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Couple Good’uns for Gertrude Stein
Speaking of Stein, did you see this piece in the New Yorker the other day? Adam Gopnik opens with his version of a Stein graph, noting that it’s “is a demonstration not just of how infectious Gertrude Stein’s style is but also of how much it runs into Ernest Hemingway’s slightly more self-consciously crooning and acidic one.” More on the distinctive style of Gertrude:
I hope, too, it suggests the kinds of truths that Stein’s peculiar style supports. All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple. (E. B. White and Robert Frost were neither of them the simple Yankees their styles liked to intimate, but both were more like simple Yankees than Stein was ever like a simple San Franciscan, or a simple anything.) Stein’s style is to writing what sushi is to cooking—not so much an example as a repudiation of the whole idea that still manages to serve the original function.
In truth, though, her style is more coherent and “ordinary” than it can seem, in part because a lot of its effect is achieved by the ridiculously straightforward device of removing normal punctuation. In writing, our sensitivity to small sounds is such that a minute alteration in decorum can have a very big effect on tone. The New Yorker reporter-poet Joseph Mitchell, for instance, searching for a plain style, often eliminated the normal contractions we use in English, so that every “It’s” became an “It is” and every “He’s” a “He is,” and suddenly a note of somber gravity exuded from his most basic declarative sentences. Stein achieves a similarly large and uncanny effect just by omitting commas—there are maybe a dozen in the whole of “Paris France.” As a result, any sentence, no matter how many qualifications it contains, is almost always written by Stein in commaless, undivided form. This makes her thoughts seem plain even when they are very fancy. Reading Stein is a bit like reading Emily Dickinson before punctuation got imposed on her: both claim, in every sense, our undivided attention. Many of Stein’s sentences can even be made to look normal just by punctuating them normally. “It is nice in France they adapt themselves to everything slowly they change completely but all the time they know that they are as they were.” Simply inserting a period after the first five words and a dash after the next six makes the writing seem much less eccentric: “It is nice in France. They adapt themselves to everything slowly—they change completely but, all the time, they know that they are as they were.” And then there is also the monosyllabic vocabulary—“I like words of one syllable,” she tells us, but has no need to tell us—and the lovable weakness for ordinary American idioms, as in her famous assignment of Paris as her “home town.”
Read all of “Understanding Steinese.”