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In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein as Toklas describes Gertrude and Leo Stein’s first purchase of a Cézanne painting from the art dealer Vollard in Paris. Sister and brother ask to see Cézanne landscapes and, in a sketch worthy of vaudeville slapstick, the dealer repeatedly ascends to his storage room to return first with a still life, [End Page 428] then a nude, and then a fragment of a landscape. Finally, two old char women descend the stairs and Stein quips to her brother, “it is all nonsense, there is no Cézanne. Vollard goes upstairs and tells these old women what to paint and he does not understand us and they do not understand him and they paint something and he brings it down and it is a Cézanne. They both began to laugh uncontrollably” (31). This scene epitomizes Stein’s ongoing manipulations with identity, social life, and art; it highlights her concerns over authorship, readership, and recognition. Who is an artist, she asks, and what is the relationship among identity, artistic production, and reputation?
In a book that, like its subject matter, aims to “bridge the distance between art and life,” G. F. Mitrano presents a “composite portrait of Gertrude Stein at the junction of textual, visual, and theoretical realms.” Mitrano acknowledges that there exist many Gertrude Steins and this nod to the “open work” (1), or in this case the open reputation, is one of the strengths of the book. Competing accounts of Stein’s life and work attest to the fact that “Stein is no longer neglected” and Mitrano demands that we investigate “why her uniqueness is valuable to us” (2). Mitrano direly defines modernism (via Walter Benjamin) as a movement “feeding on the death of others” (6) and enlists Stein’s “poetics of vitality” as an opposing force in which writing becomes a “vast metaphor for human connection” (5). Indeed, she casts Stein in the embattled role of “an American woman who fought her way into literary culture” making continual “progress toward the podium” (1) and finds her oeuvre to be fertile ground for unearthing the psychological conundrums of Stein’s epic struggles for publication and recognition.
Incorporating feminist, psychoanalytic, cultural, and theoretical perspectives, Mitrano analyzes Stein’s relationship to European and American artistic and intellectual traditions. She focuses on literary and visual portraiture, especially Stein’s self-presentation and its relationship to “cultural access” (3). Underlying her analyses, Mitrano aims to establish Stein’s contributions to literary study and contemporary aesthetics, or how Stein calls “attention to the role that the individual receiver’s free or random associations play in interpretations” (7). While possibly liberating for readers, free or random associations do not always make for either convincing or historically sound literary criticism. For example, Mitrano begins her study by figuring Cézanne as an artistic innovator who inspired Stein to become “the fantasy of the writer successful on her own terms” (15). Mitrano then jumps to the conclusion that Cézanne’s influence led Stein to interpolate herself into “an American intellectual lineage” centering on pragmatist Charles S. Peirce (17). Mitrano bases this claim less on Stein’s textual relationship to Peirce and more on Cézanne’s figurative resemblance to Peirce as similarly bright stars in Stein’s still-formative [End Page 429] cosmos. One hears the strain of the comparison in sentences such as: “Exactly like Cézanne’s painting, Peirce’s world features a humanity immersed in semiotic relations” (20; emphasis added).
The chapter on The Making of Americans, in contrast, maintains a singular focus on this epic novel and, as a result, provides the most rewarding literary analysis in the volume. Mitrano’s reading of the novel usefully employs Sándor Ferenczi’s psychoanalytical term, “a confusion of tongues,” to describe the narrator’s “simultaneou[s] [struggles] for autonomy and affiliation” (29). This opens the door to Mitrano’s reading of the erotics of Stein’s narrator’s semiotic endeavors to know people and then write about them. This eroticism provides an...