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Gertrude Stein for Anyone
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Gertrude Stein for Anyone

For Gertrude Stein questions of identity—not only of persons, but of nations and literatures—function within a more general problematic surrounding the nature of wholeness. What counts as a whole entails both the ontological question of what makes something whole and the epistemological question of how we know that something is a whole. Both are central to Stein’s career-long project of representing the whole in and as writing. This essay focuses on Stein’s retrospective analysis of her own work and her reconception of the problem of modeling the whole. In accounts Stein gives in her lectures and essays of the mid-thirties, two texts in particular—The Making of Americans (1925, completed in 1908) and Lucy Church Amiably (1930)—mark important stages in her theorization of this problem over the span of her career. 1 I will be examining Stein’s ideas of wholeness not only as they change over the course of her writing, but also as they shift among several contexts—literary as well as philosophical and mathematical. For Stein these categories were not distinct; the grammatical question of what counts as a completed sentence is as central to defining the conditions of wholeness as the mathematical question of what it means to count.

I. “The American Thing”

In 1934–35 Gertrude Stein returned to the U.S. for the first time in thirty years to deliver a series of lectures proclaiming the end of English literature and promoting her own work and American writing in general as “the twentieth century literature.” 2 The nineteenth century, Stein suggests, marks a period of decline for English literature, especially after “Victoria was over and the Boer war,” when “the writing was not so good” (L, 46). By Stein’s account the writing of this period is “not so good” because it consists of “phrases,” as opposed to whole sentences and, more importantly, because it yields a national literary style of partiality and incompletion. American writing, by contrast, consists of paragraphs, not phrases; epitomized by Henry James, it represents a literary style Stein identifies with [End Page 289] wholeness and completion. But if she appears to identify the decline of British writing with the decline of the British Empire, she does not identify the rise of American literature with the beginnings (in, say, the Philippines or Hawaii) of a new American Empire. On the contrary, everything that makes American literature good is defined in precise opposition to everything that makes imperialism and the literary style it engenders “not so good”—for it is not the end of the British Empire but its beginning that sows the seeds of England’s literary obsolescence.

Imperialism, according to Stein, starts with the Napoleonic wars: “And then came the wars of Napoleon and England then came to own everything” (L, 36). When “England [comes] to own everything,” it turns from the “completed sentence,” the style Stein claims is favored by the eighteenth century, to the “phrase,” a style “invented” for the purpose of “explaining owning everything”: “And now how do phrases come to be phrases and not sentences, that is the thing to know. Because in the nineteenth century it does. And that makes everything that makes the nineteenth century. And in order to understand, it must be understood that explaining was invented, naturally invented by those living a daily island life and owning everything else outside” (L, 40). Here the very act of extending ownership beyond the boundary between inside and outside seems to make explanation necessary. Moreover, explanation, Stein suggests, is necessarily incomplete: “You cannot explain a whole thing because it does not need explaining, it merely needs stating” (L, 43). The question, of course, is why explanation should have to be incomplete, that is, why it should take the partial form of phrases rather than the completed form of sentences.

For Stein the incompleteness of nineteenth-century explanation has to do both with what is being explained (“owning everything”) and with the fact of there being someone to whom or for whom it is explained:

Anybody can understand that if you explain and the thing to be explained is that you leading...