Wednesday, February 17, 2016

An ABC of Gertrude Stein

Look out! The fifth issue of Lute and Drum just hit the internet, and it's heavy with goodness.  It has new work by D.A. Powell, Monifa Love Asante, Norman Finkelstein, Mary-Jane Holmes, and Patrick Pritchett, and the cover page includes a short film by Max Wilde.  There's also an odd little abecedarian essay of mine called "An ABC of Gertrude Stein."  It begins like this:

A is for Alice, or Artist’s Wife. When I began to learn about Alice B. Toklas, I knew I’d seen her kind before. I grew up as an art school brat in the 1970s, and back in those days when male egos swaggered and feminist consciousness had permeated less thoroughly through the cultural sphere, it was common enough to see, in the shadow of each male would-be genius in paint-spattered denim, a quiet figure, attending to all the banalities of life and the social obligations, a self-abnegating figure who had nevertheless made herself so essential to the artist’s ability to function that he would fall apart if he left her, as he sometimes did. Alice never walked out on Gertrude, but if Ernest Hemingway is to be believed, she made it perfectly clear that she could and she would, and it made Gertrude tremble (see P, below).

B is for Bile, or Biting Remark.  Gertrude Stein was tremendously jealous of the success of other writers, especially if they were of her generation, or if they had once sat at her feet at her salons, and she knew just what to say to hurt them.  Sinclair Lewis only sold so many books because he “is the typical newspaperman and everything he says is newspaper,” she’d remark. Or “Hemingway,” (see H) she’d say, after his books began to sell, “after all you are ninety percent Rotarian.”

C is for Cézanne.  No one cared about Cézanne until 1906, when a posthumous exhibition of his work was held in Paris.  Or almost no one, except for Stein and her brother Leo. Leo in particular saw that Cézanne had set about solving the problem of composition as no one else had; absorbing what the impressionists had taught about color but looking for a way to re-introduce order to the visual plane. He did it by distorting the objects he represented, and using inconsistent perspective. That is: by almost inventing Cubism. Stein hung Cézannes in her salon, and wrote Three Lives while staring at one of them. Picasso came by and liked them too.

D is for Deterritorialization. Gilles Deleuze speaks of deterritorialization as the moving out from a defined sphere, and Stein certainly did that when she broke with mimesis as a principle of writing. But she was also deterritorialized in a more down-to-earth sense: until she arrived in Paris, she belonged nowhere.  She’d lived in hotels and boarding houses and with relatives, and in a big house in Oakland isolated from everyone else, and among people with whom her affluent, cosmopolitan family had nothing in common. When her parents died she connected with no one and nothing except her books and one brother, who confesses that he and Gertrude knew nothing of each other’s inner lives. But bohemian Paris was a special territory, inhabited by refugees from all sort of backgrounds, all united by some concern with art. It was a territory for the deterritorialized, and if there was a home for Stein, it was there that the there would be. 

The whole thing is available at Lute and Drum

If for some obscure reason you feel the need to read more of what I've written about Stein, you might try this little piece in Partisan, "The Meeting that Saved Modernism."


  1. I too like her. Thanks. If you like Gertrude you'll probably enjoy my definition of poetry.

    And if you have any spare poems to spare, pass them along.

  2. That photograph seems decades ahead of its time....