MEMO / RE: Reading Stein
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."
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.
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."  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. 
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"
 -- 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 you...no 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
"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
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. 
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
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
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 LITTLE BIT OF A TUMBLER
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. 
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:
THIS IS THE DRESS, AIDER
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"
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,
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):
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,
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