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4 (Trans)Nation,Geography,andGenius Gertrude Stein’s GeographicalHistoryofAmerica It is possible to read Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as engaging with but ultimately unsettling the epistemological power of academic geography. The 1936 The Geographical History of America; or, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind demands to be read this way, although Stein’s relationship in this text to questions of American identity are motivated by a different set of concerns about the American writer living in permanent expatriation and about the nature of writerly genius. Her attitude toward American exceptionalist narratives is more triumphalist, although any support of Americanness in Geographical History is undercut not because of the driving force of an oppositional political agenda—although there is a little of that—but because of Stein’s larger metaphysical considerations as well as her linguistic experiments. Unlike Hughes whose anaphoric parataxis juxtaposes units of conventional, syntactically regular sentences, Stein’s style in her Geographical History suppresses the axis of selection (word choice) and heightens the axis of combination (syntax) that typically balance one another in the formation of grammatically correct sentences.1 Parataxis here drills down to the level of individual grammatical units. These experiments engineer and sustain at their core a kind of ineffable , transnational fluidity. The purposeful, thoroughgoing engagements with the disciplinary prac- (Trans) Nation and Genius in Gertrude Stein’s GeographicalHistoryofAmerica | 97 tices of academic geography in The Geographical History of America are announced by the book’s title. Its contents, however, both do and do not actually deliver a geographical history of America in the conventional sense, in part because of the multi-generic nature of the text. As the seeming disjunction between the title, The Geographical History of America, and the subtitle, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, already indicates, the text is as much a curious, provocative hybrid of genres as almost any of Stein’s other works. It generates material observations about the American landscape and its social and political formations for which the text depends upon academic geography, but it is also a philosophical treatise, a prose poem, an autobiography, a detective story, an identity play, a puppet play, an investigation of the nature of poetry, a playful plug for Stein’s genius, a contemplation about government, and a “private” dialogue that Stein was carrying out with Thornton Wilder (she addresses him in Geographical History, one assumes, with a playful Steinian wink, and he supplied the text with an introductory essay when it was first published). On the first page alone, the text begins with a seemingly neutral declarative statement that asserts Stein’s auspicious seat at the table of American leadership: “In the month of February were born Washington Lincoln and I” (GHA 45).2 This reflects upon the spaceclearing benefits of death, launches a few of the distinctions the text comes to explore that separate the qualities of the human mind and those of human nature, and offers the first of many statements that reflect upon the nature of America: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is” (GHA 45). The text revisits these issues, and more, in a dizzying nonsequential and nonlinear fashion. Stein composed her Geographical History between June and September 1935 on the heels of her very successful American lecture tour in 1934–35, which was spurred by the wild commercial success of her 1933 Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Dydo 588).3 With Hughes, travel becomes a starting point for contemplating the nature of geography. The impressions that Stein gathered from this tour from physically flying above the American landscape fuel Geographical History; a common refrain that appears in this book derives from her experiences looking down from an airplane as she flew across the flat expanse of the Midwest. Repeatedly throughout the text, Stein returns to aspects of America’s geographical history, chiefly the central notion that the flatness of much of the American landscape has been crucial in shaping fundamentally wandering , liberatory aspects of American culture. This equation richly echoes the 98 | TheGeopoeticsofModernism logic of landscape-culture influence embedded in environmental determinist rhetorics, in ways that have led Jessica Berman to explore Stein’s Geographical History of America in relation to the work of Ellen Churchill Semple. Although it is unclear whether Stein was directly familiar with Semple’s work, there are several kinds of striking parallels between the two figures that Berman observes: both were female...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813055145
Related ISBN
9780813060514
MARC Record
OCLC
900158401
Pages
208
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-13
Language
English
Open Access
No
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