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  • “A Little Body with a Very Large Head”: Composition, Psychopathology, and the Making of Stein’s Normal Self
  • Priscilla Perkins (bio)

In the preface to Discerning the Subject, Paul Smith refers to the human agent as the “place from which resistance to the ideological is produced or played out” (xxxv). Writings from every point in Gertrude Stein’s career suggest her close personal and theoretical attention to issues of agency. In her 1906 Three Lives, for instance, Stein writes about the experiences of women who resist, accommodate, or remain unaware of the ideological conditions within which they carve out their livings. Tender Buttons (1912) represents Stein’s formal resistance to the sense-making conventions of Western literary practice; it also (according to Lisa Ruddick and other critics) makes a space for positive, playful explorations of life in one lesbian household. Stein’s 1933 Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, while more conventionally “readable” than Three Lives or Tender Buttons, vigorously questions ideologies of the unified speaking subject and the “bounded” ego.

In these pages, I will examine Stein’s understanding of her own [End Page 529] agency in several texts that predate what most of Stein’s readers think of as her literary “career.” The 1895 “Radcliffe Manuscripts” are a collection of graded writings that Stein produced in a two-semester composition class at what was then called the Harvard Annex. By saying that these texts predate Stein’s career, I wish to foreground the differences between the writing she did in this specifically academic context and texts she later produced: though they are in certain ways just as experimental as her later writings, the “Radcliffe Manuscripts” were produced to fulfill the requirements of a college course with particular goals for the intellectual development and socialization of Harvard and Radcliffe students. In these texts, Stein constructed textual personae by comparing herself (or apparent stand-ins for herself) explicitly to other young people, or implicitly, usually in terms of an ambiguous though seemingly hegemonic social standard of mental “normality.” In order to understand possible implications of this textual strategy, I will focus in particular on the tension I see in Stein’s writings between what Michel Foucault identified as two major methods (or “technologies,” in his words) of self-fashioning: those involving surveillance and externally imposed discipline, on the one hand, and those “games of truth” by which individuals construct themselves in accordance with their own responses to their cultures’ norms of ethical behavior. 1 The tension between these technologies—between coercive behavioral norms and acts of discursive resistance—marks points where agency may erupt, especially in Stein’s early writings. These texts are continually concerned with the power that inheres in personal relationships and are ready, I believe, to be treated explicitly in terms of institutional power. 2 In the pieces I will discuss, Stein’s ideologies of comparison and normality rarely have a stable value. However, they almost always work in the service of technologies of self-fashioning, sometimes playfully, sometimes with highly negative consequences for those who come out on the losing end of the comparison.

Stein’s education has long been of interest to her critics, partly because of her involvement with philosophers like William James and George Santayana. 3 But with the exception of Linda Wagner-Martin’s lively new biography of Stein (which does not, however, treat many of the issues I discuss here), the biopolitics of Stein’s education have received only sketchy critical attention. Stein claims in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that, like James, she “dislike[d] the abnormal” [End Page 530] because “it [was] so obvious” (78). The “Radcliffe Manuscripts,” though, suggest that the abnormal was anything but “obvious” for her. The way that she understood and participated in constructions of abnormality during her school years and at least through the writing of Three Lives reveals her personal investment in trying to look and act “normal.”

The pressure Stein appears to have felt was as strong in writing classes as it was in her psychology or, later, medical school courses. This has as much to do with the history of the American academy as with Stein’s personal history as a...

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pp. 529-546
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