Stein believed that the struggle of thought to come to consciousness best revealed the shape and feel of human experience. In a career that spanned three decades, she sought to answer three questions: What is mind? What is writing? How are they connected? Her answers to these questions shattered the conventions of narrative writing and unsettled the reliance of fiction on character, description, and plot.
In her first book, Three Lives, about three working-class women in Baltimore, she endeavored to tell a traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end. She discovered, however, that by deliberately misplacing words she could evoke a continuous present in which the characters seemed to unfold before the reader’s eyes. One of the book’s stories, “Melanctha,” was considered an almost perfect example of the modern short story. Typically, though, Stein never repeated the effort. She sought new literary territory that not even she had visited before.
In her next work, The Making of Americans, about two American families, she slowly expanded her chronicle until it became a history of the whole of human endeavor. Through repeated rewritings, she discovered that by beginning again and again she could weave the past and future into a continuous present. The book swelled to almost a thousand pages. In the meantime, she began composing word portraits of the people around her, using everything she could collect from their lives. She sought to encompass every fact and detail, until she saw that, with enough detail, all differences began to blur; every person was unique and yet not unique.
After her second book, she abandoned traditional subject matter to explore the working of language. Words, she reasoned, were related to one another just as the shapes and forms were related in a cubist canvas. There was no need for words to copy life, as words possessed a life of their own. She shunned ready-made sentences in order to create sentences that no one had heard before.
In Stein’s view, words possessed an essential nature that was independent of their use in communication. Describing and explaining belonged to the nineteenth century; as a modernist, she wanted nothing to do with a past obsessed with class divisions, gentility, and linear reality.
She squeezed everything extraneous from her language and wrote in a deliberately primitive style that avoided any hint of history or place. She was not interested in finding her own voice; she wanted to be absent in her writing. She wanted a new prose that reached the limits of purity and innocence. She employed only simple nouns and verbs that had no associations other than their shape and sound on the page. By seeing words, she hoped, people could be made to see writing.
She employed a number of strategies to return words to their original purity. At Radcliffe, she had experimented with automatic writing, and she knew that sentences could be freed from the mind’s will. Many people explored automatic writing in the wake of World War I, but Stein would continue her explorations for the rest of her life. Her explorations were not aimless; she wished not to dehumanize language but to free it. Speech, especially American speech, was clear and distinctive, and she looked for ways of catching the rhythm of speech in her sentences. She found that if she played with the arrangement of words, she could display shades of thought and feeling struggling to be heard. By repeating a phrase over and over in a slightly altered form, she forced the reader to see that rhythm was as much a part of prose as it was of poetry.
Through constant, deliberate repetition, she produced a ballet of words that surveyed everything while staying motionless. Stein demonstrated that prose could achieve a sense of a continuous present and that stories could be told from a central vantage point, without motion and without reliance on plot, character, or scene.
Her modernist explorations did not rely on ancient mythology or obscure academic references but came purely from the senses. Abstract painting taught her to see and write abstractly, without reference to past memory or present identity. Flying for the first time in an airplane in 1935 above the Great Plains, she saw that it was the limitless American landscape that allowed Americans to conceive of writing as cubist, without beginning, middle, or end. The geography of her homeland thus allowed her to envision a new kind of writing based solely on design and form.
The results were exciting but also bewildering and boring, and much of her early work was ridiculed and parodied by reviewers. Her most personal work never found a wide audience; the average reader was in a hurry to discover meaning, whereas what Stein offered was design. Each of her sentences was meant to be an object of contemplation.
Stein’s writing falls into three groups. In the first are her relatively straightforward narratives and autobiographies: Three Lives (1909), The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), and Wars I Have Seen (1945). In a second group belong her self-explanatory works that describe and defend her method of writing: Composition as Explanation (1926), Lectures in America (1935), Narration: Four Lectures (1935), and What Are Masterpieces? (1940). The final group consists of her personal explorations of sound and meaning in prose that make up her still lifes, geographies, word portraits, plays, novels, and operas. By the 1930’s, she moved easily among all three.
Stein’s literary influence was also as a celebrity; her salon in Paris was a meeting place for some of the most creative minds of the twentieth century. One of her earliest friends was the youthful painter Pablo Picasso, whose portrait of her hung above her writing desk. As Picasso’s fame spread, so did Stein’s; twice she wrote word portraits of him, and eventually she wrote a book for an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. In championing modern art, Stein advertised herself. Modernism was the style and subject of her style, and as modernism spread to America after World War I, so did her fame and influence.
Perhaps her greatest influence was upon the prose of others. Many American and European writers sought her advice in the 1920’s, but her most eager student was Ernest Hemingway. She corrected Hemingway’s early manuscripts and urged him to abandon journalism to devote himself to fiction. From her, Hemingway learned the rhythms of modern prose and the truth that could be communicated in simple words. She became his teacher, and the cadence of her repetitive sentences echoes in some of Hemingway’s finest writing. The two wrote about different worlds but in a kindred manner. Hers was the domestic world of the kitchen and garden, while his was the self-consciously masculine world of war, hunting, and travel. Later they would feud in public, but their recriminations spoke to the closeness of their creative marriage. If Hemingway is responsible for the new clarity that invaded literature after World War I, then the muted cadences of his teacher can be heard in American writing to this day.
First published: 1909 (collected in Three Lives, 1909)
Type of work: Short story
A restless woman seeks insight into her sensual nature through a series of love affairs.
“Melanctha,” the central story in Three Lives, is considered one of the most original short stories of the twentieth century. By employing simple words to express complicated thoughts, Stein endowed ordinary people with a complex psychology that earlier writers had given only to characters of high social standing.
“Melanctha” tells the story of Melanctha Herbert, a beautiful, light-skinned black woman who struggles to comprehend her troubled, passionate...
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