Summoning Stein — feel the love

…a while back on Facebook, when a writer friend said she had difficulty reading Stein after which many other chimed in also complaining how overrated and opaque Stein was and how she only came into being and fame because of a certain influence of archaic pro-Lesbian feminist coercion (I’m extemporizing here, it wasn’t quite as bad as that), I said:

don’t forget when and where stein lived. to hold the adulation by a later movement against her is as silly as holding hitler’s adoration for wagner and nietzsche against these two. stein was a monumental modernist much like joyce and as such she’s more of a foundation and hard to judge by the same criteria we use to judge franzen, eggers, eugenides or other second rate writers like these. (how’s that for a tomahawk…). her oeuvre is also vast compared to hemingway or fitzgerald who were mentioned: foundation of (feminist) criticism, poetry, memoir, novella, novel, metafiction, writing instruction…very little she didn’t try her hand on. nobody does that these days. commerce is partly to blame…but in any case, “terrible” or “good” writer is a simplification. Like judging Jesus by his hair style. personally, when i read stein, i am freed up for new work, she never upsets, always enlarges, but that is my very personal perspective.


To freshen up your acquaintance with Gertrude, I recommend in this order from the light to the heavier elements of Stein’s periodical table (links go to Goodread reviews):


Her friend Carl van Vechten put it non-polemically beautifully in his A STEIN SONG in “selected writings“:

Gertrude Stein rings bells, loves baskets, and wears handsome waist-
coats. She has a tenderness for green glass and buttons have a tender-
ness for her. In the matter of fans you can only compare her with a
motion-picture star in Hollywood and three generations of young
writers have sat at her feet. She has influenced without coddling them.
In her own time she is a legend and in her own country she is with
honor. Keys to sacred doors have been presented to her and she under-
stands how to open them. She writes books for children, plays for actors,
and librettos for operas. Each one of them is one. For her a rose is a rose
and how!

Gertrude Stein «was a noted American art collector of seminal modernist paintings and an experimental writer of novels, poetry and plays, which eschewed the narrative, linear, and temporal conventions of 19th century literature.» (Wikipedia) Interesting that her having been a collector (and friend of Picasso, Matisse…you name ‘em) is given priority over her having been a writer. I think she’d have taken offense…here’s a quote from “The Making Of Americans”:

Some men have it in them in their loving to be attacking, some have it in them to let things sink into them, some let themselves wallow in their feeling and get strength in them from the wallowing they have in loving, some in love are melting — strength passes out of them, some in their loving our are worn out with the nervous desire in them, some have it as a dissipation in them, some have it as clean attacking, some have it as a beginning feeling — some have such a feeling always in them, some have it as the ending always of them, some always are children in their loving grimy little dirt then fills them, some are boys in their loving all their living — in their loving reckless attacking is strong in them, some are always young men in their loving, some have it in them like regular middle age living in them, some are old men in loving and this is in them all through their living.

Only a few days ago, Lynne Tillman wrote an hommage, “Reconsidering the Genius of Gertrude Stein” in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, reviewing “Ida” and “Stanzas in Meditation”, both of whom I’m looking forward to reading now.

What’s your take on Stein?

2 thoughts on “Summoning Stein — feel the love

  1. In my opinion, Stein was (is) a force for change in art, thinking, esthetics. Many artists we revere today would have slid into annonymous death but for Stein. That can’t be minimized even if you don’t agree with what she supported.

    • I think you’re right, Susan, her influence can hardly be overestimated. It is interesting to me that she really seems to have understood men in a way that few modern female writers do…can’t think of a single example ….wait, there is the unknown, underrated according to her actual quality, wonderful Alison Lurie. And there is Hilary Mantel! And of course, Susan Tepper…However, very few male writers seem to understand men. John Gardner does, Thomas Pynchon does, too, I think.

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