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Gertrude Stein and the Essence of What Happens

Dana Cairns Watson

Publication Year: 2005

In this provocative study, Dana Cairns Watson traces Gertrude Stein’s growing fascination with the cognitive and political ramifications of conversation and how that interest influenced her writing over the course of her career. No book in recent decades has illuminated so many of Stein’s works so extensively—from the early fiction of The Making of Americans to the poetry of Tender Buttons to her opera libretto The Mother of Us All. Seeking to sustain Stein’s lively, pleasant, populist spirit, Watson shows how the writer’s playful entanglement of sight and sound—of silent reading and social speaking—reveals the crucial ambiguity by which reading and conversation build communities of meaning, and thus form not only personal relationships but also our very selves and the larger political structures we inhabit. Stein reminds us that the residual properties of words and the implications behind the give-and-take of ordinary conversation offer alternatives to linear structures of social order, alternatives especially precious in times of political oppression. For example, her novels Mrs. Reynolds and Brewsie and Willie, both written in embattled Vichy France, contemplate the speech patterns of totalitarian leaders and the ways in which everyday discourse might capitulate to—or resist—such verbal tyranny. Like recent theorists, Stein recognized the repressiveness of conventional order—carried in language and thus in thought and social organization—but as Cairns Watson persuasively shows, she also insisted that the free will of individuals can persist in language and enable change. In the play of literary aesthetics, Stein saw a liberating force.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-14

For Gertrude Stein, language is a living but ailing organ of our social body. Modern speech is a symptom of the way bureaucracy threatens to become fascism and conformity damages humanity. Stein’s several styles of writing advocate a revision and rearrangement of fundamental orders: the syntax of English sentences, the contained and supposedly individualized selfhood of Americans, interpersonal allegiances, and social and political organization.

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Chapter 1. Talking and Listening in Stein's Early Life and Works

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pp. 15-35

Suspicious at an early age that she was living vicariously and learning only indirectly through reading, Gertrude Stein decided to plunge into the noisy, breathing world around her. As a child, Stein escaped her family into books: “She read anything that was printed that came her way and a great deal came her way” (Stein, Autobiography, 74). Wagner- Martin reports that the Stein “children spent as much time as they could away from their family,” and in her teens (after her high school burned down) Stein chose to visit libraries in Oakland and San Francisco (19, 24).

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Chapter 2. Modifying the Mind: William James and Tender Buttons

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pp. 49-88

Richard Rorty (Philosophy, 24) characterizes the early pragmatists (William James and John Dewey) as talking about experience and the neopragmatists (William Quine and Donald Davidson) as talking about language, but William James’s Principles of Psychology had already suggested that language is one form of experience.1 From the outset, James contends with the problem that phenomena cannot...

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Chapter 3. Conversational Relations in Geography and Plays

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pp. 57-88

Pragmatism may have provoked Stein’s interest in the content of the supposedly empty in-between, not the borderland so much as the fenestra or fontanel—something related to hearing or mind, apparently closed off, but still open for the entrance of meaning. David Kadlec points out that William James advocated in...

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Chapter 4. Talk in the Thirties: In the Present, with the Past

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pp. 89-118

The 1930s were a hugely successful time for Stein as a writer and a celebrity. Toklas’s Plain Edition published three of Stein’s books between 1930 and 1934, and then Stein moved on to major publishers. Portions of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas appeared in Atlantic Monthly, and the book was then published by Harcourt Brace, which also published the abridged version of The Making of Americans (1933). Random House published Lectures in America (1935), The Geographical History of America (1936), and Everybody’s Autobiography (1937)....

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Chapter 5. Talking Boundaries into Thresholds in Ida

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pp. 119-148

reports state that she just walked up to the stage (usually down the center aisle, through the audience) and started talking without any introduction or introductory remarks (“Miss Stein Speaks”; “Princeton Dazed”; Schriftgiesser). She liked to meet people straight in, in her own terms. But Stein became an American icon during the tour, and she was happily but uneasily aware of her fame....

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Chapter 6. Expressing a State of Mind: Conversation, Politics, and Individuality in Mrs. Reynolds and Brewsie and Willie

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pp. 149-192

The people in Ida who look at Winnie and depend on each other for reassurance as to what they are seeing are early manifestations of a type Stein critiques more fully in her works of the forties. Since the people agree with each other without really understanding what they are agreeing to, and they agree to approve of something they can barely appreciate on their own, they are primed for a mass movement....

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pp. 193-203

After the war ended in Europe, in October 1945, Stein started “another opera” with Virgil Thomson; she wrote Van Vechten: “it is to be around Susan B. Anthony and Daniel Webster, that is if it comes off, I think Susan B. Anthony is a nice character for an opera . . . and the title is to be The Mother of us all” (Burns, 2:795). (After Stein’s complaint about “too much fathering going on” in the thirties, “the mother of us all” may have seemed like a nice antidote, or at least an alternative.)...


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pp. 205-234


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pp. 235-247

News Articles Relevant to Stein's 1934–1935 Lecture Tour

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pp. 247-250


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pp. 251-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780826591845
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826514622
Print-ISBN-10: 0826514626

Page Count: 270
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 61855920
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gertrude Stein and the Essence of What Happens

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Subject Headings

  • Stein, Gertrude, -- 1874-1946 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Interpersonal communication in literature.
  • Meaning (Philosophy) in literature.
  • Conversation in literature.
  • Speech in literature.
  • Dialogue.
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