legacy through the donation of her papers and offers a window into the art of curating. Moreover, through Gallup's description of several early exhibitions of Stein's papers at Yale and Columbia, readers are made aware that serious interest in Stein has waxed and waned over the years, but that any particular trend in criticism pales in importance when measured against a massive archive that, in Gallup's words, "sum[s] up an entire period in the cultural history of Western Europe and America" (286).
In another important contribution to Stein studies, Sarah Posman and Laura Luise Schultz's Gertrude Stein in Europe: Reconfigurations across Media, Disciplines, and Traditions comprises a very useful set of essays placing Stein's work in its original European contexts, arguing that the labeling of Stein as quintessential American writer obscures the importance of her work, which has long circulated in France and beyond. Reminding readers that Stein wrote in Europe where her work remains enormously influential and popular--particularly among artists and dramatists--Posman and Schultz establish the importance of networks of connectivity as fundamental to understanding Stein's writing in relation to the intellectual and artistic conversations of her immediate present.
Contributors' essays are organized thematically, centering on personal encounters, meditations (which are interpretations of Stein's work in relation to theory), and Stem's lasting influence in the arts. For the most part, contributors stress context and relation rather than extended interpretations of particular texts. In an essay on Stein's relationship to Bernard Fay and Elisabeth de Gamont, Birgit Van Puymbroek shows how even as Stein had personal associations with Fay, she also was quite close to the Marxist de Gamont, who wrote extensively on communism. Van Puymbroek points to the ambivalence and doubleness coursing through Stein's late work as indicative of her complicated relationship to politics. Sarah Posman compares William James's influence on Stein to Henri Bergson's, arguing that ultimately Bergson's idea of intuitive philosophy had a greater impact on Stein's thinking than did the scientific theorizing of her Harvard mentor. In her essay on identity and its creation through linguistic experiment, Isabelle Alfandary argues for an understanding of Stein in Europe as a deterritorialized writer rather than an expatriate one, and Abigail Lang and Julian Murphet each contribute fine essays on Stein and cinema.
Given the increased attention ot artists, musicians, and dramatists to new productions and recordings of Stein's work, it is welcome and quite timely that Posman and Schultz have gathered several excellent essays dealing with Stein's lasting influence on the arts in Europe. In a piece translated from the French, Marie-Claire Pasquier shows how translation of Stein's work from its original English poses unique challenges while offering exciting rewards. She writes, "To make Stein heard in a language other than the one in which she writes, the idea is not to produce the same meaning, far from it. The meaning eludes us.... The idea, rather, is to produce the same effect" (188). I find Pasquier's essay particularly useful as a resource for students who dismiss Stein's writing as untranslatable. Andrzej Wirth, founding director of the Institute for Applied Theater Studies in Giessen, Germany, argues for an understanding of Stein's most difficult texts as in some sense theatrical projects; he shows how Stein's plays pave the way for the effects present-day avant-garde theater attempts to achieve, including the deconstruction of time, the troubling of the boundary between formal and informal structure, and the destabilization of language. Following Wirth, Laura Luise Schultz maintains that Stein's dramas are the "missing link in the history of Western experimental theater of the last century" (214). Schultz examines Stein's influence on avant-garde aesthetics in contemporary theater and argues that Stein's work also anticipates cross-cultural aesthetics of performance. Schultz's close attention to Stein's complex aesthetic as it appears on the page and on the stage will be useful to students looking to interpret Stein's notoriously difficult plays, which some scholars have suggested were never meant to be performed. To the contrary, Schultz argues that precisely because they anticipate our contemporary avant-garde, Stein's plays must be performed in order to be understood in all their radical possibility.
Posman and Schultz give credit to Oulipo (Ouvroir de litterature potentielle) poet and poetry professor Jacques Roubaud for his having rescued Stein from obscurity in the 1980s when the French avant-garde's disdain for Stein was at a new low. Language writers and members of the American avant-garde were engaged in the same project at roughly the same time. In any case, Roubaud's formally experimental "Gertrude Stein Grammaticus" is a charming and thought-provoking text that tells of the author's unique understanding and appreciation for what Stein is attempting to do--and succeeding at doing--in her revolutionary grammar. Roubaud observes that Stein "is the only one ... to have acted in and on all of language's elements" (274). Organized variously as a catalogue of Stein's works, a numbered list of observations, a set of axioms in the form of statements, quotes, and questions, and a typographically unique set of arguments that at times shout in bold and at others whisper in parenthetical remarks, Roubaud's playfully experimental meditation on his encounter with and love for Gertrude Stein's writing is, as the editors note in the introduction, "a dynamic portrait.... Better than anyone, Roubaud demonstrates the liveliness" of her style (16). Posman and Schultz's coda "How to Read?" serves to emphasize and echo Roubaud's spirited engagements, and in closing the book one is reminded of the American Language poets who also find creative inspiration in--and themselves build upon--Stein's revolutionary grammar. In this larger field of experimentation and radical aesthetics there is perhaps less need to distinguish Stein in Europe from Stein as American, for at its most experimental her work exists outside of and far exceeds either context.
This volume is the exciting beginning of new inquiries into the material locus of Stein's creativity, and though time and space do not permit an exhaustive discussion of all of the essays included in Gertrude Stein in Europe, suffice it to say that taken together they serve to introduce American scholars and students to new ways of thinking about how she was influenced by, and was influencing, her European community. Indeed, with Gertrude Stein in Europe, Posman and Schultz call into question those readings that seek to make Stein singularly American, and they point to the narrowness of approaches that ignore or do not take into full account her European intellectual milieu. For as this collection proves, Stein was far from being a mere expat, or American in another land; instead, for the great majority of her life she was an engaged resident and active participant in a dynamic creative and intellectual community in many ways distinct and certainly far removed from American shores.
Amy Moorman Robbins is associate professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY. She specializes in modern and contemporary American poetry, with an emphasis on the work of experimental woman writers, and is author of American Hybrid Poetics: Gender; Mass Culture, and Form (2014).
Frost, Elisabeth A. 2003. The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Galow, Timothy. 2011. Writing Celebrity: Stein, Fitzgerald, and the Modern(ist) Art of Self-Fashioning. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Goldman, Jonathan. 2011. Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hejinian, Lyn. 2000. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leick, Karen. 2009. Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity. New York: Routlege.
Mellow, James R. 1974. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Mix, Deborah. 2007. A Vocabulary of Thinking: Gertrude Stein and Contemporary North American Women's Writing. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Perloff, Maijorie. 1985. The Dance of the Intellect: Studies of Poetry in the Pound Tradition. Boston: Cambridge University Press.
Retallack, Joan. 2003. The Poethical Wager. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. 1995. Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and Her Family. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Robbins, Amy Moorman|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2016|
|Previous Article:||Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form.|
|Next Article:||Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: A Biography.|