the sacred fount, reduced

“Gertrude Stein was a great reader. In novels, Henry James’s for instance, characters talk, and in their nuances lurk the subtlest intricacies of the author’s web. Imagine a text of a novel, say James’s The Sacred Fount (1901), from which everything has been extracted except the dialogue.”

(Guy Davenport, “Late Gertrude,” p. 189 in The Hunter Gracchus)

Following Guy Davenport’s suggestion, here’s a version of Henry James’s The Sacred Fount from which everything has been extracted except the dialogue. A print-on-demand version can be purchased at Lulu; or, download a PDF version for free.

cavell on stein

“This recent conjunction of ideas of the diurnal, of weddedness as a mode of intimacy, and of the projection of a metaphysics of repetition, sets me musing on an old suggestion I took away from reading in Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. She speaks, I seem to recall, to the effect that the knowledge of others depends upon an appreciation of their repeatings (which is what we are, which is what we have to offer). This knowing of others as knowing what they are always saying and believing and doing would, naturally, be Stein’s description of, or direction for, how her reader is to know her own most famous manner of writing, the hallmark of which is its repeatings. The application of this thought here is the suggestion that marriage is an emblem of the knowledge of others not solely because of its implication of reciprocity but because it implies a devotion in repetition, to dailiness. ‘The little life of the everyday’ is the wife’s description of marriage in The Children of Paradise, as she wonders how marriage can be a match for the romantic glamour of distance and drama. A relationship ‘grown sick with obligations’ is the way Amanda Bonner describes a marriage that cannot maintain reciprocity – what she calls mutuality in everything. (This is a promissory remark to myself to go back to Stein’s work. But the gratitude I feel to it now should be expressed now, before looking it up, because it comes from a memory of the work as providing one of those nightsounds or daydrifts of mood whose orientation has more than once prevented a good intuition from getting lost. This is not unlike a characteristic indebtedness one acquires to films. It is just such a precious help that is easiest to take from a writer without saying thanks – and not, perhaps, because one grudges the thanks but because one awaits an occasion for giving it which never quite seems to name itself.)”

(Stanley Cavell, “The Same and Different: The Awful Truth,” p. 177 in The Cavell Reader.)

alice b. toklas, “what is remembered”

Alice B. Toklas 
What Is Remembered
(Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1963)

Back to Gertrude Stein: though I’ve read her memoirs-as-cookbooks, I hadn’t previously gotten around to this, Alice Toklas’s memoir-as-a-memoir. The voice here is strange: it seems familiar, of course, from Stein’s imitation of it in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas where she’s describing many of the same scenes. This feels almost like an echo: at times its hard to tell if what the reader is receiving is a memory or a memory of Stein’s book. But it’s hard to tell where this voice comes from: Stein’s has been inflected on it, and sometimes Toklas’s is almost indistinguishable from Stein’s. Here, for example, is the last paragraph of of a chapter where Alice casually dismisses her roommate Harriet Levy’s religious crisis:

Sarah Stein now told Gertrude of her giving up the spiritual case of Harriet. They thought David Edstrom should undertake the case. David Edstrom was a good-looking young Swedish sculptor. He had not known anything like Harriet before, though he had known many American women in Florence where he had lived for several years. He soon told Gertrude lively stories of Harriet’s spiritual life. (p. 39)

That comma presumably wouldn’t be in Stein’s version of this paragraph: but the narration in the simple past tense slightly modified (“now told,” “soon told”), the generally simple sentences, the parallelism that begins and ends it (“Sarah Stein now told Gertrude,” “He soon told Gertrude”; “he had not known,” “he had known”) and repetitions (“David Edstrom”) and variations (“spiritual case of Harriet,” “Harriet’s spiritual life”) are familiar enough that one might almost think of this paragraph as a pastiche. But then a few pages later something like this appears, a voice which seems entirely different:

The winter commenced gaily. Gertrude during this winter diagnosed me as an old maid mermaid which I resented, the old maid was bad enough but the mermaid was quite unbearable. I cannot remember how this wore thin and finally blew away entirely. But by the time the buttercups were in bloom, the old maid mermaid had gone into oblivion and I had been gathering wild violets. The lilies of the valley, forget-me-nots and hyacinths we gathered in the forest of Saint-Germain were more delicately colored than those of California, which were more robust and even more fragrant. (p. 44)

There are differences in emphasis, of course: Hemingway only appears glancingly here, and there’s more Matisse and less Picasso. There are less celebrities in general: this is largely about Gertrude. Tchelichev is dismissed a sentence after he appears; but she will admit to liking René Crevel. The appeal of Francis Rose isn’t really explained here either. (“Georges [Hugnet] spoke slightingly of Francis. One did not blame him, Francis was a very difficult guest.”) And we do learn that though Gertrude never met Jane Bowles, she did meet Alice in Paris after Gertrude’s death. There’s surprisingly little about Stein’s books, especially in comparison to Stein’s memoirs. The American trip, fretted over by Stein in Everybody’s Autobiography, is here a complete triumph; World War II passes quickly, and Toklas’s account is close to Stein’s, if not quite as breathless. 

Things do leak out, of course, that wouldn’t be in Gertrude Stein’s account: she wouldn’t mention, for example, that Sarah Stein became a Christian Scientist. Arthur Cravan shows up as “Craven . . . a very handsome Englishman who wrote a pamphlet on the salon paintings that caused a scandal and who boxed for pleasure” (p. 76). And there are minor revelations, like the appearance of this telephone:

After only a week in Paris, Ada returned to London and I went to the plays of Bernstein in which Guitry père performed. In one of them I saw one of the first portable telephones. Before that, they had always been attached to the wall. The audience buzzed with excitement as the curtain went up and revealed it. The acting was as brilliant as the lines. (p. 46)

Presumably what is being described is a table-top telephone; though of course a telephone wouldn’t seem to be particularly functional in a play, at one point it must have been new enough to cause excitement, something which must have seemed impossibly foreign in 1963. An anecdote which seems like it has to be related to Duchamp, though there’s precious little context for it: 

[Miss Blood] asked [Picasso] what he considered his contribution to painting. He said, Je suis le bec Auer, a gas mantle. (p. 55)

I will assume that some assiduous art historian has tracked down the provenance of this quote and whether or not it has anything to do with Étant donnés.

And occasional moments of a relationship stand out: here, for example, Alice is made extremely unhappy by the weather at Saint-Rémy:

But Gertrude had written so well there, and so happily, and so much, that I made up my mind I would behave and not complain. (p. 122)

Here as elsewhere in the book there’s an enormous fealty to the figure of Gertrude Stein. After a perfunctory recitation of Alice’s life before meeting Gertrude, What Is Remembered is less an autobiography than it is a memoir of Alice’s time with her. The book contains a number of illustrations of Gertrude Stein in a variety of formats; there are plenty of photographs of the pair together. Only two photos in the book are of Alice alone; the first is one of a pair by Carl Van Vechten of her and Gertrude, the second by Ettore Sottsass (!), is of her alone in the rue Christine in 1951. The book ends precisely at Gertrude’s death in 1946, though it was published in 1963. There’s not as much retrospective analysis here as one might hope: the title doesn’t overpromise. The book functions as a counterpart to Stein’s three autobiographies: it can be read against those, perhaps as a corrective, but Toklas here seems uninterested in talking about anything else. It’s hard not to psychologize: clearly, this is a gesture of love, but there’s a self abnegation that’s almost too much to take. 

james r. mellow, “a charmed circle”

James R. Mellow
Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company
(Praeger, 1974)

I dug this book out of the basement of the Strand where the literary criticism now lives; I felt like maybe a proper bio of Gertrude Stein was in order, and everyone seemed to like this one. It’s a pleasant book: it’s hard for me not to like reading about Gertrude Stein & the old familiar story of how Modernism happened. Having just spent time with the later David Markson books, it’s entertaining to find a number of his anecdotes about Stein in very similar wording here: there’s always a frisson at the feeling of walking in another’s footsteps. Markson doesn’t seem to have liked Stein for whatever reason; I do, though I wonder how much her life gets in the way of her work. Going to the biography isn’t the best response to that, but maybe it’s a way in.

Mellow’s reading of her work is almost entirely biographical: figures and events in her life that can be mapped to her work are. Conversely, more abstract texts seem to largely not figure in Mellow’s reading; this book is first and foremost a biography, not an overview of her work. The Making of Americans, for example, gets short shrift, except in how it can be read as a Stein family history. Mellow can be most usefully read against her autobiographies: he finds and notes inconsistencies with the historical record. One starts to wonder then why Stein had her start as a fiction writer: was it simply that fiction was the easiest way into being “literary”? That poetry could be too easily ignored? Stein would seem to be read far more often as poetry than as fiction now; but here she is most often cast as a cryptic autobiographer. 

As familiar as her life is, there are still occasional surprises: her plan to co-author a biography of Ulysses S. Grant with Sherwood Anderson, for example. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was evidently translated into Italian by Cesare Pavese, who also translated Moby-Dick: is it possible that Pavese was so little known in this country in 1977 that his name should be misspelled twice? (My copy is the original hard cover edition; presumably this was corrected in reprintings.) And it’s odd to think of Matisse visiting New York, though I must have known that he had been in this country to install his murals at the Barnes Foundation. Buckminster Fuller, it appears, showed up to the premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts in his Dymaxion car. Carl Van Vechten proposed a film version of the Autobiography.

But beyond trivia, Gertrude and Alice are, of course, fantastic characters; that accounts for a great deal of my interest in reading about them. This could almost be lifted straight from Two Serious Ladies if the names were changed:

Gertrude was to display certain peculiarities as a driver; she could go forward admirably, but she shunned reverse. This necessitated an uncompromising attitude in the matter of parking – which frequently meant directly in the path of other parked vehicles. It was on the question of parking and refusing to back up that Gertrude and Alice had their only violent arguments on the subject of driving. There were those, however, who maintained that even Gertrude’s forward driving could present certain hazards. She had the habit of conversation, and to her passengers it often seemed Gertrude did not pay sufficient attention to the road. This frequently made riding with her invigorating; her brisk turns could sometimes be hair-raising. She did not like to drive at night but often was obliged to because she did not always believe in road signs and thought road maps and predesigned routes hampering to her freedom of action. She preferred trust to instinct. (p. 228)

Most of the characters in this book are fairly familiar: first, from Stein’s accounts, which in style make the biographer’s task more difficult, but also from Malcolm Cowley in Exile’s Return, Robert McAlmon & Kay Boyle’s Being Geniuses Together, William Carlos William’s autobiography, Samuel Putnam’s Paris Was Our Mistress, Hemingway’s thing. I still haven’t gotten around to Matthew Josephson’s memoirs, though I probably should. There are more, of course. American ex-pats in Paris have been covered exhaustively. We know how Gertrude and Alice behaved. It’s the character of Leo Stein here who’s most weirdly intriguing; Leo Stein is so ignored that his poorly-edited Wikipedia entry makes it sound like he was living, and then had a “romance-induced conflict” with his cousin Fred. He’s also distinguished there from “Leo Stein (writer)“, which would smart were he still alive. Leo seems roughly analogous to the figure of Harry Crosby at the end of Exile’s Return, the figure with enormous potential who couldn’t settle on one thing long enough to make a mark, always thought of as smart but jealous of his little sister’s success. One doesn’t feel sorry for him particularly; but it’s a chastening narrative. After Gertrude makes it with her Autobiography, he becomes a heel: “Practically everything that she says of our activities before 1911 . . . is false in fact and implication, but one of her radical complexes, of which I believe you [Mabel Weeks] know something, made it necessary practically to eliminate me.” (p. 356) After that, no more is heard from until he dies. 

A puzzling question that isn’t directly addressed by this book is exactly what happened to Gertrude Stein later in life: how her taste seems to falter late in life. Her right-wing politics before World War II maybe aren’t that surprising : but it’s still astonishing to see the New York Times interview from May 6, 1934 where she explains that Hitler should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her lasting friendship with Bernard Faÿ, who would become a collaborationist, also puzzles: what exactly was the appeal of the man? His introduction to the abridged Making of Americans sells her short; it’s odd that she kept him on, especially when she was breaking with so many other friends. Her later taste in artists confuses as well; some of this can be seen from reading Everybody’s Autobiography against Alice B. Toklas. Thornton Wilder isn’t quite Hemingway or Fitzgerald. She starts liking Francis Picabia precisely at the point where most people stop liking him; she takes up, and drops, Pavel Tchelitchev and the Neo-Romantics, who are probably in need of a critical reappraisal anyway. Why in the world did she like Francis Rose? Here he’s only introduced after the first Autobiography; evidently he wrote a memoir of his own, which might be worth looking into, but why Gertrude Stein, seemingly alone in the world, should like Francis Rose’s paintings is entirely unclear. Her later writing doesn’t drop off, at least to my mind; but there is something odd about this, perhaps the subject for another book; maybe Leo Stein comes into that book, though probably not.

now give me one on the jaw!

“Moreover, she seems to have had some worries about her health. After Leo’s departure, Gertrude moved to another house, on East Eager Street in Baltimore. Emma Lootz, a classmate at Johns Hopkins and a mutual friend of Mabel Weeks, had a room directly below Gertrude’s large living room. She recalled that Gertrude ‘got alarmed’ about the state of her own health, feeling that there was something wrong with her blood. Gertrude prescribed an unusual treatment for herself; she hired a welterweight to box with her. ‘The chandelier in my room used to swing,’ Emma Lootz remembered, ‘and the house echoed with shouts of ‘Now give me one on the jaw! Now give me one in the kidney!’ ”

(James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company, pp. 44–45.)


“The thing is like this, it is all the question of identity. It is all a question of the outside being outside and the inside being inside. As long as the outside does not put a value on you it remain outside but when it does put a value on you then it gets inside or rather if the outside puts a value on you then all your inside gets to be outside. I used to tell all the men who were being successful young how bad this was for them and then I who was no longer young was having it happen. “

(Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography, p. 48)

some one is listening while they are talking

“Nothing makes any difference as long as some one is listening while they are talking. If the same person does the talking and the listening why so much the better there is just by so much the greater concentration. One may really indeed say that that is the essence of genius, of being most intensely alive, that is being one who is at the same time talking and listening. It is really that that makes one a genius. And it is necessary to be at once talking and listening, doing both things, not as if there were one thing, not as if they were two things, but doing them, well if you like, like the motor going inside and the car moving, they are part of the same thing.”

(Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, “Portraits and Repetition,” p. 170. )

a list

Martha.     A list.

Maryas.     A list.

Marius.     A list.


Maryas.     A list.


Maryas.     A list lost.

Martha.     A list lost reminds her of a fire lost. Smoke is not black nor if you turn your back is a fire burned if you are near woods which abundantly supply wood.

Maryas.     A list lost does not account for the list which has been lost nor for the inequality of cushions shawls and awls. Nowadays we rarely mention awls and shawls and yet an awl is still used commercially and a shawl is still used is still used and also used commercially. Shawls it may be mentioned depend upon their variety. There is a great variety in calculation and in earning.

Marius.     A list.

Mabel.       A list.

Martha.     A list.

Martha.     There is great variety in the settlement of claims. We claim and you claim and I claim the same.

Martha.     A list.

Maryas.     And a list.

Mabel.       I have also had great pleasure from a capital letter.

Martha.     And forget her.

Maryas.     And respect him.

Marius.     And neglect them.

Mabel.       And they collect them as lilies of the valley in this country.

Martha.     A list.

(Gertrude Stein, from “A List,” p. 401 in Ulla Dydo’s A Stein Reader. Cited in William Gass’s “I’ve Got a Little List”.)