There is a general consensus that there are two Gertrude Steins: one readable, the other not. One easily accessible, the other not. I found this to be true and not true. Even her earliest work in fairly simple story-telling prose — stories like “Melanctha” of Three Lives (1903-1906)– felt to me at first like rock-climbing because of her uniquely strange, perilous way of using narrative. I am not just talking about repetitions and lack of punctuation. Rather about her revolutionary way of shifting perspectives multiple times in one paragraph or even a single sentence. Listen for a moment. “Melanctha sat there, by the fire, very quiet. The heat gave a pretty pink glow to her pale yellow and attractive face. Melanctha sat in a low chair, her hand, with their long, fluttering fingers, always ready to show her strong feeling, were lying quiet in her lap. Melanctha was very tired with her waiting for Jeff Campbell. She sat there very quiet and just watching. Jeff was a robust, dark, healthy, cheery negro. His hands were firm and kindly and unimpassioned. He touched women always with his big hands, like a brother. He always had a warm broad glow, like southern sunshine. He never had anything mysterious in him. He was open, he was pleasant, he was cheery, and always he wanted, as Melanctha once had wanted, always now he too wanted to really understand.”
This at first glance seems a rather straight-forward description of two characters (although odd enough to be sure to get a rejection letter from any editor, today just as it did back then). It takes a closer look, however, to detect the reasons for the oddity one feels reading this.
In Bruce Kellner’s A Gertrude Stein Companion (a brilliant, indispensable help for reading Stein) Marianne DeKoven lays bare the reasons. In her exciting essay, “Half In and Half Out of Doors: Gertrude Stein and Literary Tradition” she analyzes the shifts from outside to inside both characters’ consciousness, the alternating points of view: at first outside, then inside Melanctha, then to what she or (perhaps) anybody could observe about Jeff; to what only an omniscient narrator could know about him; to a “racist, condescending, patronizing position” that doesn’t reveal if it is the narrator’s detached point of vue or Melanctha’s judgment of Jeff. “Then, in mid-sentence, the narrative position shifts again, and the passage ends first partly then entirely inside Jeff’s consciousness: ‘and always he wanted, as Melanctha once had wanted, always now he too wanted really to understand.’”
After this fascinating analysis, DeKoven concludes: “This unfixed, shifting, multiple, fluid narrative position does, as Stein claimed in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, leave the nineteenth century entirely behind.” Stein was “already beyond modernism, deconstructing its boundaries…”
So much about the early, easy-to-read Stein. Stay tuned for the unreadable one.
(The post-modern treatment of the picture is owed to Stein collector Hans Gallas http://gertrudeandalice.com)