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Introduction: Transformations of Gertrude Stein

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 1996
pp. 469-483 | 10.1353/mfs.1995.0129

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Modern Fiction Studies 42.3 (1996) 469-483

This special issue of Modern Fiction Studies commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Gertrude Stein's death (July 27, 1946) by demonstrating that her stature only continues to increase. Sometime in the past decade or two, she has been upgraded from noteworthy eccentric to figure of enduring gravitas. It is not so much a question of canonicity -- Stein will never quite be canonical, even in our current moment of countercanon, anticanon, canon-in-flux, or canon-under-erasure. It is more a question of her presence as writer and the degree to which that presence commands not just interest and respect, but identification (and disidentification), projection (and rejection). Cases no longer need to be made for Stein's importance; she no longer needs to be accounted for, mapped, positioned in relation to critical ideas, or located in the twentieth century. Like Virginia Woolf, for example, she has become a figure of limitless capaciousness and magnitude, a site of potentiality.

The actually existing Gertrude Stein, alive from 1874 to 1946, had more or less achieved this stature. Her last words were those of a personage with an eye toward posterity, or what she called her "gloire": "What is the answer?" she said to the devastated Alice Toklas, and when she received no answer, she said, "In that case, what is the question?" (I repeat these iconic lines as part of the commemorative ritual, the yahrzeit observance, that is a central purpose of this special issue.) We tend to think of Stein as having been perceived more as a celebrity than as an important writer during her life, her fame deriving less from her literary achievement than from her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, her inimitable collection of modern paintings, her friendships with the stars of the Parisian and international avant-garde art and literary scenes, her influence, her charismatic personal presence. We can then think of ourselves as having rescued her literary importance from the oblivion of a superficial contemporaneous reception.

As Linda Wagner-Martin's recent biography of Stein, "Favored Strangers": Gertrude Stein and Her Family, makes clear, however, a good part of Stein's writing (that which she and Toklas were able to get published during Stein's life) was widely known and read and made just as important a contribution as her salon, her paintings, her friendships, her influence, and her personality to the construction of her "gloire." Our sense of struggle and belatedness in the achievement of appropriate stature for Stein as writer is attributable not so much to her own failure to impress the world with the significance of her writing during her life (though the world did continually surprise and disappoint her in this regard) as it is to the fate of her work in the three decades after her death, which was the heyday of the New Critical canonization of high modernism.

Many of Stein's contemporaries understood very well what she was doing, and, as is evident in their critical appraisals of her, they recognized its importance. But Stein's work is materially different from that of the great, canonical, white male high modernists, and therefore not recognizable as great to the New Critical acolytes and exegetes of the high modernist religion. It was the New Critics who defined not only the criteria of literary merit and significance, but also the criteria of literariness itself, that on both counts excluded much of Stein's work. In the two decades since the demise of the New Criticism, Stein has been resurrected from the hinterlands of those criteria by the New Critics' rebellious offspring and accorded a stature greater than that which she enjoyed during her life. That refurbished stature also encompasses the doubt and controversy she has always provoked, though current debate is of a different nature, concerning different issues, as we will see, than the controversies of her lifetime. While the ridicule and rejection she suffered during her life, and during the decades immediately following her death, focused on her "unintelligibility," current controversy and critique call her politics into question, especially the racial-ethnic-religious-national politics of both her work and her life.


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