American culture has always shown a particular fondness for eccentrics and iconoclasts, inventors and innovators. Although most of Gertrude Stein’s writing is so experimental that it is impenetrable to all but a few devotees, her name and image are familiar to many people who have never read her work because she was all of these things and more. She is known for a few phrases“A rose is a rose is a rose,” “Pigeons on the grass alas”that, like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, seem to epitomize the popular idea of avant-garde modern art as a confidence game built on praise of work that any child could do. She is recognized through iconic images in photographs and a famous portrait by Pablo Picasso that present her as a kind of massive American Buddha. She is associated with tales of the expatriate “lost generation” of the 1920’s and remembered for the salon she hosted in Paris at 27 Rue de Fleurus where friends such as Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Ernest Hemingway were frequent guests. She is even recalled by some of the disappearing generation of World War II veterans as somehow a part of the American liberation of France. Over the past forty years, she has also become a leading member of the feminist and lesbian pantheons of neglected women artists.
Criticism and scholarshipincluding biographies such as James R. Mellow’s Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (1974); memoirs, beginning with W. G. Rogers’s When This You See Remember Me: Gertrude Stein in Person (1948); and critical studies, from Edmund Wilson’s influential chapter on Stein in his pioneering study, Axel’s Castle (1931), to Richard Bridgman’s indispensable Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970)long ago went beyond these popular images to seriously examine her life, her work, and her importance to the history of American modernism. In 1998, she was officially canonized in two volumes of the Library of America series.
Since the publication of In the Freud Archives (1984), Janet Malcolm has combined journalism, psychological analysis, and skepticism about the nature of biography in fascinating and elegantly written examinations of psychoanalysis, journalism, and the arts. In Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, the third in a series focused on writers that also includes The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) and Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001), she sets out to reconsider Gertrude Stein. The book consists of three related essays that, like much of Malcolm’s work, first appeared in The New Yorker. Although the book’s three chapters have been described by reviewers as treating Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’s experiences during the war, the composition of The Making of Americans (1925), and Toklas’s years “staying on alone,” they are, in fact, far more meandering and fragmented than this clear division suggests.
Malcolm does not really have much to add to the critical and biographical scholarship that already exists, but her work is not intended for scholars. Instead, she draws on previous scholarship to present the general reader with a study of the character, writing, and relationship of her two principals. Perhaps surprisingly, the most impressive part of Two Lives is its attentive and provocative readings of Stein’s work and artistic evolution rather than its biographical elements or journalistic discoveries.
Beginning with her initial observation that Stein wrote “stories, novels, and poems that are like no stories, novels, and poems ever written but seem to be saturated with some sort of elixir of originality,” when she is talking about Stein’s writing itself Malcolm is consistently at her most original and engaging. In Three Lives, Stein’s collection of stories written in 1909 that inspired her own title, she says for example, “Stein is still writing in regular, if singular English, but by 1912 she had started producing work in a language of her own, one that uses English words but in no other way resembles English as it is known.” Malcolm precisely captures the appeal of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein’s only commercially successful book, when she notes that Stein’s “playful egomania pervades” it, “as does the optimism that gives the story of her life the character of a fairy tale.”
The highlight of Malcolm’s analysis of Stein’s writing is her discussionin the first half of the second essay and in other passages throughout the bookof what caused Stein’s style to change...
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