When Gertrude Stein was a young girl, the twentieth century was approaching like a distant train whose hoot you could only just hear. A whole age was about to end. Nations would rededicate themselves, an entire generation bite into a fresh loaf, turn over a new leaf…tremble, pray. Despite this threat from the realm of number, though, most of the world went on as before, repeating itself over and over in every place, beginning and rebeginning, again and again and again.
Kipling had just written The Phantom ‘Rickshaw. Stevenson was about to bring out The Master of Ballantrae, Howells to publish A Hazard of New Fortunes, while recently young Miss Stein had composed a melodrama called Snatched from Death, or the Sundered Sisters.
Henry James had also been busy. The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima appeared in the same year, almost moments ago, it must have seemed, and Scribner’s Magazine was now serializing A London Life. Writing machines were prominently advertised in the same periodical, as well as a restorative medicine made of cocainized beef, wine, and iron, said to be invaluable for nervous prostration, brain exhaustion, cases of the opium, tobacco, alcohol, or chloral habit, gastric catarrh, and weak states of the voice or generative systems, among other things. Indeed, women were frequently in need of similar elixirs to combat depressions of the spirit, neurasthenia, sick headache, dyspepsia, and loss of appetite. Adelina Patti was recommending Pears Soap. There were several new developments among stoves. Lew Wallace, Dr. Abbott, Motley’s Works, Walter Besant’s novels, Charles Dudley Warner, Rider Haggard, and a series labeled “The English Men of Letters” were being smartly puffed, as well as the stories of Constance Fenimore Woolson and an edifying volume by Charles Reade called Bible Characters (12 mo, cloth, 75 cents).
At Gettysburg, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, George Parsons Lathrop read a very long commemorative ode.
And, with a movement magnificent, Pickett, the golden- haired leader,
Thousands and thousands flings onward, as if he sent Merely a meek inter- ceder.
And at the great Paris Exposition, among the Americans represented, Thomas Hovenden showed his picture, The Last Moments of John Brown, of which one critic said: “It is easy to believe that we are looking at a faithful transcript of the actual scene, and that photography itself could not have made a more accurate record.” “It is the best American painting yet produced,” wrote another. Holloway’s reading stand was deemed particularly good for ladies, combining a book rest, dictionary holder, lamp stand, and invalid’s table. It was sold where made in Cuyahoga Falls.
For some time Gertrude Stein had been absorbed, she claimed, in Shakespeare (of course), and in Wordsworth (the long dull late and densely moral poems particularly), Scott’s wonderful Waverley, Burns, Bunyan, Crabbe, in Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, Fielding, Smollett, and even Lecky’s formidable Constitutional History of England…works of the sort I’d cite, too, if I were asked. Prognostications of doom were also common, and increasing. Arks were readied, mountain tops sought out. Number for some was still number: a mark on a tube was magical…a circled day…a scratch on a tree…layer in a rock. The International Date Line runs like a wall through the ocean.
We can only guess whether the calendar had any influence on her, although later no one was to champion the new century more wholeheartedly, or attempt to identify America with modernity. The United States was the oldest country in the world, she said, because it had been in the twentieth century longer. In any case, Gertrude Stein, at age fifteen, thought frequently of death and change and time. Young girls can. She did not think about dying, which is disagreeable, even to young girls, but about death, which is luxurious, like a hot soak. The thought would appear as suddenly as moist grass in the morning, very gently, often after reading, on long reflective walks; and although it distressed her to think that there were civilizations which had perished altogether, she applauded the approaching turn.
It was mostly a matter of making room. “I was there to begin to kill what was not dead, the nineteenth century which was so sure of evolution and prayers, and esperanto and their ideas,” she said. It would be a closing like the opening of puberty had been. A lid. Her own ending, even, did not disturb her. Dissolution did—coming apart at the seams—and she had, as many do, early fears of madness, especially after reading The Cenci or attending a performance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She held little orgies of eating, liked to think and read of revolutions, imagined cruelties. She consumed anything—everything—as we have seen, and then complained that there was “Nothing but myself to feed my own eager self, nothing given to me but musty books.”
Scribner’s Magazine was serializing A London Life. It contained plot, custom, characters, moral issues, insight, endless analysis, a little description, and went over its chosen ground often like an elephant in mittens. There was another of those essays on the decline of the drama in a recent Harper’s. This one was quite decent really, by Brander Matthews, and in it he argued that one reason for the apparent death of the drama was the life of the novel—the present art form of the public—in particular the immense early success of Scott’s Waverley novels…. Scribner’s July issue of 1888 catches up A London Life at the beginning of Chapter V:
“And are you telling me the perfect truth when you say that Captain Crispin was not there?”
“The perfect truth?” Mrs. Berrington straightened herself to her height, threw back her head and measured her interlocutress up and down; this was one of the many ways in which it is to be surmised that she knew she looked very handsome indeed. Her interlocutress was her sister, and even in a discussion with a person long since under the charm she was not incapable of feeling that her beauty was a new advantage.
In “Composition as Explanation” Gertrude Stein would argue that, between generations and over time, the “only thing different…is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” “Everything is the same except composition.”
She became, as she grew, increasingly unsure of who she was, a situation now so normal among the younger members of the middle class as to seem an inevitable part of middle-human development, like awkwardness and acne. Gertrude was a bit of a gawk already, aloof, cool, heavy, more and more alone. Her mother was an ineffectual invalid, gradually draining in her bed until, even before she died, she was emptied out of the world. Her father was a nuisance: stocky, determined, uneducated, domineering, quarrelsome, ambitious, notional, stern. When she was seventeen her father died, and “then our life without a father began a very pleasant one.”
Chapter V. In the old books there were chapters and verses, sections, volumes, scenes, parts, lines, divisions which had originated with the scriptures (“chapter,” for instance, a word for the head like “tête” and “title”); there were sentences, paragraphs, and numbered pages to measure the beat of each heart, the course of a life, every inference of reason, and the march, as they say, of time. But the present was the only place we were alive, and the present was like a painting, without before or after, spread to be sure, but not in time; and although, as William James had proved, the present was not absolutely flat, it was nevertheless not much thicker than pigment. Geography would be the study appropriate to it: mapping body space. The earth might be round but experience, in effect, was flat. Life might be long but living was as brief as each breath in breathing. Without a past, in the prolonged narrowness of any “now,” wasn’t everything in a constant condition of commencement? Then, too, breathing is repeating…it is beginning and rebeginning, over and over, again and again and again.
What is the breath-before-last worth?
The youngest, she had been pampered as a baby, and she took care to be pampered all her life. “Little Gertie,” her father once wrote, “is a little schnatterer. She talks all day long and so plainly. She outdoes them all. She’s such a round little pudding, toddles around the whole day and repeats everything that’s said or done.” Yet she became, as she grew, increasingly unsure of who she was. Her eldest brother, soon off to college and career, seemed distant in his age, while the next, named Simon, she thought simple—as, indeed, he was. “My sister four years older simply existed for me because I had to sleep in the same room with her. It is natural not to care about a sister, certainly not when she is four years older and grinds her teeth at night.”
She loved her brother Leo, but she had no trust of men. It becomes a central theme. “Menace” was the word they went around in. Still, she and Leo were invariably “two together two,” although Leo always led, and when Leo went to Harvard, Gertrude later came to Radcliffe, and when Leo began to study biology at Johns Hopkins, Gertrude enrolled in medicine there, and when her brother went to Italy finally, she soon abandoned her studies to join him. They were together for a while in London, shared a flat in Paris, gathered paintings almost by not moving, like dust.
She shared something else with this brother, something deeply significant, something fundamental: an accidental life. When they thought about it, Gertrude said, it made them feel funny. The Steins had planned on having five children, and then, efficiently, had had them. However two of these children died soon enough they never “counted,” and this made room for Leo, first, and then for Gertrude, so that when, at the beginning of The Geographical History of America, which was first published in 1936 and is soon to be reissued, she writes: “If nobody had to die how would there be room enough for any of us who now live to have lived,” she is not merely paraphrasing Hume’s famous reply to Boswell who, as the philosopher lay becalmed on his death bed, injudiciously asked if it was not possible that there might be a future state: “It is also possible that a piece of coal put on the fire will not burn,” Hume answered, meanly remaining in the realm of matter. “That men should exist forever is a most unreasonable fancy…. The trash of every age must then be preserved and new Universes must be created to contain such infinite numbers.”
I do not believe she had any knowledge of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis, but her understanding of American history was based on something very like it: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.” There is no question that she, like Turner, thought human behavior was in great part a function of the amount of free land available. On the frontier, Turner believed, civilization was regularly being reborn. When westward the course of empire no longer took its way, Americans moved “in” and went east to Paris in order to go west within the mind…a land like their own without time. And Gertrude Stein believed Americans were readier than Europeans, consequently, to be the new cultural pioneers. The mind…. The human mind went on like the prairie, on and on without limit.