Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein; drawing by David Levine


Life is repetition, and in a dozen different ways Gertrude Stein set out to render it. We have only to think how we pass our days: the doorbell rings, the telephone, sirens in the street, steps on the stairs, the recurrent sounds of buzzers, birds, and vacuum cleaners; then as we listen we suck our teeth; those are our feet approaching, so characteristic the tread can be identified, and that’s our little mew of annoyance at the interruption, too, as well as the nervous look which penetrates the glass, the fumble with the latch, the thought: I must remember to oil this lock; whereupon we are confronted by a strange man who is nevertheless saying something totally familiar about brooms.

Suppose he is truly a stranger. Still, we have seen salesmen before, men before, brooms; the accent is familiar, the tone, the tie, the crooked smile, the pity we are asked for, the submissive shoulders, yet the vague threat in the forward foot, the extended palm like the paw of a begging bear. Everything, to the last detail, is composed of elements we have already experienced a thousand, and a thousand thousand, times. Even those once-in-a-lifetime things—overturning a canoe in white water or being shot at, pursuing a squirrel through the attic, sexual excess—are merely unusual combinations of what has been repeatedly around. Our personal habits express it, laws of nature predict it, genes direct it, the edicts of the state encourage or require it, universals sum it up.

The range of our sensations, our thoughts, our feelings, is generally fixed, and so is our experience of relations. Make an analysis, draw up a list. Life is rearrangement, and in a dozen different ways Gertrude Stein set out to render it. We are not clocks, designed to repeat without reminder, to mean nothing by a tick, not even the coming tock, and so we must distinguish between merely mechanical repetition, in which there is no progress of idea, no advance or piling up of wealth, and that which seriously defines our nature, describes the central rhythms of our lives.

Almost at once she realized that language itself is a complete analogue of experience because it, too, is made of a large but finite number of relatively fixed terms which are then allowed to occur in a limited number of clearly specified relations, so that it is not the appearance of a word that matters but the manner of its reappearance, and that an unspecifiable number of absolutely unique sentences can in this way be composed, as, of course, life is also continuously refreshing itself in a similar fashion.

There are novel sentences which are novel in the same old ways, and there are novel sentences in which the novelty itself is new. In How to Write she discusses the reason why sentences are not emotional and paragraphs are, and offers us some sentences which she believes have the emotional balance of the paragraph:

a. It looks like a garden but he had hurt himself by accident.

b. A dog which you have never had before has sighed.

c. A bay and hills hills are surrounded by their having their distance very near.

Compare these with Sterne’s:

d. A cow broke in tomorrow morning to my Uncle Toby’s fortifications.

Or with this by Beckett:

e. Picturesque detail a woman with white hair still young to judge by her thighs leaning against the wall with eyes closed in abandonment and mechanically clasping to her breast a mite who strains away in an effort to turn its head and look behind.

All right, we have answered the bell. Suppose we broke that action into parts: opening the door, coming down the stairs, mewing with annoyance, and so forth: how easily we might combine them in other ways, in new sentences of behavior, new paragraphs of life.

Mewing with annoyance reflects a state more subjective than the others. Mewing with annoyance is an event of lesser size, though it, too, is divisible. All are audible acts, unlike the secretion of saliva. Our sentence must manage them—their motion, weight, size, order, state of being—must be themselves events, must pass through space the way we pass when we skip down the stairs to the door.

Let’s begin with a sentence without any special significance, selected the same way we might curiously pick up a piece of paper in the street.

In the middle of the market there’s a bin of pumpkins. Dividing this sentence as it seems natural to do, we can commence its conquest:

a. There’s a bin of pumpkins in the middle of the market.

b. There, in the middle of the market, is a bin of pumpkins.

c. A bin of pumpkins? There, in the middle of the market.

d. A bin of…pumpkins? There? In the middle of the market?

We can make our arrangements more musical:


e. In the middle. In the middle of the market. In the middle there’s a bin. There’s a bin. In the middle of the market there’s a bin.

f. In the middle. In the middle of the market. In the middle of the market there’s a bin. A bin. In the middle of the market there’s a bin. In. A bin. In. In the market there’s a bin. In the middle of the market—pumpkin.

g. Middle of market. Middle of. Middle of. Middle of market. Middle of bin. In the middle of market a middle of market, in the middle of market there’s a middle of bin. In the middle of market, in the middle of bin, there’s a middle of pumpkin, there’s a middle of in.

h. Pumpkin. In in in. Pumpkin. In middle. In market. In bin.

Much of this is sing-song, of course, but the play has only begun. Besides, this is just a demonstration record. The words themselves can be knocked apart, rhymes introduced, or conceptual possibilities pursued.

i. Middle of market. Riddle of. Middle of. Riddle of market. Middle of bin. Not thin when in. When hollow in huddle then kindle pumpkin.

j. Pump. Pump ump. In the middle. P p. Um, there’s a bin. Pumpkin.

And so on, and so on.

Such games soon give us an idea of the centers of conceptual energies in any sentence, its flexibility, a feel for the feelings possible for it, all its aural consequences; and to a child who is eagerly looking for a skull to carve some Halloween horror on, our celebration of the sentence will seem perfectly sensible.

The procedure is thoroughly analytical, however. It treats the elements of the sentence as if they were people at a party, and begins a mental play with all their possible relationships. Gertrude Stein’s work rarely deals very happily with indivisible wholes.

Sometimes she treats a sentence as if it were a shopping list, and rearranges every item in happier orders, much as we might place knicknacks on a shelf, considering whether the spotted china dog might be seen to better advantage in front of the jade lizard and nearer the window, or beside the tin cup borrowed from a beggar in Beirut.

Sometimes she lets us see and follow every step, but often she neglects to give us the sentences she began with, and we find ourselves puzzled by distant results.

Think next what might happen if we considered the sentence to be composed of various voices: in short, a play. For what else is a play? It simply cites the separate sources of its sentences.

h. 1. Martha. Pumpkin.

Mary. In in in.

Martha. Pumpkin.

Joseph. In middle.

John. In market.

M. & M. In bin.

A musician would have no trouble in seeing how a single sentence might be treated as the consequence of a chorus, nor would a modern painter find it hard to imagine the dissolution of his plate, bread, vase, and fish into plastic elements he then rearranged in a new, more pleasing way.

Gertrude Stein did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any other writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they are wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms. Here is a description of some of them from “Poetry and Grammar”:

…my sentences…had no longer the balance of sentences because they were not the parts of a paragraph nor were they a paragraph but they had made in so far as they had come to be so long and with a balance of their own that they had they had become something that was a whole thing and in so being they had a balance which was the balance of a space completely not filled but created by something moving as moving is not as moving should be.

She understood reading, for instance. She sometimes read straight on, touching the page as lightly as a fly, but even as her mind moved there would be a halt, a turning, the eyes rising and falling in a wave, and she realized that the page, itself, was artificial, arbitrary with respect to the text, so she included it in the work as well, not as a thing or an action, but as an idea.

j. 1. Page one. Pump. Pump ump.

Page two. In the middle.

Page three. P p.

Page four. Um, there’s a bin.

Page five. Pumpkin.

The understanding was, as she read, not only tormented by the physical make-up of the book, it was often troubled, too, by the content, which it had difficulty in making out. The poem does not repeat itself, but I do. I read the first four lines, and then I reread the first two. Now I am ready to go on, and I jump without a qualm to the second quatrain. Soon, however, I am back at the beginning again. There are interruptions, too. Alice asks me what I would like for dinner. Company comes. Time passes. Other texts may even intervene, many strange words from all directions. Why not, she thought, formalize all this, create something new, not only from the stops and starts and quarrels of normal thought, but from the act of attention itself, and all its snarls and tangles, leaps, and stumbles.


She is not always satisfied to merely render the phenomenon. Sometimes she chooses to involve us in it. By removing punctuation, for instance. I am reading her sentence about her sentences, which I quoted above, and sliding over words as though through mud:

…not filled but created by something moving as moving is not as moving….

I must pick myself up. Reread until I get the hang:

…not filled, but created by something moving, as moving is, not as moving should be.

By the time I understand what she means, I have been composed. Thus the repetitions which mimic my own when I read make me repeat even more when I read them written down.

Listen. We converse as we live—by repeating, by combining and recombining a few elements over and over again just as nature does when of elementary particles it builds a world. Gertrude Stein had a wonderful ear and she listened as she listened to Leo—for years—not so she could simply reproduce the talk, that sort of thing was never her intention, but so she could discover the patterns of speech, the forms of repetition, and exploit them. At first she saw these shapes as signs of the character of the speaker, but later her aim was to confer upon the words themselves the quality she once traced to the owner of the tongue. That was Cézanne’s method…the method of the human mind.

We not only repeat when we see, stand, communicate; we repeat when we think. There’s no other way to hold a thought long enough to examine it except to say its words over and over, and the advance of our mind from one notion to another is similarly filled with backs and forths, erasers and crossing-out. The style of The Geographical History of America is often a reflection of this mental condition.

Repeating is also naming. Pumpkins have names. They are called pumpkins. But what is the word “pumpkin” called? Not Fred, not William, not Wallaby, but “pumpkin” again. And so we seem to be repeating when we are speaking in the metalanguage or the overtongue. A ‘division of “pumpkin” into “pump” and “kin” is not a carving of pumpkin. Nor is the finding and baking and eating of one any damage to the word. An actor’s gestures name the real ones. Suppose, behind your back, I am making fun of you by imitating your hurried, impatient, heavy-shoed walk, or like an annoying child I echo your talk as you talk; then a round is being formed, a ring made of reality and its shadow, words and their referents, and of course I cam dance with mu image or with yours very well, mock my own methods, and suddenly discover, in the midst of my game, a meaning that’s more than a vegetable’s candle-lit face.

The ice cream eaten is desired again, the song sung is resung, and so we often say things over simply because we love to say them over…there is no better reason.

Furthermore, Gertrude Stein knew that masterpieces, were, as life itself is everywhere, perfect engines of repetition. Just as leaves multiply along a limb, and limbs alike thicket a trunk, a work of art suffers simultaneous existence in many places, and eventually is read again and again, sometimes loved by the same lips. As Borges has demonstrated so well, when that inspired madman, Pierre Menard, succeeded in writing a chapter or two on Don Quixote, word for word the same, his version was both richer and more complex than that of Cervantes. The reverse can also be the case: Three Lives, written by any of us now, would not be nearly so remarkable as it was then.


How pleasantly a doll can change its age. I do not even have to dress it differently. My eye alters and a few rags bundled about a stick assume a life, a life at any point or period I like, with any sex and any history I choose—pets, presumptions, peeves—mortal or immortal ills. Whether I imagine it’s a swatchel or a queen, the stick with its scrappy sleeves remains and is like another Homer to me, focus for my fancies; yet when I open an old album and find my photo, what tells me what the image is, since I’ve no faithful wad of fabric or enduring spinal tree to fix on?… A lingering resemblance? Am I that solemn little moon-faced boy in the ribboned hat whose photographic stare is as dumbly inked upon its paper as these words are? Am I that weak-eyed, pork-cheeked creature?… Possibly; but is it a likeness which leaps out at me, one I feel, or do I have to hunt for it, piously believing that a resemblance must be there, and easily fooled by a substitute, a switch, because a dozen other boys that age may look more like me now than I do then? A sentence with such moods and tenses shows in what strange ways our lifeline’s twisted, how precariously it passes from one pole of recognition to another, because, as Hume reported:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.

I may dress Shakespeare, like my dolly, in the costumes of other centuries, interpret him according to the latest scientific myths or social magics, nevertheless there is something—some pale text—some basin, bowl; or bottle—I am peeing my opinions in; but as I turn the album pages—black not without a reason—I only dimly remember the bow and arrow in one snapshot, the knickers in another, or the man who was my father holding me wearily in his arms at the entrance to Mammoth Cave. The little boy I was is no longer living with me. Of course, we say that some people never grow up, but the little boy I am at forty is actually the little man I am at forty, no one else.

Rilke’s celebrated remark about Rodin sums up what Gertrude Stein’s American trip taught her:

Rodin was solitary before he became famous. And Fame, when it came, made him if anything still more solitary. For Fame, after all, is but the sum of all the misunderstandings which gather about a new name.

Or work of art. It is the same.

When Gertrude Stein wrote that there was little use in being born a little boy if you were going to grow up to be a man, she did not intend to deny causality or the influence of the past. She did mean to say that when we look at our own life, we are looking at the history of another; we are like a little dog licking our own hand, because our sense of ourselves at any time does not depend upon such data, only our “idea” of ourselves does, and this “idea,” whether it’s our own or that of another, is our identity. Identities depend upon appearances and papers. Appearances can be imitated papers forged.

She also said: I am not I any longer when I see. Normally, as Schopenhauer first and Bergson later argued so eloquently, we see like an animal. We see prey, danger, comfort, security. Our words are tags which signify our interests: chairs, bears sunshine, sex; each is seen in relation to our impulses, instincts, aims, in the light of our passions, and our thought about these things is governed entirely by what we consider their utility to be. Words are therefore weapons like the jaws of the crocodile or the claws of the cat. We use them to hold our thought as we hold a bone; we use them to communicate with the pack, dupe our enemies, manipulate our friends; we use them to club the living into food.

When, for instance, we give ourselves to a piece of music, not to drink, daydream, or make love, but to listen, we literally lose ourselves, and as our consciousness is captured by the music, we are in dreamless sleep, as Hume says, and are no more. We become, in becoming music, that will-less subject of knowing of which Schopenhauer spoke so convincingly.

Human nature is incapable of objectivity. It is viciously anthropocentric, whereas the human mind leaves all personal interest behind. It sees things as entities, not as identities. It is concerned, in the Kantian sense, with things-in-themselves. The human mind knows that men must die that others may live; one epoch go that another may take its place; that ideas, fashions, feelings, pass. The human mind neither forgets nor remembers; it neither sorrows nor longs; it never experiences fear or disappointment. In the table headed Human Nature there is, therefore, time and memory, wit all their beginnings, their middles, and their ends; there is habit and identity, storms and hilly country, acting, audience, speaking and adventure, dogs and other animals, politics, propaganda, war, place, practice and its guiding truths, its directing sciences, while in the table of the Human Mind there’s contact rather than connection, plains, space, landscape, math and money, not nervousness but excitement, not saying but showing, romance rather than mystery, masterpieces moreover, and above all, Being.

Gertrude Stein was no longer merely explaining herself. She had begun to wonder what it was inside her that had written Three Lives rather than the novels of Lew Wallace; what it was that made masterpieces. Besant’s books had sold very well and he had been admired. But he had sold to people of principally the same sort and had been read during a finger-snap of time. Masterpieces escaped both country and climate, every condition of daily life; they hurdled history; and it was not because daily life, climate, country, and history were not contents, as if in those sweetly beautiful Angelicos there were no angels. What accounted for it? in reader? writer? work? Her conclusions were not original, although their largely Kantian character is a little surprising for a student of william James and Santayana.

It was not because she was a woman or was butch…her poodles or her Fords, her vests, her friends, her sober life, her so-called curious ways, her Jewishness…none counted. Allegheny, Pennsylvania, had nothing to do with it. Her “scientific” aim in writing The Making of Americans, her desire to define “the bottom nature” of everyone who had or could or would be living, was mistaken and had to do with human nature not the human mind. She had gone on repeating because she thought the world did. The world did, but what the world did, did not matter. Tender Buttons was pure composition, like Cézanne, but the Autobiographies and A Long Gay Book, Three Lives, The Making of Americans, many of the portraits and the plays, although they were about human nature, were fortunately written by the human mind. And it took another human mind to understand them.

There were people who were no more than their poodles. If their little dog didn’t know them, who would they be? Like mirrors they reflected what fell into them, and when then room was empty, when the wall were removed and the stars pinched back in the sky, they were nothing, not even glass.

Naïvely, she thought free people formed themselves in terms of an Emersonian self-reliance; she believed in the frontier, and in the ethic of the pioneer. After all she was one. Naïvely, she thought that the average man, here in America, understood the spiritual significance of space, and was less a slave to human nature. Consequently here the human mind should flourish, the masterpiece emerge, the animal sleep. However, Finnegans Wake would demonstrate best the endless roundness she had in mind, and the perfect description of her ideal had long ago appeared, in 1894: Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste.

Just as the order of the numbers in a sum makes no difference, just as there is no special sequence to towns on a map, the mind and the masterpiece may pass back and forth between thoughts as often and as easily as trains, between Detroit, Duluth, and Denver, and chapter headings are, in fact, only the names of places. Oral literature had to be sequential (like music before tape), but type made possible a reading which began at the rear, which repeated preferred passages, which skipped. As in an atlas, the order was one of convenience, and everything was flat. A geographical history rolls time out like that. Of course, there are stories still; an evening’s entertainment, that’s all human nature asks for; but masterpieces have to bear repeating and repeating. There are no surprises, on suspense, on tears, no worries in them. We know what will happen to Ahab. Duncan’s dead, and Anna’s under her train. I can tell you the page. The Wings of the Dove lies spread before us now as openly as Iowa. Literature in the eyes of the human mind is like land seen from a plane. And so is Gertrude Stein when we find her.

Macbeth shall murder sleep again, Tom Jones receive a beating, Health-cliff…ah, well…. “Oblige me,” she says, “by not beginning.” Netherfield Park is let at last. Mr. Gradgrind is still proceeding on the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over. Bloom is carrying a piece of soap about. The next century is approaching like a distant train. John Barth has just written Chimera, Beckett has brought out The Lost Ones, Nabokov a book called Transparent Things. And they are reissuing The Geographical History of America almost 100 years from the author’s birthday. Oblige me, she says, “Also by not ending.”

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

This Issue

May 17, 1973