Homage to Gertrude Stein (2001)
From Tender Buttons -- "Rooms" by Gertrude Stein:
A tribune, a tribune does not mean paper, it means nothing more than cake, it means more sugar, it shows the state of lengthening any nose. The last spice is that which shows the whole evening spent in that sleep, it shows so that walking is an alleviation, and yet this astonishes everybody the distance is so sprightly. In all the time there are three days, those are not passed uselessly. Any little thing is a change that is if nothing is wasted in that cellar. All the rest of the chairs are established.
From Gertrude Stein -- A Brief Biography:
Stein spent her infancy in Vienna and Paris and her girlhood in Oakland, Calif. At Radcliffe College she studied psychology with the philosopher William James. After further study at Johns Hopkins medical school she went to Paris, where she was able to live by private means. From 1903 to 1912 she lived with her brother Leo, who became an accomplished art critic; thereafter she lived with her lifelong companion Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).Stein and her brother were among the first collectors of works by the Cubists and other experimental painters of the period, such as Pablo Picasso (who painted her portrait), Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque, several of whom became her friends. At her salon they mingled with expatriate American writers, such as Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, and other visitors drawn by her literary reputation. Her literary and artistic judgments were revered, and her chance remarks could make or destroy reputations. In her own work, she attempted to parallel the theories of Cubism, specifically in her concentration on the illumination of the present moment and her use of slightly varied repetitions and extreme simplification and fragmentation. The best explanation of her theory of writing is found in the essay Composition and Explanation, which is based on lectures that she gave at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and was issued as a book in 1926. Among her work that was most thoroughly influenced by Cubism is Tender Buttons (1914), which carries fragmentation and abstraction beyond the borders of intelligibility.
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso (1906)
Though Stein influenced authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright, as hinted above, her work has often been misunderstood. Composer Constant Lambert (1936) naively compares Stravinsky's choice of, "the drabbest and least significant phrases," in L'Histoire du Soldat to Gertrude Stein's in "Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene" (1922), specifically: "Everyday they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday," of which he contends that the "effect would be equally appreciated by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever," apparently entirely missing the pun frequently employed by Stein.Gertrude Stein wrote in long hand, typically about half an hour per day. Alice B. Toklas would collect the pages, type them up and deal with the publishing and was generally supportive while Leo Stein publicly criticized his sister's work. Indeed, Toklas founded the publisher "Plain Editions" to distribute Stein's work. Today, most manuscripts are kept in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.In 1932, using an accessible style to accommodate the ordinary reading public, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; the book would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was really her own autobiography. She described herself as extremely confident, one might even say arrogant, always convinced that she was a genius. She was disdainful of mundane tasks and Alice Toklas managed everyday affairs. The style of the autobiography was quite similar to that of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which was actually written by Alice and contains several unusual recipes such as one for Hashish Fudge (also called Alice B. Toklas brownies), submitted
by Brion Gysin.
Gertrude Stein, photographed by Carl Van Vechten (1934)
From Tender Buttons -- "Food" by Gertrude Stein:
SAUSAGES.Sausages in between a glass.There is read butter. A loaf of it is managed. Wake a question. Eat an instant, answer.A reason for bed is this, that a decline, any decline is poison, poison is a toe a toe extractor, this means a solemn change. Hanging.No evil is wide, any extra in leaf is so strange and singular a red breast.
Stein's stream-of-consciousness experiments were designed to be literature's mirror to Cubism -- as well as to bring out what Stein called "the excitingness of pure being." I know some feminist critics have cited works like Tender Buttons as a reclamation of words from inherently patriarchal language. To me, Stein opened the floodgates for literary surrealism. The poetry of John Ashbury, the lyrics of Patti Smith or Stephen Malkmus, and the paintings of John-Michel Basquiat -- to name only a few examples -- would have never been possible without Stein's influence. Her work is an active field and refuses to be "figured out"; instead, it insists upon an aggressive engagement -- or a frustrated abandonment.