Random remarks on Gertrude Stein after having read Alice B. Toklas

Stein, Modernism, Elitism, Egalitarianism . . . on the one hand Stein seems at pains to be simple and make herself clear, and is quite humble and painstaking in this regard; on the other, much of what she says represents a clear break from the usual way of saying things, from the English vernacular, which creates an immediate barrier to the uninitiate (and to the initiate). So what do you think? Is she breaking away from the elitism of a former age perhaps, arriving at a language which, while less approachable than that of the previous literary idiom, is without its prejudices also? — or what?

A similar objection could be raised to Whitman’s poetry: if he had been truly a Democrat/ egalitarian he would have flattered more vulgar/ populist ideas of what poetry was (“My Captain.”)

One way to preserve Stein as both an Elitist/ non-populist and Egalitarian is to say that poetry is really to be compared more with a science than with a mode of entertainment. That a layman is no more likely to read Stein for pleasure than one would read Einstein for pleasure. The problem here would be to say in what way poetry could be viewed as a science (why not an anti-science?)

Another way to preserve Stein as being both Elite and egalitarian is to say poetry is really more to be compared with a religious text than with a mode of entertainment, and that a general reader would be no more likely to read Tender Buttons than a lay religious person would be to read The Book of Job (though of course, lay religious people do occasionally read the book of Job.) It is a somewhat easier lift, it seems to me, to look at modernism and in particular Stein’s work in this way.

(Of course, both scientists and priests may be looked on as elite but they are elite by virtue of their expertise, not by virtue of their class and taste.)

On the other hand again, it occurs to me that an opposite to Stein maybe Faulkner, whose content remains deeply American and egalitarian and humorous, in a way hers doesn’t, though aesthetically-stylistically he is intimidatingly lofty and complicated in a way hers isn’t. Stein, though so approachable and clear in Toklas, is more airy than earthy and doesn’t seem to dare the real familiarity of a joke. (That can be said also of Whitman.)

Finally, if Stein’s work were to be considered scientific, I would think it would be associated with the branch of science called linguistics, not theoretically, not discovering a gas law, but teaching by example that different word arrangements than what’s normal can communicate ideas more efficiently or naturally or fully or interestingly.

With respect to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a book, I find that the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. Positives: a simple elegant amusing style; important historical detail on that period; important literary/ artistic information on the period; good personal anecdotes; good insights into art and into things other than art, things such as “America”;

Negatives: it’s clear that Stein did not feel she received the credit she was due, and this bubbles up in places. Also, while I think it’s a brilliant move to have described her own life through the life of her partner, which most of the time comes off quite well, it will sometimes seem that the most important thing to her partner was her, never mind how slight the detail or capricious the thought.

Question: When I think of the writers in Paris during that period I think most of all of Joyce and Proust. Stein mentions Joyce glancingly — why is there no mention of Proust?


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