- Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises 1923–1934
Over the past couple of decades, the American academy has witnessed the steady and remarkable advance of Gertrude Stein into classrooms (both graduate and undergraduate), conferences, journals, and books. She has not yet recaptured the position of stardom that she achieved in the fall of 1934, when she returned to America for her lecture tour and famously saw, upon her arrival in New York City, "an electric sign moving around a building and it said Gertrude Stein has come" or, later in that same remarkable tour, when she and Alice Toklas were invited to the White House for a visit: "Mrs. Roosevelt was there and gave us tea."1 But she is now central to more and more discussions of modernism; her texts have found their way back into print—she commands symbolically resonant positions in volumes 99 and 100 of the Library of America; and even the notorious difficulty of her writing seems likely to diminish under the sustained scrutiny and exegeses of her critics. The Making of Americans or "Stanzas in Meditation" may never find themselves quite as fully glossed as the Wake or the Cantos, but teachers and students alike no longer treat her work as material only for insiders, or for jokes and baffled resignation.
No one has done more to advance our understanding of Stein's most challenging texts than Ulla Dydo, a Professor Emerita at the City University of New York who knows better than anyone else alive Stein's published work and the extensive archive of Stein's papers housed at the Beinecke library at Yale. Her Stein Reader (1993), with its judicious selections and its enormously helpful notes for each piece, brought Stein into classrooms and made reading and teaching her work considerably less daunting than it had been before. Her essays on "Stanzas in Meditation" and Stein's compositional practices were among the first to use material in the Stein archive to help us read texts that were extraordinarily resistant to interpretation. Her edition, with Edward Burns and William Rice, of the correspondence between Stein and Thornton Wilder (1996)—characterized, like the Reader, by informative, [End Page 723] essential notes—gave us the chance to see a side of Stein (and a kind of writing) that we had never seen before. And now, with Dydo's ambitious new book on the most challenging period of Stein's writing, we have an important, extensive study that works year by year, manuscript by manuscript, through everything that Stein wrote in what is arguably the most productive and least studied period of her career.
Only Dydo could have written this book; few, I believe, will find themselves equipped or even inclined to take its method as their own. "I read and commented chronologically on all her texts up to 1932," she tells us in her introduction, "preserving sequence and context unbroken" (4). Appended to The Language that Rises is a useful "chronological listing" of all of Stein's works from this span of fruitful years, arranged in order of composition. It is one of those documents in a scholarly book—like a great many of the extensive footnotes in this work—that take up comparatively little space between the covers but is manifestly the result of many years of immersion in the material. This is a book that will prove essential to anyone studying Stein, particularly to those reading not her "audience writing" like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas but her privately resonant, opaque work from this crucial and understandably less studied period preceding the publication of the Autobiography. Since it is organized chronologically, with Dydo working text by text, year by year from 1923 to 1934–35, readers will likely often use portions of this book selectively—as a reference, a starting point, a guide to the biographical and textual ingredients, the origins and echoes, the raw material of Stein's and Toklas's daily life that finds its way, transformed, refracted, cut and recombined, into pieces of...