restricted access Gertrude Stein, and: Reading Gertrude Stem: Body, Text, Gnosis (review)
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Reviewed by
Knapp Bettina L.. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum, 1990. 201 pp. $18.95.
Ruddick Lisa. Reading Gertrude Stem: Body, Text, Gnosis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. $29.95.

These two books give us a good sense of the present state of Stein scholarship. Bettina Knapp's is an overview of Stein's work written for a general audience. It summarizes current Stein research and presents the facts of her life and career without attempting to present new discoveries or a fresh point of view. It is written by an experienced scholar who is not a Stein expert. This presents certain problems, which I shall discuss later, but it does not prevent the book from being of some interest to fledgling readers of Stein.

Lisa Ruddick, on the other hand, does say something fresh about a number of heavily examined Stein works. She employs poststructuralist theories and techniques of analysis, and she uses materials in the Stein archives at Yale. This is definitely a book for Stein experts and for those interested in neo-Freudian analytic techniques, particularly those of the French feminist school. It is a rich work written in a sinewy style that will reward the careful reader.

Knapp's book is part of a series of brief critical studies of well-known authors. Having published a book on Stein a number of years ago (1976) for the Twayne United States Authors Series, I know some of the problems Knapp faced. Stein is not only a difficult author, she was also extremely prolific. In writing such [End Page 261] a study one must not only be a good explainer, one must also be able to summarize succinctly certain works that in themselves require a lot of explanation. In handling this part of her task, Knapp does well. The readings seem thorough, and they reflect the latest that has been written about Stein. Knapp's bent is to use a Jungian analysis of theme and symbol, a perspective on Stein as old as Allegra Stewart's Gertrude Stein and the Present (Harvard, 1967).

Although Stein scholars will probably not consult the book, other readers need to beware of Knapp's propensity for exaggeration, flippant judgments, and factual inaccuracies, most of which would have been avoided by experienced Stein scholars. Exaggeration: "Stein was . . . revolutionary in every sense of the word" (7). She was in fact highly conservative in many ways, particularly in her personal and political attitudes. Knapp claims that in Stein's works words are "non-referential, non-relational, non-ideational, non-illusionist" (9). Only at the extremes are any of these exaggerations quite correct, and the knowing reader starts to think of multiple exceptions to each. Aside from the occasional factual inaccuracy (Knapp claims that Stein lived for 67 years; she actually died in 1946 at 72), Knapp makes frequent stylistic gaffes ("personality-wise;" "dialogue" as a verb), and misspellings (Emma Lootz is spelled Loots). Finally Knapp's judgments about Stein's sexuality (her "sexual anomaly" or her "unbalanced relationship to feminity") are just downright annoying. They suggest an unwillingness to deal with how Stein encoded references to her sexual relationship with Alice Toklas in much of her writing. Surely we are no longer so threatened by Stein's lesbianism as Knapp's judgments suggest.

Ruddick's Reading Gertrude Stein is a major contribution to our reading of Stein's early works. Ruddick writes about texts that have occupied Stein scholars for a long time, the early writings through the publication of Tender Buttons (1914). This thematically rich analysis begins with the conventional idea that Stein was influenced in her early writings by her Harvard mentor, William James. Much of Stein's early work does exemplify James's theories as they were expressed in Principles of Psychology, but fairly soon she began to move away from these ideas. The movement, for instance, from "Melanctha" to The Making of Americans was expressed in the unpublished notebooks Stein composed while she was working on that large book. Ruddick sees Stein's "swerve" from James as going in the direction of Freud, with whose ideas she came into contact through her brother Leo. That swerve is manifest in...