Holland Carter on Gertrude Stein
When I was a senior at Baylor University far back in 1979, I took a seminar on modern American literature under a visiting professor, and he advised me to read Three Lives, by Gertrude Stein. He thought that I might like it since I was interested in difficult works like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and had written a paper for him on that novel by Pynchon. He had liked my paper, and I now think that he was directing me to Stein not so much for the book that he had explicitly recommended as for one that he didn't even mention, namely, The Making of Americans. I read Lives, and liked it, but I never got around to Americans.
Maybe I ought to, though, for it's highly exalted by art critic Holland Cotter in a New York Times article, "Modern Is Modern Is . . ." (June 2, 2011), which says of Stein:
In the eight years between 1903 and 1911, when she was in her late 20s and early 30s, she wrote her masterpiece, "The Making of Americans," the first major modern experimental novel in English, predating by a decade the mature work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and offering an analog to Cubism.Being naturally a skeptic, that's the point where I'd begin to question the novel's greatness, for it comes too close to Augustine's Credo: "I believe that I might understand." I think that art ought to speak for itself, and if a continued reading requires that I believe in a novel's greatness against the revolt of my mind, then what am I getting from such reading? I slogged through half of Finnegans Wake before concluding that however much I enjoy puns, I simply didn't find enough pleasure from a series of wordplays to sustain my unflagging interest in an endlessly paronomasiac novel.
The book is huge, almost a thousand printed pages. She wrote it out in longhand, making no revisions, usually working through the night, alone. And she wrote in a language no one had ever read before. It was in plain English, but rich with moral weight and haunted emotion, and conventional up to a point, then not. Eventually it lifts off from the syntax and logic we know, and all traces of narrative -- names, places, events -- drop away.
Forward direction ends; time stops, or rather freezes in an eternal present where nothing new happens because everything is happening all the time.
Stein was trying to create eternity -- "the everlasting," she called it -- in prose. And given the demands the book makes on a reader's attention, she, in a way, succeeded. "The Making of Americans" has a reputation for being unreadable, which it isn't, though its difficulties have to be experienced to be believed, and its greatness has to be believed in for reading to continue.
But I like the way Stein's novel starts out, and I like this passage, which comes about halfway through the book:
It happens very often that a man has it in him, that a man does something, that he does it very often that he does many things, when he is a young man when he is an old man, when he is an older man. Some kind of young men do things because they are so good then they want everyone to be wise enough to take care of themselves and so they do some things to them. This is very common and these then very often are good enough kind of young men who are very good men in their living. There will soon be a little description of one of them. There are then very many men and there is then from the generalised virtue and concrete action that is from the nature of them that might make one think they were hypocrites in living but they are not although certainly there are in living some men wanting to deceive other men but this is not true of this kind of them. One of such of these kind of them had a little boy and this one, the little son wanted to make a collection of butterflies and beetles and it was all exciting to him and it was all arranged then and then the father said to the son you are certain this is not a cruel thing that you are wanting to be doing, killing things to make collections of them, and the son was very disturbed then and they talked about it together the two of them and more and more they talked about it then and then at last the boy was convinced it was a cruel thing and he said he would not do it and his father said the little boy was a noble boy to give up pleasure when it was a cruel one. The boy went to bed then and then the father when he got up in the early morning saw a wonderfully beautiful moth in the room and he caught him and he killed him and he pinned him and he woke up his son then and showed it to him and he said to him "see what a good father I am to have caught and killed this one," the boy was all mixed up inside him and then he said he would go on with his collecting and that was all there was then of discussing and this is a little description of something that happened once and it is very interesting. (Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995, pages 489-490)This paragraph is preceded and followed by lines that repeat -- e.g., "It happens very often that a man has it in him, that a man does something. . ." -- such that the passages take on the quality of poetry, its repetitive quality, as they pass along calling back to past pages and ahead to future ones in Stein's attempt at the everlasting. Rather hypnotic, actually. But at about 1000 pages, when would I find time to read such a prose-poem?
At least, one learns things from this Stein way of playing with language, though. I learned, for instance, that whereas pinning butterflies for a collection is cruel, pinning moths is not necessarily so, though possibly one dare not leave a living moth pinned and wriggling on the wall.
Stein remains unclear on this point.