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Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 12-27

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A Rose Is a Pose:

Steinian Modernism and Mass Culture

Milford, CT

Critics and commentators have held hugely divergent views on the quality and significance of Gertrude Stein's literary works. They have agreed, however, on one point: that with the notable exception of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein's writings attracted very few readers in her lifetime. In this book which became a bestseller, Stein departs drastically from her characteristic style that had been dubbed "Steinese" by her reviewers. Instead, she invents a new voice and writes from the point of view of Toklas in a style that could be read with little effort and did not require the patience that one must bring to reading The Making of Americans (1925), Tender Buttons (1914), and her other more difficult works. Although the book written in Toklas's voice was Stein's only work that circulated widely, Stein's characteristically difficult style was more widely known to the American public than we had previously imagined. For example, in a 1914 article in The Evening Sun, a journalist reports on an international polo game and adopts "the phraseology of Gertrude Stein for the purpose because it harmonizes so well with our clear understanding of the game." The farcical account of the rules begins: "Polo, a game not a basket but nevertheless, molasses running up Woolworth but Wu Ting Fang, yes, no, no, yes, certainly, but by hakes and that which is a turnip is not a peanut notwithstanding."1 Stein had hired several clipping services to comb newspapers for articles that mentioned her name, and hundreds of clippings that contain imitations of her writing style are held in Yale University's collection of Stein's archival materials.2 When the outbreak of World War II was imminent, Thornton Wilder convinced Stein to send [End Page 12] her papers 12from France to the United States for safekeeping and recommended the Yale University Library as a repository. These papers have informed the research of several generations of Stein scholars who have made strides in interpreting her writing by studying her manuscripts, but Stein's vast collection of newspaper clippings has escaped scholarly attention.3

These clippings are worth examining not only for their intrinsic interest, but also because they advance recent critical discussions on modernism and mass culture. In recent years, critics have argued that quintessentially modernist forms, such as little magazines and novels that take place in one day, are engaged in the commercial cultures of their time. Mark Morrisson's The Public Face of Modernism shows how little magazines, which have traditionally been understood as separate from commercial culture due to their limited circulation and the nature of the high modernist texts contained within, borrow techniques from mass market periodicals in an attempt to reach a large audience.4 In Reading 1922, Michael North reads James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway in the context of the popular-cultural events of 1922, the year that Ulysses was published and Mrs. Dalloway begun; for example, North argues that the scene in Woolf's novel in which the characters decipher the name of a product written in skywriting responds to the emergence of this mode of advertising in 1922.5 Morrisson, North, and a chorus of recent critics have positioned themselves against the arguments put forth by New Critics, the Frankfurt School, and Andreas Huyssen that delineate modernism and mass culture as polar opposites.6

Although some of the earliest critics of modernism launched similar arguments, Huyssen's concept of a "great divide" separating modernism and mass culture has served as a touchstone in recent critical works that propose an alternate view.7 Huyssen writes: "Modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture."8 Stein's clippings put the limitations of Huyssen's theory in [End Page 13]

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