Ulla Dydo

                                                                                                Wed, 09 Sep 1998

Just got your note and it is going on 1 am after some endless hours of revisions and re-editing my Stein book....So I'll be brief.

            The phrase "continuous present" appears indeed first in "Composition As Explanation." I've just gone over my chapter on the lecture and I'll send you a small chunk of what I say there. "Composition as Explanation" was written probably February 1926. You can follow her writing of it in A NOVEL OF THANK YOU. She rarely used the term later--she didn't theorize more than necessary, even in the lectures she gave in America and the later ones. And the term is fuzzy as she well knew. It has stuck with many scholars (or anyhow with undergrads.) because they keep looking for nice theoretical terms as coat hangers. But it helps little.

....The attempt to explain what she is doing, to explain writing and language to herself, begins with her beginning writing and lasts till her death. Beyond that, she starts trying to explain with "An Elucidation" (the beginning of my book) but what you call the grammatical work in effect begins with "Finally George: A Vocabulary Of Thinking" (1927) and leads right through to 1930. Remember the pieces printed in HOW TO WRITE are separate pieces, and the book was a collection of separate works, assembled under this title in Stein's own Plain Edition since no one in the outside world would have printed them.

      Here's a bit from my chapter...it may yet be revised....


      "Central to her summary of her efforts is the theme of the first part of the address--the modern effort to "be in the present." She acknowledges that when she produced her early work "nobody knew why it was done like that. I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural." (READER 498) She groped for solutions rather than theorizing. Ex post facto, she creates in the lecture two critical terms to justify her procedure: the "prolonged present" and the "continuous present." She connected the first with "Melanctha," the second with THE MAKING OF AMERICANS, but the difference is not clear. (see Sutherland's attempt to define the difference, 51-2)

            She uses "prolonged present" once, as if groping for a term, but does not use it again. "Continuos present," on the other hand, remained in her vocabulary and in that of her readers. Since Stein offers few theoretical terms to her often bewildered readers, they cling to the two words, hoping for distinctions that may not have been clear to herself. The continuous present initially concerns narrative but later becomes an aspect of description.

      In discussing her early work on time, GS implies that the continuous present in her narration is realized by "using everything" and by "beginning again and again." The latter describes the repetitions, so-called, which create extended, unbroken continuity as well as gradual variety that opens into "insistence." "Using everything" refers to her reliance on minute details, including tiny inflections of langauge, to develop the evolving continuity of the present. Stein always insists on the importance of small things--an infinitude of tiny details rather than a collective totality.

            Both "beginning again" and "using everything" involve similarity and difference. Repetition, never twice the same, creates difference and newness, not mere likeness. She associates her growing interest in difference with description, with the exercises in minute observation of TENDER BUTTONS and with natural phenomena. (See "Natural Phenomena," in PAINTED LACE 167-223, written at the time of the address.)

      Differentiation leads her to the work of 1923 with its new techniques for seizing difference by means of series or lists, with the list continuous but the details different; or of geography, with the earth unendingly one but particulars infinitely varied; and with second portraits, of the same subjects as the first portraits, and yet, years later, no longer the same as they were.

      The end of the address returns her to the present of 1926--the post-war world of the peace that returned her to work. Peace brings an interest in equilibration and distribution of words as well as things. The peace, she says, will make time, the central problem of all composition, take new forms. To be contemporaneous is to realize the only certainty: the present. The future remains uncertain. She implies but never states that it lies with her audience.

      The two concluding sentences are deceptively simple: "And afterward./ Now that is all." Stein spoke them in one way. The careful reader hears in the mind all at once the innumerable ways in which they can be spoken and can have meaning."

                                                                                    Ulla Dydo


I started to work on Gertrude Stein in the late seventies, concentrating on "Stanzas In Meditation." Once I began investigating the manuscript of "Stanzas" at Yale, I came to understand that it is possible to follow the creative process of her writing in the manuscripts--an exhilarating, slow affair. I fell upon discoveries of what I call contexts--matters that surround the writing of texts and can be followed in part in manuscript-- which led me far beyond the "Stanzas." I then tried to find a point where her attempts to explain herself began--short of the beginning of all her work, since I could not start a book there and end in the thirties. It took me to "An Elucidation" of 1923 and from there forward, piece by piece, with efforts to date the pieces that had mostly been inaccurately dated and so to follow her path to the "Stanzas" and beyond. I ended up writing about the next major work, the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS and its conclusion, which took me to (not through) Stein's decision to lecture in America. THE LANGUAGE THAT RISES: THE VOICE OF GERTRUDE STEIN 1923-1934 is now virtually complete and will be submitted to Yale University Press in about March 1999. I have also edited A GERTRUDE STEIN READER (Northwestern University Press, 1994) and, with Edward Burns, THE LETTERS OF GERTRUDE STEIN AND THORNTON WILDER (Yale University Press, 1996) as well as numerous essays.

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