"Why James Joyce Was Accepted and I Was Not":
Modernist Fiction and Gertrude Stein's Narrative

by Marianne DeKoven

Gertrude Stein defines the limits of modernism by transgressing them, particularly in her prose narrative. Though she was contemporaneous with modernism, and helped to engender it in Three Lives, and though there are many points of intersection between her work and modernism, particularly in her poetics, her work is eccentric to the mainstream of modernism. A comparison of her work to fiction that is indisputably modernist makes this liminality apparent, and in doing so reveals as much about what modernism is as about what, in Stein, it is not.

In December, 1991, I presented a version of this essay at the MLA meeting of the James Joyce Society, a panel entitled "Joyce, Stein, Woolf, Richardson." My first association with that panel title had been the Sesame Street jingle, "one of these is not like the others, one of these just doesn't belong, can you guess which one is not like the others by the time we finish this song." On a number of counts, Gertrude Stein is the one that just doesn't belong, and the fact that her name is not associated with the term stream-of-consciousness may be the least interesting of those counts.

Different as Joyce, Woolf and Richardson are, the simple statement can be made that they are all modernist novelists. In engendering modernism, in their early works, they rewrote the rules for fiction. Joyce, in Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake, and to a lesser extent Woolf in The Waves, went on to push the novel to and perhaps beyond its limits. But they still, deeply and meaningfully, worked in relation to the history of the novel, including the history which both of them, and Richardson as well, had already remade. Throughout her various phases of narrative writing, Stein was responding to a different set of concerns.

In an interview she gave near the end of her life, Stein said "You see it is the people who generally smell of the museums who are accepted, and it is the new who are not accepted. You have got to accept a complete difference. It is hard to accept that, it is much easier to have one hand in the past. That is why James Joyce was accepted and I was not. He leaned toward the past, in my work the newness and difference is fundamental" (Transatlantic Interview 29). "The smell of the museums" is at least in part the smell of sour grapes, and postmodernism has deconstructed Stein's simple modernist valorization of "newness" and "difference." Those qualifications aside, however, and reading Stein somewhat against the grain, the issues of "past" and "present" are crucial to understanding the distinction I want to make between Joyce's, Woolf's or Richardson's modernist fiction and Stein's experimentalist, avant-garde narrative.

Stein called a number of her works "novels" (A Novel of Thank You is an even more radically experimental text than The Making of Americans, whose subtitle is A Novel) and even wrote some of them according to the conventions for prose fiction--lines unbroken, consecutively numbered chapters, named, described characters who act and speak. But her constructions of narrative time, particularly her attempt to banish "memory" and to articulate a "continuous present," where writing recreates itself anew in each successive moment, made impossible the persistence through time of a single universe of fictional material, however vast, diverse, and shifting; a persistence upon which the novel depends.

In discussing her attempt to write in the continuous present, Stein says "the making of a portrait of any one is as they are existing and as they are existing has nothing to do with remembering any one or anything" ("Portraits and Repetition" 175). Her writing must always be in the present–she must write in each moment what she knows without allowing herself to remember what she knew. She rejects the mimetic art of remembering, of the reproducible and continuous, of knowledge that is converted into an artifact of itself. Remembering invokes what Stein considers the nineteenth-century English linear mode of successivity; she calls it elsewhere "beginning middle and ending," and considers herself to have replaced it with the twentieth-century American mode of simultaneity, a thing not accreted through time but composed instantaneously of its various, interchangeable, equally important parts.

Stein's response to the actual impossibility of banishing memory, of writing or living in this idealist construction of a pure present, is to compare her work to film, the twentieth-century genre par excellence. She says "Funnily enough the cinema has offered a solution of this thing. By a continuously moving picture of any one there is no memory of any other thing and there is that thing existing" ("Portraits and Repetition" 176). Ironically, film can be used to make just the opposite case: that "continuously moving picture" depends entirely on memory and on successivity through diachronic time for the impression of continuous movement that gives Stein the sense of an absolute present and the abolition of memory. But the film analogy can also be used to support Stein's argument in a crucial way, a way that points to a radical difference between her narrative and the fiction of Joyce, Woolf or Richardson.

The essay from which I have been quoting, one of the Lectures in America called "Portraits and Repetition," contains Stein's most useful discussion of her particular deployment of a type of repetition she calls insistence. The use of repetition in the service of a continuous present is a characteristic Steinian paradox. Repetition would seem to depend utterly on memory. To repeat is precisely to reproduce the past in the present. But Stein's argument implies that it's the avoidance of repetition that links the present to the past, through denial, or, as in the adage "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it," through memory. A work that moves successively through linear time changes in relation to its own past. But the kind of steadily shifting repetition Stein calls insistence, that reinvents itself anew in each moment of narrative, is unaware of its past and therefore free to repeat it. Insistence is never verbatim repetition, rather it's a function of looking at the same thing in a different present moment, in which, if it is alive, the thing looked at has minutely changed.

The useful film analogy is not to the overall impact of "no memory of any other thing" that Stein describes in "Portraits and Repetition," but to the film strip itself, in which each frame largely repeats but slightly shifts the frame before it. Each frame is a new picture shot in the present moment, and therefore it is different from the one before because each present moment is different from the one before, but, when the camera has remained focused on the same thing, each frame largely repeats the one before. So, repetition, which seems to presuppose memory, can in fact negate it. In the Steinian continuous present, the shifting repetition of insistence is inevitable because you rediscover and reinvent in each moment what you know. If you knew you'd already known it you wouldn't have to say it again.

The purest form of Steinian insistence comes in the narrative writing she did between 1906 and 1912, or Three Lives and Tender Buttons, a six year period in which she wrote shorter, longer, and much longer narratives, including The Making of Americans, Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein otherwise known as GMP, A Long Gay Book, and Many Many Women. Stein's style changed radically during the course of this period, from the style I call insistence to what became the style of Tender Buttons, the style I call lively words. Lively words is as different from insistence as two kinds of writing by the same person can be. I can't think of another writer whose work diverged so drastically and totally from its own past in such a short time. The best analogy that comes to mind is, not surprisingly, the difference between Picasso's blue period and his so-called heroic cubism. This stylistic shift happens for Stein within several of her long 1909-1912 narratives, so that the end of GMP or A Long Gay Book is entirely unrecognizable to its beginning. A Long Gay Book, for example, begins in characteristic insistence:

When they are very little just only a baby you can never tell which one is to be a lady.

There are some when they feel it inside them that it has been with them that there was once so very little of them, that they were a baby, helpless and no conscious feeling in them, that they knew nothing then when they were kissed and dandled and fixed by others who knew them when they could know nothing inside them or around them, some get from all this that once surely happened to them to that which was then every bit that was then them, there are some when they feel it later inside them that they were such once and that was all that there was then of them, there are some who have from such a knowing an uncertain curious kind of feeling in them that their having been so little once and knowing nothing makes it all a broken world for them that they have inside them, kills for them the everlasting feeling; and they spend their life in many ways, and always they are trying to make for themselves a new everlasting feeling.(13)

The book ends in pure lively words: "Lead kind in soap, lead kind in soap sew up. Lead kind in so up. Lead kind in so up. Leaves a mass, so mean. No shows. Leaves a mass cool will. Leaves a mass puddle. Etching. Etching a chief, none plush" (116). All other obvious dissimilarities between both of these styles and Joyce's or Woolf's aside, a more diametrical opposition to the perfectly circular structure of Finnegans Wake or the implied circular structure of The Waves I cannot imagine.

Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are a day, The Waves is at once a day and the duration of six lives that are also one life, Finnegans Wake is a dream. None of Stein's soi-disant novels after Three Lives has any such deep-structural cohesion, nor any of the other myriad forms of artful cohesion Joyce and Woolf wove into their novels. The Making of Americans is supposed to be the history of "everyone who is or was or could be living," but most of it instead records Stein's alternation between assertion of her intention to write that history and, increasingly as the pages mount, despair at the impossibility of doing so. The narrative is the record of its own failure to be written as a novel. But to say that is in no way to condemn it, or even to judge it negatively, nor do I intend to disparage Stein's narrative by contrasting it to Joyce's, Woolf's or Richardson's. The pleasures of reading Stein are great, but different.

Stein's narratives of 1909-12 are the most extreme instances in her oeuvre of the narrative discontinuity produced by the continuous present. In the late twenties, she began to reintroduce certain modes of cohesion into her writing, and the narratives she wrote in the thirties and forties are brought under the rule of various kinds of organizing forces. Does the late Stein, then, belong on the list with Joyce, Woolf and Richardson? Or, for an even stronger case, the late Stein plus the very early Stein of Fernhurst, Q.E.D. and Three Lives? No. Only Three Lives is a work of modernist fiction, devoted like the work of Joyce, Woolf and Richardson to inventing new fictional means to represent the processes of consciousness. Even Three Lives, however, is so American, so much an eruption of modernism from within Jamesian pragmatism and American naturalism, that it occupies a different space within modernist fiction than that associated with the other three.

With Steinian narrative of the thirties and forties, despite its moves back toward narrative convention–its adoption of modes of cohesion, particularly the recurring motif–we are still in a different universe of writing. Even if we ignore the issue of genre, which we would have to because most of Stein's narrative work in this period, especially the most interesting work (for example The Geographical History of America, and Lectures in America itself), is not fiction at all but rather some form of extended meditation, the narrative time in which Stein wrote was still a version of the continuous present. Finnegans Wake, for all its limitless plenitude, can be and has been outlined. The significance of this outline for my argument here is not so much that it implies an ordered whole, but that none of its constituent parts reproduce one another. Each chapter, and each subsection within each chapter, opens up a new, different portion of the fiction's universe. Even in the most apparently outlineable work by Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is divided into successive chronological chapters, subsectional summaries would be forced to repeat one another. It is not that the chronological chapters are nonfunctional–the text does in fact roughly follow its announced chronological ordering. But within each chapter, the text circles and recircles, repeats and rerepeats, jumps ahead and jumps back in time, moving with the associative movement of Stein's memory as she writes. Again, the narrative fact most significant for both production and reception of this text is the Steinian continuous present of writing, in which knowledge is reinvented and rediscovered from moment to moment, not the chronological time of the overall, in a significant way artificially superimposed, narrative structure.

Even when discussing the shift in the clientele at her famous Saturday evening salons, as they became progressively more famous, for example, Stein undermines the chronological progression as soon as she establishes it. She says "Everybody brought somebody. As I said the character of the Saturday evenings was gradually changing, that is to say, the kind of people who came had changed. Somebody brought the Infanta Eulalia and brought her several times" (123). "As I said" establishes the essential motif of repetition that dominates the text. "Was gradually changing," implying steady progression, shifts within one sentence to "had changed," an accomplished fact. This shift destabilizes the distinction between the present of remembering and the past that is remembered. "Everybody brought somebody" levels the sense of hierarchy implied by increasing fame and by the Infanta Eulalia. The Infanta Eulalia herself becomes a moment of repetition, as the "everybody" who "brought somebody" is converted into the "somebody" who "brought the Infanta Eulalia and brought her several times." Four paragraphs later, after a few more famous names are mentioned (Lady Cunard and Nancy Cunard, Lady Ottoline Morrell, "a roumanian princess"), this social ascent is definitively levelled, and the diachronic time in which social ascent must live is effectively annihilated: "It was an endless variety. And everybody came and no one made any difference. Gertrude Stein sat peacefully in a chair and those who could did the same, the rest stood. There were the friends who sat around the stove and talked and there were the endless strangers who came and went. My memory of it is very vivid" (123-4).

Finally, it is the issue of memory that most powerfully differentiates Stein from the other three, especially Joyce, and from the quintessential modernism they represent. There is hardly anything that Joyce does not remember, and memory itself is a crucial preoccupation for him, while a moment of vivid memory for Stein, that presents itself to her as a memory, is unusual enough to be remarked upon. Generally the past, to have reality to Stein, exists as the present. There is no cultural or psychic past for her to hold up to the present, to hold up the present, to be faithful or unfaithful to, to be guided by, to reinvent, rediscover and transmogrify into art. Modernism in fiction can be said to have memory, "la recherche du temps perdu," as one of its raisons d'etre and central tropes. Stein's work in narrative is defined by her repudiation of that trope. It is a commonplace to label Stein a postmodernist before her time; in this respect, if we follow Jameson's analysis of the postmodern as annihilation of history, as subsumption of all history to an inescapable present, then Stein certainly qualifies.

But let me not seem disingenuously to ignore the James Joyce Society's obvious reason for including Stein on its panel's list of names. Most people would look at that list and think not of Sesame Street but of a great man and three great contemporaneous women. Or if they did see the list within the grid that jingle enacts, perhaps then it would be Joyce who didn't belong. Or the other three. There are many ways of aligning Stein, Woolf and Richardson according to gender and distinguishing them from Joyce. One way would be a modified version of the argument I have been making about Stein's difference from the three modernist novelists. While Woolf and Richardson wrote very much in and of the passage of time, and not in any sort of continuous present, neither of them felt the need, pull or support of a legitimating, authorizing, or threatening connection to any officially sanctioned version of cultural history. This is precisely where accounts of modernism based primarily on works by men, and uninformed by considerations of gender difference, are distorted and inadequate. Neither Daedalus nor Icarus, cultural god nor his victim son, Woolf and Richardson were free to rewrite the past, in "women's sentences" (A Room of One's Own), as a different history of women, and Stein, writing in "a little language such as lovers use" (The Waves), more or less to abolish it altogether.

Works Cited

DeKoven, Marianne. "Breaking the Rigid Form of the Noun: Stein, Pound, Whitman, and Modernist Poetry," in Critical Essays on American Modernism, eds. Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick Murphy. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1991.

A Different Language: Gertrude Stein's Experimental Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

– "Gertrude Stein and the Modernist Canon," in Gertrude Stein and the Making of American Literature, eds. Shirley Neuman and Ira Nadel. London: Macmillan; Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988, 8-20.

– "Half In and Half Out of Doors: Gertrude Stein and Literary Tradition," in A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content With the Example, ed. Bruce Kellner. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, 75-83.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: The Viking Press, 1939.

Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1961.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Richardson, Dorothy. Pilgrimage.

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Random

House, 1933.

– "Composition as Explanation," in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl

Van Vechten. New York: Random House, 1946, 513-23.

Fernhurst, Q.E.D. and Other Early Writings. New York: Liveright, 1971.

A Geographical History of America, or the Relationship of Human Nature to the Human Mind.

Lectures in America. New York: Random House, 1935.

A Long Gay Book, in Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein with Two Shorter Stories. Barton, Something Else Press, Inc., 1972, 11-116.

The Making of Americans. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1934.

Many Many Women, in Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein with Two Shorter Stories, 119- 98.

Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein (G.M.P.), in Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein with Two Shorter Stories, 202-78.

Narration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

A Novel of Thank You. New Haven: Yale University Press,

– "Portraits and Repetition," in Lectures in America, 165-206.

Tender Buttons, in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, 461-509.

Three Lives. New York: Random House, 1936.

– "A Transatlantic Interview," 1946, in A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1971, 11-35; rpt. in The Gender of Modernism, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1925.

A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929.

The Waves. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1931.

Author’s note: This essay first appeared in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXV, Number 2, Fall 1992 and is reprinted with their permission.



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BIO: Marianne DeKoven is Professor of English at Rutgers University. She is the author of Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism and A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Her current book project concerns the 1960s and the emergence of postmodernism.


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