Gertrude Stein's Self-Advertisement

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Editor: Carol T. Gaffke
Date: 1997
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 18)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,640 words

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[In the following essay, Schultz discusses Stein's ruminations on her writing career in “Stanzas in Meditation” and her autobiographical prose works.]

I often think how celebrated I am. It is difficult not to think how celebrated I am. And if I think how celebrated I am They know who know that I am new That is I knew I know how celebrated I am And after all it astonishes even me. All this is to be for me.

Gertrude Stein defies the attempts we make at describing her career historically; the antihistorical historian par excellence, Stein wrote two autobiographies in 1932 alone. The first purports to be history, albeit the history of another's life; The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is one of Stein's most ostensibly accessible works. The second, “Stanzas in Meditation,” records the process of telling rather than offering us the tale itself. But the very accessibility of the Toklas autobiography tends to obscure its central sleight of hand, as well as its left hook at literary tradition, for Stein not only writes as her own muse—Alice B. Toklas—but she has Toklas perform a service quite different from that of the traditional muse. Conventionally, the muse has been at once the power behind the text and the text's best audience. But Stein's muse does not so much inspire as advertise her work; her muse promotes the text as a literary, not a spiritual, agent. Even more radically, the work that Stein has Toklas advertise is not the work that she finds herself “writing”; instead, it is the kind of experimental work that we find in “Stanzas in Meditation,” work that eschews the muse. Toklas, then, invites us to forget Toklas, just as Stein invites us to become one with Stein. The central subject of the second autobiography, like the first, is the question of audience: for whom is Stein writing, herself or someone else? To what extent can she become her own audience? To what extent does the equation of the artist with her audience obviate or exacerbate the modern artist's problem with audience? She poses these questions in both works, although her strategies are more radical in “Stanzas in Meditation.”

This doubling of concerns is only appropriate for an author as concerned with repetition and difference as Stein. Creation is for Stein tantamount to repetition since, lacking a muse apart from herself, Stein (at least figuratively) lacks a subject or an audience. Language becomes poetry, in Stein's experimental work, not because it names the world, but precisely because it refuses to do so, over and again. Surprisingly perhaps, Stein's poetics are radical for their very formalism; the text insists on its separateness from its possible subjects, not on its union with them. But Stein's formalism is not that of the New Critics; rather it seems closer to the self-reflexive formalism of her contemporary, Laura Riding, and to the unacknowledged formalism of contemporary language poets. Both Riding and the language poets write poems whose primary subject is the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007699