Stein is Nice

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Editor: Carol T. Gaffke
Date: 1997
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 18)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 3,807 words

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[In the following excerpt, Koestenbaum describes Stein's poetry as having appealing qualities of indefiniteness and as producing a liberating effect through its lack of focus and disregard of generic restrictions.]


Reading Gertrude Stein takes enormous patience. The skeptical reader might wonder: What if Stein is not worth this level of attentiveness? What if her writing doesn't reward close scrutiny?

Ask of your own life the same hard question: What if you stare fervently into your own mind and discover nothing there?

Stein insists that we enlarge our capacities—even if the enterprise turns out to be bankrupt. Reading Stein, we imagine a literature, a cognition, that demands inordinate latitude and longitude; we hypothesize a literature as vast and self-sufficient as she imagined hers to be. Whether or not Stein achieved it, by reading her we are postulating the existence of such a spacious poetics; we are bringing such a poetics into being, even if it only exists in the form of the ambitions we attribute to Stein, the fealty that she requires of us, the expectations that she arouses and then excuses. Reading Stein is a process of having desire excited and then forgiven: She says, you wanted a literature as huge and undetermined as the one I am offering you. I forgive you for the hedonism and the hubris of that wish.

Be nice to Stein; you will thereby learn to be tolerant of your own Steinian voracity—a hunger for sentences, a dissatisfaction with every extant sentence except those that you invented, an intolerance for any sentence that you are not in the midst of writing.


Much of Stein's work remains unread, classified as unreadable. Three recent offerings begin to change this picture: Ulla E. Dydo's masterful compilation of largely forgotten Stein pieces, A Stein Reader, in a handsome purple-covered paperback from Northwestern University Press, complete with detailed headnotes but, mercifully, no footnotes; Sun & Moon's pristine ivory-covered reissue of Stanzas in Meditation; and Dalkey Archive Press's reissue of A Novel of Thank You, with an illuminating introduction by critic Steven Meyer. Dydo has criticized Sun & Moon for reprinting what she calls, with reason, a “corrupt” text of the “Stanzas”—a revised version, in which, at the insistence of Alice B. Toklas, Stein removed and disguised the many occurrences of the word “may,” which apparently were oblique references to Stein's former lover May Bookstaver. Though I look forward to an edition of the “original” “Stanzas,” with all the “Mays” intact, I am nonetheless grateful to have this reprint of the 1956 Yale University Press edition, which John Ashbery, among others, read, and which therefore has a certain literary-historical importance, whatever its textual inconsistencies.

The reappearance, in the last two years, of these major Stein works (more are forthcoming: Sun & Moon promises the publication of Stein's magnum opus, the thousand-page The Making of Americans) means that the odd Stein, not the Stein of the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but the defiant Baby Woojums of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420020043