The Making of Americans

by Gertrude Stein

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Critical Evaluation

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In the United States, Gertrude Stein is perhaps better known for her eccentric personality and her artistic relationships with Pablo Picasso, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway than for her own literary compositions. Stein’s encyclopedic novel, The Making of Americans, warrants, however, comparison with other modernist masterworks, such as Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (1938). In Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), Stein herself recognizes the significance of The Making of Americans and insists that “everybody ought to be reading at it or it.”

The Making of Americans has had a tortuous publishing history. Although Stein’s ambitious project was written and revised sporadically from 1903 to 1911, it was not published until 1924, when about 150 pages of it appeared in serial form in Ford Madox Ford’s Transatlantic Review. An abridged edition of 416 pages was published in 1934 and republished in 1966. Stein cited this abridged text during her tour of the American lecture circuits, and it offers the most readable text for students.

Those who have read The Making of Americans can understand an editor’s trepidation when confronted with Stein’s excessive book. Its tortuous publishing history is understandable. Its length aside, The Making of Americans does not progress according to a plot, but develops laterally by rhythm and repetition. The initial section of the story focuses on the Dehnings and the Herslands, but Stein quickly abandons the Dehnings to concentrate on the Hersland family. Stein deliberately withholds “important” plot information, including the names of several minor characters and the subject of Alfred’s dishonesty, to investigate the psychology of her characters. Many characters have the same names, signifying the passing on of “bottom natures” from one generation to the next. Some critics even suggest that the novel is flawed because Stein became bored with the exhaustive process of outlining the countless permutations of the book’s personality types. Stein unravels these variations in long, twisted sentences that stretch the limits of language. The difficulties a reader faces in The Making of Americans contribute, however, to Stein’s attempt to write “a history of every one and every kind of one and all the nature in every one and all the ways it comes out of them.”

The novel’s subtitle, Being a History of a Family’s Progress, discloses Stein’s intention to make Americans out of a generation of immigrants. On the novel’s opening page, she writes, It has always seemed to me a rare privilege, this, of being an American, a real American, one whose tradition it has taken scarcely sixty years to create. We need only realise our parents, remember our grandparents and know ourselves and our history is complete.

The Making of Americans goes beyond its autobiographical roots in Stein’s family (Martha Hersland is Gertrude) to strive toward a comprehensive, subjective history of Americans.

Stein’s family chronicle signals that Victorian ideas of linear, objective history and progress are, as she writes in Wars I Have Seen (1945), “dead dead dead.” Her interest in describing all personality types requires repetition to establish “kinds” or “types.” This shifts the focus away from individual events, which might be organized into a plot sequence, and toward the system she is creating and her psychological creation of her world. Stein’s focus simultaneously deconstructs linear history and dismantles the notion of humanity’s evolutionary progression. Successive generations of the Hersland and Dehning families in The Making of Americans are often more degenerate, more confused, and more dysfunctional than those of their parents, in part because the parents have passed on the worst part of their “bottom nature” to their children.

The final section of the novel, an abstract coda of twenty pages without events or characters, moves completely into the dense, unfolding narrative consciousness that is one of Stein’s most significant achievements. Stein’s making of Americans through this consciousness creates a philosophically complex world, one that challenges her readers to reexamine how they are connected with history. The Making of Americans is Stein’s most ambitious novel.

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