“Why is Gertrude Stein So Important?” was the title of one panel at the American Literature Association last weekend, with an entire day of panels on Stein. I was invited to talk about her murder mystery “Blood on the Dining-Room Floor” which I had translated into German (“keine keiner. Ein Kriminalroman). You might be surprised — and Stein herself would have been surprised — that this was her maiden voyage into the ivory tour of the ALA. Yes, for the first time, Stein was “important” enough to get all those panels at the ALA. She always wanted to be “historical”, and now she was, in a new way, with a brand-new Gertrude Stein Society created in her honor that same day! 11 professors, some of them star experts on Stein (Marjorie Perloff, Joan Retallack), plus an artist from Australia, and an “independent scholar” — me. Why now? Why so late? you will ask.
The consensus about it was shocking. Whereas Stein is ever present in our world and everybody who is anybody quotes her with a rose or two and no there there, etc., in academe she is still considered an outsider, too far afield, too far ahead, to be studied like Joyce or Pound of Hemingway. Who is afraid of Gertrude Stein? you may ask. Is she the author of masterpieces or of “unreadable monsters” (Joan Retallack)?
The fact that her work is so monumental doesn’t help: who is to say what in the mass of her writing is brilliant and what is not? There is a general fear of criticizing what is hard to understand to begin with. At the same time it is a heresy to admit not having read through the “big book” of almost one thousand pages, The Making of Americans. But Marjorie Perloff bravely admitted to the crime — and I happily join her. But then there was the outsider, the German artist from Australia, Gisela Zuchner-Mogall, who had hand-copied the entire “big book” into multi-layered pages of text which she showed on Power Point and on paper — a text that turns beautifully absurd and utterly unreadable (you can see it on her website; in the photo, she is on the left; on the right, Prof. Kelly Conelly).
Among these topics of talks and discussions arose the question of how to bring young students around to reading Stein?
I had a suggestion for them: encourage students to read Stein “outside the text”: explore the context; bring them into her life story, send them on a pilgrimage to Paris, to 27 Rue de Fleurus, the salon with the scandalous paintings. Get them to Bilignin, the country house (“A house in the country is not the same as a country house,” as she instructs us on page 1 of “Blood on the Dining-Room Floor”). Study her photographs, the Cubist paintings of her time. And, I said, make them listen to Stein’s recordings: she reads her own texts like rap poetry. (You can find the recording on my She Writes page.) Tell them she’s the first Rapper of modernism!
Not too likely, but the suggestion got a good laugh.