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Gertrude Stein, Geographer: I

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.

It is characteristic of her method that every general thought find exact expression in the language of her own life; that every general thought in fact be the outcome of a repeated consideration of solidly concrete cases—both wholly particular and thoroughly personal—and further that these occasions be examined, always, in the precise form of their original occurrence; in which, then, they continue to be contained as if they were parts of a sacred text that cannot be tampered with substantially, only slightly rearranged, as a musician might lengthen the vowels or repeat the words of a lyric to compose a song, skip a little now and then, or call for an extensive reprise. “I was there to begin to kill what was not dead….”

And what is Mrs. Berrington doing as we come to the end of this month’s episode?

Where are you going—where are you going—where are you going?” Laura broke out.

The carriages moved on, to set them down, and while the footman was getting off the box Selina said: “I don’t pretend to be better than other women, but you do!” And being on the side of the house, she quickly stepped out and carried her crowned brilliancy through the long-lingering daylight and into the open portals.

(To be continued.)

Much must go, however good, for Gertrude Stein to be. Much of Gertrude Stein would have to be subtracted once she discovered who she was.

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. It does seem unlikely, but in American letters the unlikely is not unusual: Hart Crane came from Garretsville, Ohio; Pound was born in Idaho; neither Michigan nor Mississippi have any prima facie promise; Wallace Stevens saw exquisite light in Reading, Katherine Anne Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, Edwin Arlington Robinson in Head Tide, Maine, and for T. S. Eliot even St. Louis is odd. They mostly moved anyway. Who thinks of Robert Frost as a tyke in San Francisco? And the Steins left almost immediately for Vienna where her father hoped that family connections there might help him in his wool business. He really did write back that little Gertie “toddles around the whole day and repeats everything that’s said and done.” After a period in Paris, the Steins returned to Baltimore, but soon they swapped houses, climates, coasts, again, and crossed the country to live in Oakland, California, where Gertrude’s father became successfully connected with, for god’s sake, a cable railway company.

Hoist up a hill. And with certain exceptions modern American writing has been overwhelmed by space: rootlessness, we often say, that’s our illness, and we are right; we’re sick of changing house, of moving, of cutting loose, of living in vans and riding cycles, of using up and getting on (that’s how we age), until sometimes one feels there’s nothing but geography in this country, and certainly a geographical history is the only kind it can significantly have; so that the strange thing is that generally those years which both Freud and the Roman Catholic Church find crucial to our character are seldom connected to the trunk, except perhaps as decals: memorials of Mammoth Cave, ads for Harold’s Club. Well, what’s the point of being born in Oak Park, if you’re going to kill yourself in Ketchum? Our history simply became “the West” where time and life went. So what’s the point? In St. Paul? If you are going to die in Hollywood of an alcoholic heart? Like Henry James we developed an enlarged sense of locale, but we were tourists. And Gertrude Stein lived in hotels, ships, trains, rented rooms, at aunts’, with friends, in flats, with chums, and grew up with her books, her body, and her brother—nothing more, and no one else.

Of course you could say that democracies have never had a history; that they cannot run in place; they must expand; they must have space. In New England, in the South, life went sometimes in another direction, and it was, naturally enough, one of the lures of Europe: to be in the presence of people who had been allowed to live for a long time alongside things and other people who had been allowed to live for a long time alongside them; consequently to observe objects and relations come into being, alter, age, fade, disappear, and to see that process rather constantly; to feel in things one’s own use of them—like old clothes, maybe, streets, shops, castles, churches, mills—as one’s own person felt one’s self—in hills, paths, lakes, fields, creeks—since we seldom gawk at our own changes as though passing by on a bus, but learn to live them with the unconscious ease which daily life and custom gradually confer, like the wear of water and the growth of grass; still Gertrude Stein blew “the American trumpet as though it were the whole of Sousa’s band” and always spoke European brokenly; she was perhaps the last of our serious writers to, in the square sense, love her country, and she moved her writing even through her own enthusiasms (Henry James and Richardson and Eliot), as painfully as through a thicket, straight into the present where it became, in every sense of this she understood, “American” and “measureless.”

But not in a moment was this accomplished. In a life. The resolution required would be heroic. Shortly after she began living in Paris with her brother, she completed a manuscript which was not published for nearly fifty years: a curiously wooden work of relentless and mostly tiresome psychological analysis which she called, with crushing candor, Quod Erat Demonstrandum.* However, in this brief novel about the personal relationships among three depersonalized paper women, plotted as a triangle on which the lines are traveled like a tramway, the points incessantly intersected—in which, though much is shown, nothing’s proved, and everyone is exhausted—Gertrude Stein’s sexual problem surfaces. Clearly, she has had a kind of love affair with another woman. Clearly, too, the circumstances of her life were now combining against her, compelling her to rely more and more upon a self she did not have.

She lacked a locale which might help to define her and a family she could in general accept; she had grown into a hulksome female and become a bluestocking, yet she remained professionless and idle; in fact, she was a follower at present, fruit fly, gnat, silent in front of Leo while he lectured to their friends on his latest fads and finds; she was a faithless Jew, a coupon clipper, exile anyhow, and in addition, she was desperately uncertain of her own sexuality. The problem of personal identity, which is triumphantly overcome in The Geographical History, would occupy her henceforth, particularly in the most ambitious work of her career, The Making of Americans.

Furthermore her brother was beginning to ridicule her writing.

Still she listened to Leo; she looked at Cézanne; she translated Flaubert; and this subordination of ear, eye, and mind eventually released her because Flaubert and Cézanne taught the same lesson; and as she examined the master’s portrait of his wife, she realized that the reality of the model had been superseded by the reality of the composition. Everything in the painting was related to everything else in the painting, and to everything else equally (there were no lesser marks or moments), while the relation of any line or area of color in the painting to anything outside the painting (to a person in this case) was accidental, superfluous, illusory.

The picture was of Mme Cézanne. It had been painted by her husband. It was owned by the Steins. Thus the picture had an identity. But the painting was an entity. So a breast was no more important than a button, gray patch, or green line. Breasts might be more important than buttons to a vulgar observer, but in biology, where a mouse and a man were equal, in art, in our experience of how things are presented to us in any present moment, in mathematics—indeed in any real whole or well-ordered system—there was a wonderful and democratic equality of value and function. There was, she said, no “up” in American religion either, no hierarchy, no ranking of dominions and powers.

Identities were what you needed to cash a check or pass a border guard. Identities had neighbors, relatives, husbands, and wives. Pictures were similarly authenticated. Poems were signed. Identities were the persons hired, the books and buildings bought and sold, the famous “things,” the stars. She drew the distinction very early. In The Geographical History she would describe it as the difference between human nature and the human mind.

Gertrude Stein liked to begin things in February. Henry James has written The Golden Bowl and it will take a war to end the century. Never mind. Although the novel as it had been known was now complete, and she has meanwhile doubled her fifteen years without appreciable effect, still there was in what was being written (Nostromo, last year, The House of Mirth, just out, and The Man of Property, forthcoming), for instance, that socially elevated tone, the orotund authorial voice, the elegant drawing room diction, that multitude of unfunctional details like flour to thicken gravy; there were those gratuitous posturings, nonsensical descriptions, empty conversations, hollow plots, both romance and Grub Street realism; and there so often remained the necessity to write with the printer, as Howells complained, at one’s heels, therefore the need to employ suspense like a drunken chauffeur, chapter Vs and other temporal divisions as though the author commanded an army, and all of the rest of the paraphernalia required by serialization and the monthly purchase of magazines.

She saw how the life of the model had been conferred upon the portrait. And in the central story of Three Lives (they were still stories), she captured the feeling she wanted in words.

All that long day, with the warm moist young spring stirring in him, Jeff Campbell worked, and thought, and beat his breast, and wandered, and spoke aloud, and was silent, and was certain, and then in doubt and then keen to surely feel, and then all sodden in him; and he walked, and he sometimes ran fast to lose himself in his rushing, and he bit his nails to pain and bleeding, and he tore his hair so that he could be sure he was really feeling, and he never could know what it was right, he now should be doing.

The rhythms, the rhymes, the heavy monosyllabic beat, the skillful rearrangements of normal order, the carefully controlled pace, the running on, the simplicity, exactness, the passion…in the history of language no one had written like this before, and the result was as striking in its way, and as successful, as Ulysses was to be.

Neither Three Lives nor The Making of Americans eliminated the traditional novel’s endless, morally motivated, psychological analyses, though she would manage that eventually. A Long Gay Book was begun as another investigation of the relationships between people, in this case mainly pairs, but it gradually wandered from the path into pure song. “I sing,” she said, “and I sing and the tunes I sing are what are tunes if they come and I sing. I sing I sing.” For instance:

Wet weather, wet pen, a black old tiger skin, a shut in shout and a negro coin and the best behind and the sun to shine.

She was readying herself for Tender Buttons. But what would never disappear from her work, despite her revolutionary zeal, was her natural American bent toward self-proclamation and her restless quest for truth…especially that, because it would cause her to render some aspects of reality with a ruthlessness rare in any writer, and at a greater risk to her art than most.

Alice Toklas came to live, to type, to correct the proof of Three Lives, which Gertrude was printing at her own expense, to manage, companion, cook, protect, while Leo at last left to fulfill his promise as a failure, taking the Matisses and the Renoirs with him, and allowing his sister finally her leeway, her chance to define herself, which she firmly, over decades, did: as an eccentric, dilettante, and gossip, madwoman, patron, genius, tutor, fraud, and queer…the Mother Goose of Montparnasse.

I write for myself and strangers. It took many years; she had to bring out most of her books herself; usually they appeared long after they’d been written, in silence, to indifference, incomprehension, jeers; but in time there were too many strangers: curiosity seekers, sycophants, opportunists, disciples. She hugely enjoyed her growing celebrity, but she noticed what she thought was a change in herself, and she began, vaguely, to be alarmed. In 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in the USA with great success, portions of it appearing in The Atlantic Monthly. Suddenly there was money she had earned. Three Lives went into the Modern Library. She was nearing sixty, 4 x her 15 yrs. It seemed like a good time to go back.

Gertrude Stein would return to the United States like a lion, she said, and word of her arrival did run in lights around the Times Building, reporters met her boat and filled twelve columns of the city papers with news and mostly friendly comment about her.

…we saw an electric sign moving around a building and it said Gertrude Stein has come and that was upsetting…I like it to happen…but always it does give me a little shock of recognition and non-recognition. It is one of the things most worrying in the subject of identity.

She had come home, but although she was recognized in the streets of New York by strangers, she could not find again the San Francisco of her childhood.

…it was frightening quite frightening driving there and on top of Nob Hill where we were to stay, of course it had not been like that and yet it was like that, Alice Toklas found it natural but for me it was a trouble yes it was….

Along with the face of Gracie Allen, she was caricatured by Covarrubias in Vogue; in Chicago she had a chance to see her own Four Saints in Three Acts; at Princeton police were used to hold back the crowd which came to hear her lecture. “Americans really want to make you happy.” And she would plunge into traffic with a child’s trusting unconcern. “All these people, including the nice taxi drivers, recognize and are careful of me.”

Queerly companioned and oddly dressed, deep voiced, direct, she loved being a celebrity and was consequently charming, her autograph was sought, and she and Alice met old friends, publishers, passers-by and tradesmen, students, journalists, teachers, many who were rich and famous from all parts of a country they were both seeing from the air for the first time, the mountains subsiding like a fountain, the desert like a waterless floor of the sea, the whole land lying in lines which Masson, Braque, or Picasso might have drawn. She saw the same flatness, after so much European brick and tile, in the wooden buildings of America, but it was the map in the air which delighted her most because it taught her what the human mind was capable of: flying without wings, seeing without eyes, knowing without evident data. Yet in East Oakland, on the shabby streets where she had played as a child, experience proved empty. What is the point of being born a little girl if you are going to grow up to be a man?

Back in France she tried to digest the lessons of her fame. A woman and artist who had been for much of her life without self or audience, she now had both, but what, after all, did it come to—this self she was famous for? In Vogue‘s “Impossible Interview,” Gracie Allen is made to say: “Now Gertie, don’t you start to make sense, or people will begin to understand you, and then you won’t mean anything at all.” These reporters, followers, and friends—they were merely hearts that spaniel’d at her heels…. She’d looked back, snuffled at her roots, found, seen, felt, nothing.

The Geographical History of America is a culminating work, though not the outcome of her meditations. Those she summed up in an essay, “What Are Masterpieces?” written a year later. This book is the stylized presentation of the process of meditation itself, with many critical asides. In the manner of her earliest piece, Q.E.D., it demonstrates far more than it proves, and although it is in no sense a volume of philosophy (Gertrude Stein never “argues” anything), it is, philosophically, the most important of her texts. She very much wanted Thornton Wilder to write an extended commentary to accompany it, but she had to settle finally for the graceful introduction which is reprinted in the new edition. If we follow her thought as Theseus did the thread of Ariadne, I think we find at the end the justice, if not the total truth, of her boast that the most serious thinking about the nature of literature in the twentieth century had been done by a woman.

(This is the first part of a two-part article on Gertrude Stein.)

  1. *

    Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings by Gertrude Stein (Liveright, 1971; paper, 1973).

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