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Gertrude Stein and her Thoroughly Modern Protege

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 1996
pp. 607-625 | 10.1353/mfs.1995.0135

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Modern Fiction Studies 42.3 (1996) 607-625

Gertrude Stein surely would be gratified to know that her idea of herself, as repository of the last word on what was and was not significant modern writing, has become an institutional idea of her. This, in spite of her consigning writers such as Joyce to the category of the insignificants: "Les incompréhensibles que tout le monde peut comprendre" (Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 260). Apologists for Stein maintain that this particular judgment had less to do with Stein's literary sensibilities than with intensifying rivalries in the last days that could seriously entertain the idea of literary "Titans." But at the time the remark reasserted an important aspect of the modern aesthetic (real difficulty), even as it proclaimed Joyce a fake; and it reminds us now that it has been fairly easy for many people to understand Joyce in a certain way, despite the difficult "look" of his text, at least the Joyce of Ulysses about whom Stein was speaking. The remark should remind us too of how reluctant, and unable, we have been in understanding, on their own terms, les incompréhensibles, who proved less pliable despite the soothing, smoothing hands of critics, teachers, and students that followed: the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, Stein herself beyond Three Lives and the gossipy Autobiography. In those half-read texts, some of the most radical elements of modernism incubated. (Even Edmund Wilson, whose Axel's Castle illuminated mainstream modernism so well for readers of the 1930s and beyond, sometimes judged Stein's work as "queer and very boring" [241] and "unintelligible" [243].) Some of those elements seem to have been born at last, and are busily proliferating and metamorphosing, in postmodernism. Others wait still, perhaps for the fuller attentions of poststructuralist critics, whose abilities and theoretical interests make them the obvious "ideal readers" for such writing.

It was just with the rise of this criticism and with literary theory in general that Gertrude Stein, a self-proclaimed literary theorist, began to achieve her broadest credibility among academic readers. Which is not to say that anterior to this, as modernism became more scrutable, Stein did not. She did, becoming occasionally comprehensible to some small diligent part of le monde. Scholars had been attracted from the beginning to the Stein papers in Yale's Beinecke Library, but these specialized readers had been preceded and have been followed by the most ardent band of all: the memoirists and literary historians who have found her most fascinating as a personality. The later reassessment of Stein, which has occurred incompletely and more in shifting impressions than actual print, has probably come about less from scholarly sanction (say, Donald Sutherland's legitimating study of 1951, though this was surely an important occasion) than from the casual imprimatur of someone like William Gass, with his own avant-garde credentials in the earlier days of theory's ascendance in the U.S. It has been a relatively recent shift in focus, then, away from Stein the personality, the nurturing Jewish mother of modernism (or conversely, the over-ambitious, aggressive, female intruder of self-indulgent nonsense into the admirably ambitious, enviously aggressive masculine ranks of serious activity: Stein, the fly in the ointment, the pushy dilettante). It has been a shift toward a notion of Stein as the playful but dead-serious writer, her writing, too, reassessed under this new emphasis. Formerly, Stein's writing, which was almost never taught unless as a quick influence on Hemingway or another major writer in the canon, was often thought eccentric or worse. Her contemporary, Wyndham Lewis, sets the tone, earning Stein's appraisal of him as "the Measuring Worm," when in a much-quoted remark he calls her writing "a cold suet roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing: the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through, and all along . . . . Its life is a low-grade, if tenacious, one; of the sausage, by-the-yard, variety" (Time and Western Man 61). But the current tendency, even if Stein, for a writer of her stature, is still infrequently read and taught, is to think of her...