Forty years ago, during my last semesters of college, I wrote a senior thesis on Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans, which I read in the context of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I had concentrated in philosophy at Harvard even though my interests were primarily literature and art (poetics and aesthetics). I didn’t know anyone who had read Stein but was surrounded by philosophers deeply engaged with Wittgenstein. Still, I saw two key issues that Stein addressed in her early work that related to the philosophical problems that echoed through Emerson Hall, where Stein herself had studied with William James.
Throughout The Making of Americans, Stein confronts the problem of what she calls “the real thing of disillusionment”: a sense of being a stranger, queer, to those around her; the sinking feeling that one is not, and perhaps cannot be, understood, that drives you to cry out in pain that you write for “yourself and strangers,” in Stein’s famous phrase. Stein’s formulations struck me as being connected to the problem of other minds, or skepticism, a virtual obsession of Stanley Cavell in those years. It seemed to me that Stein and Wittgenstein had crafted a related response to skepticism.
The related philosophical issue that Stein’s work addresses is the nature of meaning and reference in verbal language: how words refer to objects in the external world. Both Wittgenstein and Stein dramatize the breakdown of a one-to-one correspondence between word and object. They are both averse to the conception that words are akin to names or labels and that meaning is grounded in a verbal mapping of a fully constituted external world. What do words or phrases designate? This goes beyond the issue of private language, which has dogged the interpretation of Stein’s work. The problem of where the pain is when pain is expressed opens up for Wittgenstein and his interpreters (for me primarily Rogers Albritton and Cavell) a more general problem of the nature of reference, designation, and naming for such intangibles as (in Stein’s words) “thinking, believing, seeing, understanding.” I felt, still do, that this philosophical conundrum directly bears on the meaning and reference of not just words or phrases in poems but of poems themselves, which certainly mean, designate, and express, but do not necessarily refer to “things,” if things are assumed to be already existing and named objects. I am not satisfied with the argument I make about the nature of reference in the final sections of The Making of Americans and Tender Buttons, where Stein invented a compositional method that I call “wordness.” Still, despite the manifest shortcomings of this work, it locates some ongoing problems that remain to be addressed, both in terms of a full-scale reading of The Making of Americans and a more technically robust account of reference in works such as Tender Buttons.
Looking back, I am aware of how circumscribed my frame of reference was in 1971. I am content here to play straight man (third Stein) to Stein and Wittgenstein, those diaphanously queer, secular Jews born just fifteen years apart.
Over the past several years, Gertrude Stein’s war time record has been subjected to a stream of misinterpretations, distortions, and disinformation in the mainstream press. Most of these articles are written by authors who are hostile to Stein's literary works and who admit to their inability (and unwillingness) to read her work, including the works by Stein that directly address the issue at hand. In this Stein dossier, key documents are provided that refute the sensational tabloid accounts of Stein's activities, views, and affiliations during the war years, when she and Alice B. Toklas lived in Bilignin, France (near Lyon and Geneva). Stein's connection to the Vichy government is complex and these complexities are fully explored in the essays and articles linked here.
Edward Burns, in his essay published for the first time as part of this dossier, writes that “the translation of Pétain’s speeches has preoccupied Stein’s detractors in recent years; they have used it as the wedge (along with a clearly ironic remark about Hitler’s deserving the Nobel Peace Prize) to denounce her — the denunciation by extension extends to her literary works.
A version of this paper by Edward Burns, titled “So I Went on Looking at Pictures: Gertrude Stein’s Last Decade,” was delivered as part of Sundays at the Met, April 29, 2012, in conjunction with the exhibition The Steins Collect.
Jackson Mac Low made available several sections of his Stein series on his EPC page. I sometimes introduce my students to this series by reading and discussing with them number 7, titled “Very Pleasant Soiling.” Mac Low’s notes, as usual, describe the process by which this (and other) pieces in the series were composed:
If the speed is open, if the color is careless, if the selection of a strong scent is not awkward, if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color, not any color. If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing.
This is no dark custom and it even is not acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread. That is spread, it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the center is in standing.
Jules most recently wrote about poetry, dissent, and the Olympics, and in this capacity, the late South African poet Dennis Brutus was legendary. Despite the fact Brutus said he was “never a good athlete,” he turned to sports as a focus for his activism (“I was reasonably good at organizing,” he explained), and began organizing sports competitions in the 1940s at the high school where he taught (Brutus 38). Through his affiliation with a number of anti-apartheid activists, he homed in on the Olympics with his sports-organizing talents, finding a contradiction between the Olympic charter (which forbade racial discrimination by participating countries) and the apartheid government of South Africa.
On October 11, 1990, Jackson Mac Low read from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons for seven minutes. You'll hear the voice of Charles Bernstein as he and others (members of Bernstein's class at Buffalo at the time) scramble to find a copy of the Stein. Then Mac Low spent a few minutes discussing the "Objects" section.
Compare two reviews of Alfred Kreymborg's Troubador, a chatty group-bio/memoir of the high-flying modernists of Europe and New York in the late 1910s and early '20s. One is Gertrude Stein's book review published in Ex Libris, a magazine put out in Paris. The other, written by Mark Van Doren, was published in the Nation. For a clearer view of the review as it appeared in print, click here.