MEMO / RE: Reading Stein


Stephen Ratcliffe
Mills College


One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were certainly following was one who was charming. One whom some were following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were following was one who was certainly completely charming.




I want to talk about Stein's early writing and how it works on a reader/ listener. The radical experiments of her racially problematic 'novel' Melanctha (written in 1906-07 and published in 1909), her portraits of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso (written and the latter two published in 1909) and Tender Buttons (written in 1911-12 and published in 1914) explore the shape of sound in writing -- how sound shapes and creates the meaning of a text in ways that go beyond the meaning of its words. Playing with language -- grammar, syntax, sound, rhythm, word meaning -- in order to "rewrite" it, free it from its denotative and connotative responsibilities, she discovered the materiality of words as objects, things, physical and acoustic matter whose referential meaning -- caraffe, teacup, tumbler, feather -- while still actively present, was not their only interest. Working, as Ulla Dydo says, "to 'see clear' and say what she sees in the immediate world," [1 ] she began to see words not simply as a window opening on the world, signaling that world, inviting the reader to pass through them into it; rather, words happen here -- on the page, in air -- their particular atomic weights and textures, spin and counterspin, enacted first by the writer who composes a text, reenacted by the reader who reads it.

Sound in Stein is inextricable from visual shape and meaning because the act of writing was for her an act of engagement with words in the present moment of composition. Wrestling with words and letters in words -- the shapes of letters shifting into other letters; phrases, words and parts of words shifting into different phrases, words, parts of words -- her writing comes out of immediate contact with the physical world. Her writing asserts the gap between word and thing even as it bridges that gap, making the "thingness" of words as tangible as things in the world. Word patterns -- of sound in air, of shape on page -- play themselves out in our experience of reading and listening to her texts, just as they did in her experience of composition, an experience that was, Dydo writes, a form of meditation:

Words and word patterns shaped themselves in her mind in the process of rigorous concentration that allowed no interference from outside. This process of realizing perception is the Stein meditation. What Stein called a composition is the written process of meditation. Meditating does not precede composing but is composing. Reading Gertrude Stein is reading the "written writing process." [2]

And in reading Stein's "writing process" we are also reading "her world" as such -- words being in and of it, counting. Her life as a writer takes words up and is taken up by them, forming patterns of sound/shape/ meaning at the surface of language, as if words were themselves a form of the physical body. The world in Stein's writing is words, which she encounters as immediate perception of sound (ear) and shape (eye) -- "hears and sees . . . whole and in parts.," as Dydo writes:

Words come to her as sound, sight, and sense, each ready for composing, not as sense carried congealed on the back of sound and sight. By word play, rhyming and punning, exploitation of homonyms and homophones, or simply by cutting up words, she explores them until the pieces become new words to compose in new patterns. [3 ]

Meaning, in other words, is an extension of the physical -- acoustic, visual, "pieces" of sound and shape -- phenomena of language itself, words whose matter and weight is the embodiment of intangible thought, feeling, perception of the actual world.

Stein articulates a part of her aim most lucidly in the lecture "Portraits and Repetition" (1934), where she claims that "I never repeat that is in writing." [4] But as anyone first approaching her earliest work discovers, its most striking quality is repetition:

Every day now, Jeff seemed to be coming nearer, to be really loving. Every day now, Melanctha poured it all out to him, with more freedom. Every day now, they seemed to be having more and more, both together, of this strong, right feeling. More and more every day now they seemed to know really, what it was each other one was always feeling. More and more now every day Jeff found in himself, he felt more trusting. More and more every day now, he did not think anything in words about what he was always doing. Every day now more and more Melanctha would let out to Jeff her real, strong feeling. [5]

What is going on here -- each sentence picking up words and phrases from the one before, getting apparently nowhere? There is, for one thing, the built-in paradox of "Every day" coupled with "now," as if all time has become caught in an intensely present-tense awareness of this crucial period in the courtship of Dr. Jefferson Campbell and Miss Melanctha Herbert. The reiteration of the two time-related words, "day" and "now," is itself like a kind of clock ticking off moments in the young lovers' gradual awakening discovery of one another. So that each sentence discloses within a framework of echoing terms ("Every day," "now," "more and more") an instant of perception, given to each character, discovered about them by this narrator so keyed in to her story she has to tell it all: "Jeff seemed to be coming nearer, to be really loving.... Melanctha poured it all out to him, with more freedom." So Jeff, first, then Melanctha, then "they," then "they," then "Jeff," then "he," then "Melanctha," discover something essential in each straightforward simple declarative sentence. Each sentence made to echo the sound of actual events, this pattern of words and phrases -- a meditation, Dydo writes, in which Stein "'unhooked' words from events, people, and objects to compose them as efforts of a mind in the act of looking for comprehension" [6] -- gives us a sense of inevitabile mass and weight, as if this were all we need to know. Like a sculptor chipping away at the block of stone day after day until the figure "imprisoned" there is found, or a still-life painter building up palette knife stroke by stroke the essence of the shape of an arrangement of objects, Stein works language to bear down upon, and thence convey to us, her present grasp of reality focused as a succession of moments, disembodied almost, since there aren't any physical details here, only the abstract essential: "Melanctha would let out to Jeff her real strong feeling."

Repetition -- which Stein would call "insistence": speech stress and different syntax making the "same" word "different" -- thus serves to reinforce an idea central to the narrative at this point: we understand the two young lovers' gradually unfolding awareness of "this strong, right feeling" because we are made to experience it in Stein's hammered-out sentence-by-sentence disclosure of it. And, obviously enough, though certain words and phrases recur a number of times through this passage, their recurrence is never quite identical, as she again claims in "Portraits and Repetition":

you also understand what I mean when I say there was no repetition. In a cinema no two pictures are exactly alike each one is just that much different from the one before, and so in those early portraits there was as I am sure you will realize as I read them to repetition. Each time that I said the somebody whose portrait I was writing was something that something was just that much different from what I had just said that somebody was and little by little in this way a whole portrait came into being, a portrait that was not description and that was made by each time, and I did a great many times, say it, that somebody was something, each time there was a difference just a difference enough so that it could go on and be a present something (106).

Cinema for Stein the contemporary art form: a camera recording reality at 24 frames per second, each frame slightly different as the figure walking through the room moves closer to the table upon which stands a tray of 24 ripening pears. Viewed separately, the eye can barely detect the difference between one frame and another; run the frames through a projector and the figure immediately comes to life. Writing to capture this "present something," Stein wants to track what takes place, moment to moment, in a person's conscious perception of the world. The point is not to describe -- which is simply to remember the identity of someone or something in relation to some previously known context in which it is not actually the person or thing being at the moment of its apprehension -- but rather to see and hear, by looking and listening, just that person or thing in action, doing as it discloses its innermost concrete nature. For Stein the question is always, How can language be -- actually be -- the person or thing perceived:

the words or words that make what I looked at be itself [my italics] were always words that to me very exactly related themselves to that thing the thing at which I was looking, but as often as not had as I say nothing whatever to do with what any words would do that described that thing ("Portraits" 115).

In Melanctha, we come to know the two principle characters, Jeff Campbell and Melanctha Herbert, in the testing, blossoming, fading, swelling again and then, inevitably, withering of a relationship detailed not as physical action but the endlessly circular conversation -- listening and talking at the same time -- Stein has them engage in:

"Yes I certainly do understand you when you talk so Dr. Campbell. I certainly do understand now what you mean by what you was always saying to me. I certainly do understand Dr. Campbell that you mean you don't believe it's right to love anybody." "Why sure no, yes I do Miss Melanctha, I certainly do believe strong in loving, and in being good to everybody, and trying to understand what they all need, to help them." "Oh I know all about that way of doing Dr. Campbell, but that certainly ain't the kind of love I mean when I am talking. I mean real, strong, hot love Dr. Campbell, that makes you do anything for somebody that loves you." "I don't know much about that kind of love yet Miss Melanctha. You see it's this way with me always Miss Melanctha. I am always so busy with my thinking about my work I am doing and so I don't have time for just fooling, and then too, you see Miss Melanctha, I really certainly don't ever like to get excited, and that kind of loving hard does seem always to mean just getting all the time excited. That certainly is what I always think from what I see of them that have it bad Miss Melanctha, and that certainly would never suit a man like me" (368-69).

The opening line of this passage, typical of exchanges between these two projections of Stein's own mind at work, is a key to the practice of writing she puts forward here: "Yes I certainly do understand you when you talk." Stein is writing "talk" here, talking as a record of the way the mind thinks. She is interested in catching that relation, or fact, between talking and thinking -- that thoughts come into the mind piece by piece, word by word, happen this way, the way these obviously "real" people are doing it here. She doesn't care about the physical geography of the place (in Melanctha we know next to nothing about setting), only the placement of words on the page, in the air. Jeff and Melanctha move as if in space, floating free of location, words as disembodied "voices" constructing a fictional world in which these two people feel each other out, so to speak, with a certain amount of tension and perhaps mistrust that each feels toward the other.

In a peculiar yet unmistakable way, our own feelings of sympathy seem to lie with Dr. Campbell. This may in some part have to do with the fact that Stein herself had at one point studied to become a doctor, and perhaps also with the fact that Melanctha is the reworking of the earlier autobiographical novels QED and Fenshurst, whose characters (modeled after Stein's own experience) have here become Jeff Campbell. But it has also to do with the fact that Stein presents us with more of what's going on inside Jeff's mind than Melanctha's. Consider the following:

Always now Jeff had to go so much faster than was real with his feeling. Yet always Jeff knew now he had a right, strong feeling. Always now when Jeff was wondering, it was Melanctha he was doubting, in the loving. Now he would often ask her, was she real now to him, in her loving. He would ask her often, feeling something queer about it all inside him, though yet he was never really strong in his doubting, and always Melanctha would answer to him, "Yes Jeff, sure, you know it, always," and always Jeff felt a doubt now, in her loving.

Always now Jeff felt in himself, deep loving. Always now he did not know really, if Melanctha was true in her loving.

All these days Jeff was uncertain in him, and he was uneasy about which way he should act so as not to be wrong and put them both into bad trouble. Always now he was, as if he must feel deep into Melanctha to see if it was real loving he would find she now had in her, and always he would stop himself, with her, for always he was afraid now that he might badly hurt her.

Always now he liked it better when he was detained when he had to go and see her. Always now he never liked to go to be with her, although he never wanted really, not to be always with her. Always now he never felt really at ease with her, even when they were good friends together. Always now he felt, with her, he could not be really honest to her. And Jeff never could be happy with her when he could not feel strong to tell all his feeling to her. Always now every day he found it harder to make the time pass, with her, and not let his feeling come so that he would quarrel with her (402-3).

This building up the sentence piece by piece, layer upon layer, theme with variation, though delivered by an apparently impersonal narrator, presents the world entirely from Jeff's point of view. (If Stein's investigations of language in 1909-14 were in part prompted by photography and the motion picture, which could catch the visible appearance of a given time and place, they aimed as well to catch thoughts and feelings -- internal, invisible -- such as these playing through Jeff's mind from one moment to the next.) Stein's "insistence" of words mapping the world is remarkable. She keeps seeming to repeat herself but each time she repeats something it's just a bit different: "Always now he liked it better..." "Always now he never liked..." "Always now he never felt..." "Always now he felt.." Stein's language is mathematical in the way it presents alternatives -- "liked," "never liked," "felt," "never felt" -- in effect covering all the possible ways that thinking and feeling can be "said" (sounded), thereby registering the multiple nuances of perception going on now, in the present tense, inside Stein's head, whose categories (as words in language systems) contribute to what is noted, perceived.

(Notice the mathematical-like recurrence of prepositional "with" phrases toward the end of this passage -- "with her...with her...with her...with her...with her...with her...with her" -- followed by what Jeff now resolves: "And so one evening, late, he was to go to her. He waited a little long, before he went to her." So the plot of Melanctha, after paragraphs that focused on Jeff's internal struggle over whether he could be with her, moves forward in part by means of prepositions, those apparently inconsequential connective words -- the difference between "with" and "to" enacted verbally by Stein's construction of it, which gives us not just plot but language, as a Cézanne or Picasso gives us not just the figure on the canvas but paint.)

To read a passage from Melanctha out loud we need to let go, give up that sense of expectation that each new statement will come forward with some new and different "information" about the state of Melanctha's relationship with Jeff Campbell. We need to let go of our assumption that the "story" is going forward in time and space, because Stein's writing isn't about "story" but language itself, the words she has put together like beads on a string, in order to write (tell) that "story." Take the recurrence of the word "sure," for instance, in the following passage, where Jeff and Melanctha talk as if interchangeably, two characters each using the words the other uses, so that what takes place on the page, and so gets across to a reader or listener, are the words themselves -- not "talk" but words:

"I sure am a good boy to be learning all the time the right way you are teaching me, Melanctha, darling," began Jeff Campbell, laughing.... "But you do forgive me always, sure, Melanctha, always?" "Always and always, you be sure Jeff, and I certainly am afraid I never can stop with my forgiving, you always are going to be so bad to me, and I always going to have to be so good with my forgiving." "Oh! Oh!" cried Jeff Campbell, laughing, "I ain't going to be so bad for always, sure I ain't, Melanctha, my own darling. And sure you do forgive me really, and sure you love me true and really, sure, Melanctha?" "Sure, sure, Jeff, boy, sure now and always, sure now you believe me, sure you do, Jeff, always." "I sure hope I does, with all my heart, Melanctha, darling." "I sure do that same, Jeff, dear boy, now you really know what it is to be loving, and I prove it to you now so, Jeff, you never can be forgetting. You see now, Jeff, good and certain, what I always before been saying to you, Jeff, now." "Yes, Melanctha, darling," murmured Jeff, and he was very happy in it, and so the two of them now in the warm air of the sultry, southern, negro sunshine, lay there for a long time just resting (398-99).

And notice also what happens after this, where the narrative's rhythmic breaks conveys exactly Jeff's creeping doubts: "Then it came that Jeff knew he could not say out any more, what it was he wanted, he could not say out any more, what it was, he wanted to know about, what Melanctha wanted."

Stein's discovery in Melanctha -- how words on the page, that two-dimensional surface, might be such that our attention would not pass through them to the people and things in the world those same words meant to grasp -- continued to evolve in her portraits of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, whose surface feels opaque, as if the overwhelming presence of her only apparently circular "voice" could make its subject "present":

One was quite certain that for a long part of his being one being living he had been trying to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing and then when he could not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing, when he had completely convinced himself that he would not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing he was really certain then that he was a great one and he certainly was a great one. Certainly every one could be certain of this thing that this one is a great one. [7]

Her varying insistences of words with additions or substitutions or reorderings transcribe the act of a mind perceiving moment by moment. She follows the unfolding of her perceptions as closely as possible, always at the literal level, the level of words themselves. The "re -reading" Stein's words ask us to experience echoes our experience of the world, how the tape of consciousness unwinds on the brain's reel: one sees the "same" things again and again in time, which is continuous and continuously present in any series of single moments, these "same" thoughts and feelings and perceptions going on without one's conscious awareness, unless like Stein one notices them, or because of her writing is invited to notice them.

Hemingway said that Stein's voice, the voice we hear in the 1934 Caedmon recording, was the most remarkable thing about her -- powerful and low and lovely and smooth and comforting. She was a large woman until her late years, where the photographs show her somehow shrinking, getting almost thin, and the voice comes forward from full lungs, diaphragm extended and pushing those long breath sentences out. Listening, we lose track of what she reads because she seems to repeat herself, the needle stuck on a scratch in the record. At the same time, we get the sense that what she says isn't ever quite exactly the same: "Certainly very many knowing this one and being certain . . ."; "Certainly some who were certain that this one . . ."; "Some who were ones knowing this one and were ones certain . . . ." So while a number of key words get used again and again in recognizably similar contexts, their permutations are distinctly different -- different emphases made (sounded) by voice modulation as she speaks. Like the planes in Picasso's cubist portrait of Ambrose Vollard, for instance, that man's features split-apart and realigned across the canvas surface, each plane here intersects with the others to make up Stein's "portrait" of Matisse, who both is and is not here.

Hearing Stein read out loud, as opposed to reading her on the page, we cannot help but be carried along, keep going. And when a passage, such as the following from Tender Buttons, doesn't make "sense" so be it, we can't stop so we have somehow to accept it, just listen:


A shining indication of yellow consists in there having been more of the same color than could have been expected when all four were bought. This was the hope which made the six and seven have no use for any more places and this necessarily spread into nothing. Spread into nothing. [8]

And then, perhaps, we start to relax. If this isn't what we've been led to expect writing will do, here Stein is, doing just this, and we begin to accept it as a possible kind of discourse, one that makes its own sense, though not the sense we are used to hearing every day:


Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers.

A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let (476).

At the same time, reading through an extended passage from Tender Buttons, we can't help but lose the track, because Stein's writing both does and does not make sense. I know for example that a "tumbler" -- as the full um-plus-bl sound of the word suggests -- is a kind of large glass (I have a shelf of them in the kitchen), but why then "little bit" before it? "Shining" goes with "tumbler"/glass, and in a different way with "indication of yellow," which might also suggest a slice of lemon or the peel; is this a drink she's talking about, then? "All four," too, seems to suggest four glasses, but what comes before doesn't quite compute: "consists in there having been more of the same color than could have been expected when." Who or what are "the six and seven" --people? glasses? -- "places" set at the table? "spread" as tablecloth? or the table itself? And what was it that "Spread into nothing," itself another echo between this and the first piece in Tender Buttons, "A CARAFFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS [e.g., tumbler], which ends, "The difference is spreading" (461).

Throughout Tender Buttons, we come face to face with words cut loose from their moorings as signifiers set in syntactic frames designed to make sense. Minus that operation of a ready means by which to leap from words to the world, our desire to make sense of what we read -- to find, determine, and make meaning, whether it has "meaning" or not -- is here pushed to an extreme. Stein's language here doesn't invite us to transfer our attention from words -- on the page and in the air -- to what those words denote or connote. Because she keeps interrupting the patterns of meaning she starts to build up, as if substituting into one context a vocabulary from another that doesn't fit ("it is so easy to exchange meaning," she writes in "ROASTBEEF"), the pieces in Tender Buttons keep making sense that keeps breaking off, shifting into other frames of reference, or "planes" if we view these compositions in terms of the paintings by Cézanne and Picasso that in fact helped to suggest their possibility. And so what we find in a piece like this,


A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive (473).

is not the text pointing through its words to the world, but the text making the world out of its words -- a world whose patterns, connections and "readability" have been transcribed as the grammar of its landscape, made present literally in a syntax whose shape and direction are set before us as if for the first time, unmediated it seems by any writer. Which is an illusion of course, because Stein she was there, wrote these words which we now read -- each word itself "shining" its particular (peculiar) meaning, meaning what it says:

Any time there is a surface there is a surface and every time there is a suggestion there is a suggestion and every time there is silence there is silence and every time that is languid there is that there then and not oftener, not always, not particular, tender and changing and external and central and surrounded and singular and simple and the same and the surface and the circle and the shine and the succor and the white and the same and the better and the red and the same and the centre and the yellow and the tender and the better, and altogether ("Roastbeef" 478).


1. Ulla Dydo, ed., A Stein Reader (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993) 151. Everything Dydo writes about Stein is worth reading -- this, for example: "She attempted to work with a sense of language prior to codified syntax and usage in order to recover the sensation of life. As a result, her work sounds and looks unfamiliar and unidiomatic. She forces us to read and see anew with each new piece, sometimes appearing to write in a foreign language which yet turns out to be English. Her language constantly calls attention to itself -- to what it is rather than to what it represents. Her word pattersn, which do not match our constructive expectations and refuse to be pinned down, appear unstable. Like the glass bits in a kaleidoscope, they constantly move, combining and recombining steadily in new patterns. Since the forms of her work offer no familiar access to the world, they place in doubt the coherence of the world, the authority of language, the possibility of representation." "Reading the Hand Writing: The Manuscripts of Gertrude Stein," A Gertrude Stein Companion: content with the example ed. Bruce Kellner (New York, Westport, CT, London: Greenwood Press, 1988) 84.

2. "Gertrude Stein: Composition as Meditation," Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (New York: Macmillan Press, 198?) 42.

3. "Words As Pieces Words In Pieces," West Coast Line: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Criticism 3 (1990): 30.

4. Gertrude Stein, "Portraits and Repetition," Writings and Lectures 1909-1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1971) 107.

5. Gertrude Stein, "Melanctha," Three Lives (New York: Vintage) 394.

6. Dydo, Reader 568.

7. Stein, "Matisse," Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1974) 329.

8. Stein, "Tender Buttons," Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1974) 472.