- The Public is Invited to Dance: Representation, the Body, and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein
Harriet Scott Chessman interprets Stein's works in the context of both feminism and modernism, claiming that her "writing . . . is eminently more inviting and readable than her reputation leads us to assume." Locating her title in an obscure "voice poem," "The King or Something. (The Public Is Invited to Dance)" (1917), Chessman quotes the invitation contained in the lines "Come pleasantly. / And sing to me" as inviting "its audience to participate in an intimate celebration." She relates it to a "second invitation, a few lines later, [that] encourages us to speculate about what form our advent might take: 'Come Connect Us.'" The dialogic interaction of "you," "me," and "us" provides the basis for Chessman's discussions of Three Lives, Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, and Ida, as well as a number of Stein's less-known works.
Aside from Bakhtin, whom Chessman reads through Kristeva, the major theorists behind the study include Lacan, feminist Lacanians such as Irigaray and Cixous, and others of the écriture feminine school. Chessman claims that Stein "shares with these writers numerous literary strategies: the disruption of conventional grammar, plot, genre, and modes of representation, together with the exploration of plural voices and of a writing attached to the body." Chessman's dialogic reading "incorporat[es] both the body's and the imagination's response," as does the work of such recent Stein critics as Marianne De Koven, Catharine Stimpson, and Jayne Walker.
In Chessman's fresh reading, Three Lives subverts the "family plot" by "challeng[ing] . . . the concept of the author as a parent." Even more interesting is Chessman's study of dialogue in Stein's protraits, especially her reading of "Ada" as both a "leap out of history and story to a specifically female-to-female mode of relationship" and a record of "the fluctuating boundary between self and other."
Chessman also studies Stein's "dialogue" with her precursors Keats and Emerson, who represent aspects of the Romantic tradition against which the [End Page 746] modernist Stein rebels. Stein's essay "Poetry and Grammar" is a response to "The Poet" and Tender Buttons (1912-1913) is a modernist study of the Romantic ding-an sich. "Lifting Belly" (1915-1916), Stein's long, erotic ode to lesbian love, becomes a response to Keats. These are not misprisions, however, for Chessman seems not to detect any anxiety in either influence.
In a chapter called "Creation as Dialogue," Chessman discusses four works: the portrait "Mildred Aldrich Saturday" (1924), A Birthday Book (1924), the prose poem "Patriarchal Poetry" (1927), and the novel-landscape, Lucy Church Amiably (1929-1930). In these works "Stein offers an alternate and pacifist paradigm of 'creation' as a shared and ongoing creative process, in which the creative act mingles inextricably with the created writing." In these works Stein sees language increasingly "as a system marked . . . [by] gender," an important manifestation of her feminist poetics.
The book concludes with overly extended readings of Blood on the Dining-Room Floor and Ida. A major point in the first is Stein's belief that authentic dialogue includes creative telling and listening. The latter chapter contains a provocative intertextual reading of Ida and Molly Bloom's monologue in Ulysses.
Overall, this book contains a stimulating although occasionally obligatory use of poststructuralist techniques to discuss a writer whose work increasingly seems to reward that kind of reading. Chessman absorbs the work of similar critics, and for the most part she advances beyond them.