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Spanning Stein's entire career from her early debt to William James to her final elegy to Susan B. Anthony, Dana Cairns Watson's Gertrude Stein and the Essence of What Happens portrays a writer exhilarated by the potential of language to change the way we think about and relate to one another. Focusing on the importance of interactive conversation to Stein's work, here read through the contemporary field of "conversation analysis" (75), Watson argues that Stein was not just an experimental writer but a "utopian" revolutionary who sought through her writing to disrupt habitual and deadening modes of linguistic exchange (1), and in so doing to construct a "new society," a "new language" and a "new idea of personhood" (4). "Stein works to make us less fluent readers" (72), Watson argues, and in the process reconnects us to language, to ourselves, and to each other: "Stein makes her readers wish for the freedom—the initiative [End Page 721] and independence—to feel and be wholly ourselves. She makes us wish for enough permeability—or unsureness or curiosity or vitality—that we can truly interact with other people" (23). Stein's is a genuinely ethical project, one that rigorously challenges linguistic and hence societal conventions, while embracing the possibilities of multivocal exchange.
Much of the book attempts to model, through elegant and careful close readings, the peculiar demands, pleasures, and freedoms of conversing with Stein's texts. Watson is adept at eliciting the semantic, syntactic, and grammatical nuances of Stein's words; she is also attuned to the multiple levels of Stein's most experimental texts, showing how Stein's "conversational" texts are also themselves theoretical exercises: conversations about conversations. In keeping with her argument that Stein is a writer not only of engagement and connection but also of disruption and flux, Watson never allows her readings to rest on a single, final interpretation; she always reminds us that Stein writes "[w]ithout a right or wrong in view" (46). This open-ended "talking and listening" approach works especially well with Stein's most experimental writing—works like Tender Buttons, Susie Asado, Mexico, Every Afternoon: A Dialogue, and What Happened: A Play in Five Acts. In the case of several of these texts, Watson's is the first of any scholarly interpretation to appear in print, reminding us of how much yet remains to be done in analyzing and making accessible Stein's still largely unread oeuvre. At its best, this book not only serves to convey the excitement of closely reading Stein, but also contributes to our understanding of the rich variety of Stein's writing.
Yet ultimately Gertrude Stein and the Essence of What Happens fails to break much new ground, or to offer us a fully satisfying picture of Stein and her work. Since the appearance of Marianne DeKoven's pioneering A Different Language: Gertrude Stein's Experimental Writing, the study of Stein's work—while often confined to the major texts—has never been more energetic, nor Stein's place in the canon more assured. A monograph arguing for Stein's originality, intelligence, or insight thus seems somewhat dated, given the fact that, in the last decade alone, there have been over 150 books written on Stein, some fifty dissertations, and at least ten films. While Watson makes a strong case for Stein's interest in conversation, this topic, as well as the (feminist) ethics of multivocality and interpersonality in Stein, has been treated at some length before (see Harriet Chessman, The Public is Invited to Dance: Representation, the Body, and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein 1989; Lisa Ruddick, Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis 1990; Barbara Will, Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of "Genius" 2000). On another level, this book [End Page 722] frustrates with its rather repetitive—or undialectical—perspective on the subject of analysis. The problem with Watson's Stein is simply that she can do no wrong: she is not only a radical innovator and an artistic revolutionary, but a deeply ethical writer of masterpieces; she is...