speaking of Stein

Here's Janet Malcolm, dismissing an early biographer of Gertrude Stein:

“[Elizabeth] Sprigge was a woman of her time, which may not have been the best time to be a woman. ... She is flirtatious, pleased with herself and given to exclaiming over the beauty of Paris and writing down everything she ate (‘a very chic sandwich with soft black bread and veal on the terrasse at Webers’). ... She refuses the role of the quietly treacherous interviewer, preferring to remain the spunky heroine of her own drama.”

The passage is quoted from Malcolm's new book about Stein and Alice B. Toklas (it's called Two Lives) as reviewed by Katie Roiphe in this week's New York Times Book Review. Roiphe opens this way: "One would not naturally pair Janet Malcolm, a clear, analytic writer, with Gertrude Stein and her modernist shenanigans."

William Carlos Williams was right in 1951 to wonder "Why...have we not heard more generally from American scholars upon the writings of Miss Stein? Is it lack of heart or ability or just that theirs is an enthusiasm which fades rapidly of its own nature before the risks of today?" Williams was probably referring to Louise Bogan's selectively antimodernist Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950, that comprehensive book in which Stein is given one paragraph. A little later, in 1954, in Grant Knight's 229-page survey of literature in the century's first fifteen years, Stein is mentioned in just one sentence.

In the book-length attack on Stein published in this period by a man named B. L. Reid, Stein's problems were reduced to the neurotic and the unAmerican. Her talk of war as a dance evinces signs of insanity--of "monumental detachment." Because she liked to arrange buttons, she could be said, like lunatics, to have "enormous patience with triviality."

In 1956, reviewing the Yale edition of Stanzas in Meditation, Karl Shapiro concluded that Stein was not properly understood as the obscure poet; the better Stein--the Stein now to be preferred--was the poet who "turned to writing about historical relations." He actually said: "[Stein] was on bad terms with the Imagination."

Then there's Stephen Spender, in a typically standoffish, skeptical review of Elizabeth Sprigge's 1957 biography--the same biography Roiphe is pleased to say Janet Malcolm mocks. Spender had much to criticize in Sprigge, yet at least he praised Stein in a way that stressed the possible, the local, the unabstract, the bodily: she was no longer to be deemed "a genius of invention" but rather a figure of "a good deal of inertia" whose talent lay in "her ability to stay put and hang on" - language that all but undoes newness (and expatriation). Spender wrote: "She had a certain massive, weighted-down greatness."

Beginning in the early 50s and continuing more or less to the present day, mainstream reviewers have tended to look away from the problem of language, focusing rather on domestic particulars. Roiphe seems delighted now that Janet Malcolm’s "concern isn’t so much Stein’s stylistic innovation as the construction of her life and reputation."