Composition as Explanation is an artful blend of literary theory, historical commentary, and personal confession. Delivered originally as a lecture to students at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in 1926, it is one of the first attempts by Stein to explain her method of composition. The essay represents one of the most candid attempts by a writer to communicate the struggle to write to an audience of strangers. As in all of Stein’s writing, her sentences refuse to be pinned down and yield new insights with each reading.

The essay begins haltingly, in the manner of a speaker searching for the precise location of her subject. Part of what Stein seeks to communicate, however, is the struggle to give voice to ideas; thus, her sentences echo this struggle. Thoughts are ungraspable, and Stein’s halting manner of writing should not be mistaken for clumsiness. To express herself too coherently would be to make the subject of writing too simple and rational. Her words in this essay are best understood if read aloud, as they follow so closely the circular movements of her inner voice. The essential ideas of Composition as Explanation, like most of Stein’s thinking, rest firmly in common sense and literary experience. Ideas, she suggests, can never be finished, and Stein gets greater range from her thoughts by playing with them, turning them around, and then starting them again from the beginning.

The world...

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