"Stein Did That," and Did That Until It Was Done

Mark Byron


Gertrude Stein famously stated that the United States of America is the oldest country in the world, due to its having been in the twentieth century the longest (ABT 86-87; BW 50). Henry James had a good deal to do with this state of affairs, in literature and beyond, as Gertrude Stein came to see.

Both writers knew what it was to have each foot in a different era. For James, it was the Victorian and the modern. Stein had one foot in the modernist avant-garde and a toehold in what was to become the postmodern. Stein recognized the difference in this similarity with her illustrious compatriot, stating in Picasso (published in 1938): “One must never forget that the reality of the twentieth century is not the reality of the nineteenth century, not at all” (P 21). The Victorian age was driven by steam, carried by railroads, and showcased in crystal palaces; the modern age was illumined by electricity, carried by powered flight, and anchored with reinforced concrete. James began the process of breaking down the reality of the nineteenth century novel — a tradition inherited from Turgenev, Zola, and George Eliot — and he inherited the insurgent break into the new from Flaubert and Maupassant. Stein’s heritage, when refracted (as it often is) through Three Lives, discloses Flaubert, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso — a novelist and three painters – all of whom were instrumental in radical restructurings of their art forms in the last century.

The dual role of inheritor and avatar, custodian and insurgent, was definitive to James and Stein (and has proven to remain so to their scholarly portraitists). Each were pivots of their ages, perfecting their heritages and pushing into the frontier. But (as Pound asks elsewhere of Whitman) is there a compact between them?

Stein came to understand what it was she had inherited from literary history in the new century and she came to know how to use it, further it, and transform it. Her process of true literary understanding is often said have begun when writing The Making of Americans (1903-09) or Three Lives (1905-06). But how she used this knowledge was instructive and new. Stein elected not to enlist a phalanx of literary reference to do her thinking. An author or text might be used to substantiate a point or to prove a case, but cannot stand in for the thinking that motivates writing. Stein preferred to make a declarative statement and have it delineate and stand on its own ground. In this she was a true inheritor of American pragmatism and self-sufficiency. Thinking, observing, writing, like three interlocking rings, establish continuously the locus of Stein’s practice. This is where writing implies thinking about and observing the act of writing in the act of writing. There are times when thinking must be thinking about writers and their practices, and in these moments Stein often thinks and writes about Henry James.

A series of historical and biographical analogies unite Henry James and Gertrude Stein. Ira Nadel has compiled a list of several of these contact points: the formal, thematic, and narrative correspondences between James’s The Awkward Age of 1899 and Stein’s Q. E. D. of 1903 (83); the near-meeting between the two writers in 1914 that failed to eventuate despite the intermedial efforts of Alvin Langdon Coburn — the photographer who had earlier provided the frontispieces for the New York Edition of James’s novels (84); the shared artistic commitment to action (88); and James’s triumphal visit to the United States in 1904 after decades of expatriate life, foreshadowing Stein’s own triumphal visit in 1934 in the wake of the enormously successful Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (91). Many other critics have drawn attention to the links, resemblances, and coincidences between the two writers.

Naturally Stein offers a first-hand account of her relation to James, but in the sleight-of-hand narrative voice of Alice B. Toklas. The narrator reveals that Stein did not read James “in her formative period” (ABT 87) and only took him up much later — a claim shown to be disingenuous by Nadel (91) and Caramello (184). Stein does consider him “quite definitely as her forerunner, he being the only nineteenth century writer who being an American felt the method of the twentieth century” (ABT 86). Toklas admits elsewhere to her own lifelong fascination with James’s writing (Sprigge 81). In any event a household congenial to Jamesian prose remains as good a place as any in which to examine his true greatness and to explore what it can do to its rightful inheritors. Stein came to this task in 1932 when she began drafting Four in America — the first long text she composed after The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The text was completed in 1933 but only published posthumously in 1947.

Stein sets out the premise of this text in its full title — Four in America: What They Thought and Bought (the subheading actually appears above the heading, putting visual and semantic orders into an ambiguous relationship of continuous inversion) — and in the four sentences that follow the heading:

          If Ulysses E. Grant had been a religious leader who was to become a saint what would he have done.
          If the Wright brothers had been artists that is painters what would they have done.
          If Henry James had been a general what would he have had to do.
          If General Washington had been a writer that is a novelist what would he do. (FIA 1)

The three latter premises focus upon military and aesthetic prowess, and share with the first the potential for hagiography. The first and fourth premises frame the middle two using the hero (at least for the Union states) of the Civil War and the hero of the Revolutionary War: two events that propelled a newly industrialized America into the twentieth century (ABT 87). The second premise combines the invention of powered flight with the processes of cubism (if, as seems likely, Picasso is the painter lurking in the shadows of history here), both truly modern modes of relating to the world. Which leaves the third premise: what would Henry James have had to do if he had been a general?

An effective general is required to assess, and to alter if necessary, the approach into battle. A direct approach is only effective within a particular range of conditions and against certain adversaries. Stein approaches Henry James in an apparently oblique manner, opening her ploy with the question: “What is the difference between Shakespeare’s plays and Shakespeare’s sonnets” (FIA 119). As with the difference between an accident and a coincidence — the former simply happens and the latter “is going to happen and does” (119) — Shakespeare’s plays “were written as they were written […] Shakespeare’s sonnets were written as they were going to be written” (120). That is, the plays are emergent from the thinking that gives them life and the conditions in which they are produced. They interact with their conditions and engage in a reciprocal relation with those conditions. They are not prefabricated; their shape is contingent upon the writing and is only known once the writing is written. The sonnets do not emerge; they are crafted according to demand, convention, and to what can be harmoniously incorporated into them. They are of the marketplace and are, in the terms of Stein’s surtitle, able to be “bought.”

What does this have to do with Gertrude Stein or with Henry James? Gertrude Stein discovered the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and Shakespeare’s plays by coincidence, that is, she made the discovery by replicating its terms in her own writing: “The coincidence is with Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded” (119). In this poem composed in 1930 — Stein’s liberal translation of Georges Hugnet’s poem Enfance — the translator and the poet in Stein converge and produce a literary work that was written as it was written, and written as it was going to be written. She had discovered that Shakespeare’s two kinds of writing could be carried out simultaneously. If paraphrase is possible, Stein writes a work that at once refers to a work it ostensibly translates, refers to its process of translation, is aware of itself on its own terms, and observes and codifies this process of reflexivity. This produced a marvelous formal innovation in its compact efficiency and its reticulated knowledge: an innovation made possible by the conditions of modernity and the twentieth-century world.

But again, what does this have to do with Henry James? Much of the “Duet” — the first half of “Henry James” in Four In America — is concerned with the elaboration of Stein’s breakthrough and its relation to the writing of Shakespeare. “Henry James nobody has forgotten Henry James even if I have but I have not” (128). James too shows his stripes by discovering how to write in the two ways at once. Stein comes to see that James precedes her and shows her the way to write in this double way. This makes him a general: he employs strategy (writing as it is going to be written) and utilizes tactics necessary to a situation (writing as it is written). James qualifies as a genius: his tactical nous and strategic sense signify genius in literary terms as they signify the mind of a general in military terms. James is a genius in another sense: he employs his capabilities that are at hand. Like Stein after him James does not need to rely upon a phalanx of literary reference but uses his native intellect, his “genius” (genius loci, the spirit of a place) to forge the craft of writing into new territory. It is a space-creating genius.

It would be tempting to read James, and Stein after him, as exemplars of the American frontier — in this context the frontier of time (modernity) and of literary space (two types of writing). Stein qualifies this in “Duet,” asserting that: “Henry James was an American, but not as a general as a general he was a European as a general, which he was as he was a European general” (139). He wrote from his context and his environment. His writing emerged from these conditions, along with his consciousness of those conditions and his consciousness of the process of writing from them. In the most obvious and basic sense, then, Henry James could be said to be a European as a general. He could hardly be anything else.

But, Stein tells us, Henry James was three (139). Who or what can these Jameses be? “Henry James is a combination of the two ways of writing and that makes him a general a general who does something. Listen to it” (137). Henry James is the two ways of writing: he is a strategist and a tactician, both qualities of a general. “Listen to it” — James has been transformed into a textual entity. Henry James is an authorial effect (avant Michel Foucault), and is the entity produced in the minds of his readers, including Gertrude Stein. Henry James is the author she thinks of as a reader of his novels, he is the author and general she writes about in Four in America, and his name constitutes the title of this third section of her text. Never mind the three Henry Jameses! Henry James is three in his own texts and three in Gertrude Stein’s text. He is a true literary trinity (the three in one) and its mirror image.

“Henry James” in Four in America reports and embodies the opening of a boundary into its own space: a space still bounded by the regions it once divided. It is the space opened when referentiality and reflexivity are coexistent and coextensive, and when these two modes are apprehended in the process of composition by the process of composition. From a dyad emerges a triad — the new form of composition Stein grasps from Henry James’s two kinds of writing. Stein’s writing includes “a subject, Stein’s reflexive treatment of it, and Stein’s meditation on that treatment” (Caramello 183). Stein registers a debt to James for opening this avenue to writers of the twentieth century with the keen vision to put it into practice (i.e. Stein herself). She might not have reached that point without him, but equally, she (and we) could not read the two ways of writing in Henry James without her observations of that phenomenon. Stein recirculates literary influence upon James and enfolds his texts within her field of writing.

Stein’s oeuvre embodies a sustained commitment to a radical thinking-through of her literary stylistics. Her meditations on language are implicit in the scene of her literary writing. Elsewhere her meditations are public and declamatory: Composition as Explanation (1926), How To Write (1931), Lectures in America (1935), and Narration (1935). As singular as her writing may first appear to be, Stein was a writer of her time. Her narrative and lyrical experiments bear aesthetic affinities with several great minimalists of her era and the next: Samuel Beckett in theatre and prose, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in architecture, and John Cage in music. Indeed the great themes of Stein’s composition practices have become some of the more abiding preoccupations of the arts in the twentieth century: repetition and modulation, sameness and similarity, identity and multiplicity, and seriality and sequentiality. Her legacy is not constrained to the arts — the Anglo-American struggle with and adaptation of (mainly French and German) postmodern philosophy and poststructuralist literary theory also contemplate these dyads with disarming frequency and intensity.

An attempt to register the magnitude of Stein’s radical break with realist narrative techniques, with the novel form, and with conventions of portraiture in Four in America might compare the structure of her break with that of another radical thinker at another point of singularity. In his first book, Edmund Husserl’s Origins of Geometry: An Introduction , Jacques Derrida attempts to grasp the full implications of Husserl’s phenomenology. The processes of phenomenology, its relation to history and to the event, and its preoccupation with the different forms of reduction, all signify an essentializing sense of the singularity. Derrida — before deconstruction and before grammatology — applies phenomenology to the Idea itself: “That a phenomenological determination of the Idea itself may be radically impossible from then on signifies perhaps that phenomenology cannot be reflected in a phenomenology of phenomenology, and that its Logos can never appear as such” (141). The Idea, when put under scrutiny by a process of contemplation and perception, reveals and constitutes the singular point of fallacy in the process itself. It opens a region that we now know as the region of deconstruction, but it is crucial to remember that the origins of that region are to be found in Husserl as read by Derrida. The significance of this moment in an early Derridean text can hardly be overstated. It employs precisely the structure Stein employs in her reading of Henry James, and her writing of “Henry James.” Both Stein and Derrida articulate a double process of referentiality and reflexivity, and in charting the writing of this double process, they instigate a redefinition of the field (the three-fold method of writing; the impossible Idea of phenomenology) and a process of openness and continuing critique. Derrida becomes a general: one who understands the need to employ strategy, and to produce tactics when met with the unaccounted amid the action of thought. Gertrude Stein is often blessed (and blasted) as an avatar of poststructuralism. Here she can be seen to have anticipated and inscribed its structure into her own poetics.

Gertrude Stein saw what was truly innovative in Henry James. She wrote about it and took it up and developed it in her own writing practices. She was not touching up a Jamesian aesthetic, nor was she polishing off what the master and genius had left unfinished. Instead she anticipated him, met him, and resolved him in her own way. Writing about a different kind of chronological anticipation (in this case of poststructuralist theory), Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel consider the experience of déjà vu, déjà lu in reading Stein: the recognition that “Stein did that!” (xx) Stein did the Jamesian sentence, the Jamesian paragraph, and Jamesian writing, that is, writing what one is writing and writing what one is going to be writing at the same time. Not merely did she do that: she did that until it was done, opening the space of writing to be reconfigured on each reading.


Key to Works by Gertrude Stein

ABT The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966)
BWBrewsie and Willie (New York: Random House, 1946)
FIAFour in America, intro. Thornton Wilder (New Haven: Yale UP, 1947)
LMNLook at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-45, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz, intro. Elizabeth Sprigge (1967; London: Penguin, 1971)
PPicasso (1938; repr. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959)


Other Works Cited

Caramello, Charles, “Reading Gertrude Stein Reading Henry James, or, Eros is Eros is Eros,” The Henry James Review 6.3 (1985): 182-203
Derrida, Jacques, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989)
Nadel, Ira B., “Gertrude Stein and Henry James,” in Neuman and Nadel, pp. 81-97
Neuman, Shirley, and Ira B. Nadel, eds., Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988)
___, “Introduction,” in Neuman and Nadel, pp. xvii-xxiv
Sprigge, Elizabeth, Gertrude Stein – Her Life and Work (New York: Harper, 1957)

BIO: Mark Byron completed his doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos and Samuel Beckett’s Watt at Cambridge University in 2001. After a year as lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, he is now a visiting faculty member in English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has published on Elizabethan tragedy, George Eliot, a variety of modernist writers, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Ezra Pound Encyclopaedia.

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