Gertrude Stein is a writer of experimental prose and one of the most original American Modernists. I need to begin by saying that "Three Portraits of Painters" is the creation of an extremely well-educated woman - an American, a Jew, the child of immigrant parents, a lesbian, and a feminist - whose life experience and literary production bridge the Victorian and modern eras. Her two enduring concerns are to portray the experience of woman and to explore what it means to present the fact or act of perception, which can be described as how we organize what we see. Gertrude Stein is interested in what it is to be an American, what it is to be a woman, how people see things, how people tell stories. She describes her own ordinary experience. She writes about ordinary, commonplace people in such a manner that the absolute uniqueness of each is captured.
This is her contribution to the American tradition of democracy and individualism. She writes extensively about her life, and her growth into her life, as a major American writer of the twentieth century. She comments on culture, art, politics, and sexuality. She is a feminist writer who wrote about the inner world of women, expressing their inner feelings, wishes and desires. Gertrude Stein's women are ordinary, everyday women who live ordinary, uneventful lives. Her style is unique, she uses short simple sentences and repeats her words.
Stein wrote by "ear" not by "eye" concentrating on the words she was putting on the paper. The words were designed to create an impression. Although Gertrude Stein could and did write intelligibly at times, her distinction rested on her use of words apart from their conventional meaning. Her emphasis on sound rather than sense is illustrated by her oft-quoted "Cezanne nearly did nearly did and nearly did." Stein's own innovative writing emphasizes the sounds and rhythms rather than the sense of words. By departing from conventional meaning, grammar, and syntax, she attempted to capture "moments of consciousness," independent of time and memory. Characteristic of her style is repetition, lack of literary allusion, deceptive simplicity, use of accessible vocabulary, odd juxtapositions of details, suspension of usual logic, contradiction, and words producing a meditative, hypnotic, and harmonic effect on the reader.
One of her goals for her writing was to create the continuous present. She does this by using 'ing' words. Trained as a scientific researcher (she did her undergraduate studies under William James at Harvard/Radcliffe), her approach to writing is methodical and grounded to things and people most readers would be familiar with. Unlike other writers of her time, her work shows no alienation, no social judgment, no anger, no fear. As a writer Stein never manipulated her reader emotionally. What evolves from the play Stein creates with words is a Cubistic perspective that allows the reader to see more than one facet of an object or person with all its humor, tragedy, and contradictions.
Gertrude Stein on composition: "The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living."I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it... ." On narative: "I think one naturally is impressed by anything having a beginning a middle and an ending when one... is emerging from adolescence...
American writing has been an escaping not an escaping but an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another thing of anything have a beginning and a middle and an ending." As Stein's artistic and critical reception in the twentieth century has shown, her work has often been read for its modernist excess, its stylistic influence on her contemporaries such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, or Virgil Thomson, and its elitist l'art pour l'art appeal. But it has also been read for its postmodern ideas of art as polysemic play with various modes of presence and absence. While thus much of previous criticism has relied on analyses of Stein's aesthetics as a starting point for interpretation, more recent studies have begun to investigate Stein's cultural-political significance, to reevaluate her stance on the New Woman, on WWII fascism, on high and low culture, and on ethnic groups -- and to draw new connections to very contemporary artists who claim Stein as one of their literary parents. Stein infuses joyful play into the English word. She brings back the oral tradition. Stein took Picasso's Cubism (a figure seen from all angles at once) as a writing approach.
You get various aspects of the same person or object in her writing. She may have killed the old writing ideas of the 19 th century and brought in the 20 th century, but her work is going to lead us through the entire 21 st. In my opinion she writes in the style of the 4 th Dimension. She just doesn't have an equal in what she accomplished. She is fully aware that what she is has not historically been treated as fully human, fully civilized. Her literary strategies of a lifetime can be seen to be attempts to portray each life, each point of view, as fully real, absolutely present, and of equal value.
Stein resists the representation and definition of nouns in favor of abstraction -aiming "to describe something," as To klas once said, "without mentioning it." Kostelanetz reveals that "her method was to concentrate on a given subject and then write whatever flashed into her head, recording the subject's attendant images and sounds - so that the atmosphere of peripheral nouns, confusingly, complicates the issue." Her sentences seem reckless, but they are not accidents. The sentences are obscure, even oblique, but they apprehend your senses and your instinct for associations - you may feel what she is talking about, even though you can't explain it. Maybe it can't be explained. Bruce Kellner in his "Books at Iowa 26" says: "Gertrude Stein was, it must be generally known by now, convinced that words had lost their meaning.
I thought of this when I recently listened to some young people discussing the current language. "Radical" originally meant "basic," it would appear and it seemed highly probable to these boys and girls that "reactionary" in the first instance may have been employed to indicate a subject who reacted to outward stimuli. The somewhat out-of-date Thesaurus on my shelves gives communist as a synonym for mischief-maker, evil-doer, oppressor, tyrant, even brute, savage, monster, and scourge of the human race! It is little wonder, considering these and cognate matters, that somebody should decide that the time had come to rename objects on a large scale. That Gertrude Stein's work, or even her design for work, was largely unintelligible to the outer world did not deter her from continuing. Very quickly she discovered (or said that she had discovered) that it was (and is) impossible to arrange words in any order whatever in which they do not make sense, absolutely impossible, and this was an important discovery in as much as her idea was to make sense, to be denotative constructively, not, as so many critics believe (and have written that they believe) to express the psychology of the unconscious, not to beguile her own ears and those of her readers with meaningless, even if beautiful, sounds, not, especially not, to use words for their associations, their connotations. This is about as much (although she has said and written cryptically a great deal more) as she has ever actually let be known about her work, for the very good reason that long ago she assured herself that her writing needs no explanation.
"Read what I have written," she always said to those who demanded a key to the meaning of her work. Reading it is not such an unpleasant chore as some cynical persons would have us believe. It can be, if sympathetically approached, quite the reverse, a most agreeable exercise. Her indirect influence on contemporary writing has been extensive as has been pointed out on innumerable occasions. She has told us how she has weighed words and studied their values until she was in complete possession of their essence and she has given some other writers the incentive to follow this procedure. She never confused the language of conversation with the language she invented and experimented with, and there is a great body of her work based on this universal language of conversation, which is open to the casual reader to understand.
Somebody has said that when Gertrude Stein wrote about herself, she easily excelled the attempts of others to write about her. It is further true that she seldom wrote about anything else but herself. One of the reasons that her "difficult" work is hard to understand is that it is almost entirely subjective. It has been said of her that she was an actress who knew her part and played it for all it was worth. This is completely inaccurate.
She has always wanted to be understood and appreciated and in the beginning suffered intensely when she was laughed at. She consoled herself by saying: "Nothing is meaningless if one likes to do it," as good a philosophy as any. In the work of most writers distinct periods can be separated one from the other, but in the work of Gertrude Stein her conversation pieces mixed with her landscape, her gossip with her lectures. All of it was part of her, some of it, no doubt, less well done than the rest, but all of it a kind of testimony to her mind, her temperament, yes, her genius. She may one day stand in marble on a pedestal and watch Paris and the world go by, but in a sense she stood on a pedestal all her life.
"Three Portraits of Painters" would give her a position as a great writer." I respect her willingness to continue writing serious and challenging texts without benefit of a wide contemporary audience. o Carl Van Vechten, ed. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Vintage Books, 1990 o Haas, Robert B, ed.
A primer for the gradual understanding of Gertrude Stein. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow P, 1971. o Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in pieces. NY, Oxford U P, 1970. o Bruce Kellner Homepage.
web > o web > o web > o web > o web > o Gertrude Stein Links. web > o Gertrude Stein on Narative. web.