Gertrude Stein may be the only official member of “The Lost Generation” who has not been disemboweled by literary analysts. Stein’s circle-biographer James R. Mellow called it a “Charmed Circle” in the title of his 1974 book was not restricted to Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and other literati. Gertie, as she was known to some of her pals, also supped with Henri Mattisse and chummed around with Picasso.
Stein was, in a manner of speaking, a writer. For those who have been lucky enough to avoid her, ah-hem, prose, well, your time has run out, for here’s a sample, a random choice from page 345 of her novel The Making of Americans:
As I was saying there are two general kinds of them, the resisting, theattacking kind of them. There are two general kinds of them, there are many very many mixings in every one of some of all the kinds of them, in some of some of both the general kinds of them I know this now and now I will describe more of it.?
That sort of thing goes on for nearly 600 more pages. And it should be noted that the Stein oeuvre also includes other books, plays, essays, lectures, and sundry language agglomerations that issued from her pen. Stein’s celebrity is a perfect example of the adage, “It’s not what you know, but whom you know.” One of her “theoretical” books is titled How to Write. The mere thought of it provokes queasiness.
Given the times, it’s not particularly surprising to discover Stein as the subject for a scholar. In her The Structure of Obscurity Dr. Dubnick makes gestures at making Stein an artist in her own right, but she lapses back into a position wherein Stein’s buddies—Picasso and Braque—serve as supports. Dubnick’s objective is to make sense out of nonsense. Writing about Stein’s writing, Dubnick proclaims, “But one can say with more certainty that her obscurity was a necessary consequence of her innovative approach as she created two different types of obscurity.”
Oh, well. This sort of thing ought to get Dubnick a promotion. The really strange thing about Stein’s style is that she is reputed to have been a gifted conversationalist. The clarity and simplicity of her talk is supposed to have influenced Hemingway’s literary style. She may well illustrate—as Joyce does for Philip Larkin—the “declension from talent to absurdity.”