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Joan Retallack provides us with many ways to think about and read Gertrude Stein in Selections, part of the “Poets for the Millennium” series which is, according to the UC Press Web-site, “[g]lobal in scope, experimental in structure, and revolutionary in content . . .” Each volume in the series is “. . . edited and introduced by a poet or scholar with a fresh and radical approach to the subject.” True, Retallack’s thoughtful 81-page introductory essay and her editing work stretched my reading of Stein into new territory.
But in the series editors’ self-proclaimed spirit of “revolutionary” and “radical,” and with deep respect for Joan Retallack’s scholarship, writings, and teaching, I want to ask some different questions of Stein. Especially in the territory of race and literary innovation — an area of significant contemporary relevance — I believe that there is a good deal more to consider.
Gertrude Stein “was lucky to have income from a family trust that was adequate to live on” (23), writes Retallack. I would like to point out that there may be an unlucky aspect to this privilege.
As Toni Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, whiteness, one kind of privilege, as it is usually imagined and constructed, distorts intellectual and creative work by creating incomplete and flaccid textual “others” and “selves.” Stein may, therefore, have something to teach us about the intellectual and artistic limitations of privilege.
I agree that trying to decide how racist or not Stein might have been is a “futile” pursuit (55), but it’s also futile to ignore the possibility that her “enduring capacity for contradiction” (55), a capacity often celebrated in those writers we deem “innovative,” may have stemmed, in part, from the distortions of privilege. And though Retallack points out that one might argue that Stein, as a lesbian, “could identify with the outcast condition of negroes” (55), Stein might also teach us that it is possible to still fall down on race-consciousness because of the functioning of other privileges.
A kind of disclaimer: when I described this review and my thesis to a good friend, he gently reminded me, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s hard to do what you’re doing — writing about privilege, the modernists, their issues with race. It is very difficult to be a writer and understand ‘the other.’” I agree.
I don’t want to dethrone a literary hero — as if I could. Rather, I hope to add something to the conversation, to ask some questions, agreeing with Retallack who reminds us: “Stein’s work leaves more questions than answers for her readers … . “ (74).
In her “How Racist Is It?” section of the introductory essay, Retallack relays Richard Wright’s fascination with Stein’s use of black speech in Melanctha, a novella from Three Lives. Retallack points out that in Wright’s published autobiography he has omitted any reference to the “Negro speech” he had admired in her works. Retallack goes on to state that Wright “would choose not to use dialect in his own writing” and she wonders: “Why did Wright have second thoughts about dialect as a literary artifice?” Instead of answering this question, Retallack writes, “One can’t know … .” (54). In fact, one can know.
Whether or not and how to use dialect or vernacular is, in African-American literary theory, a well-recounted debate among African-American literati and intelligentsia of the New Negro Movement, and this debate was taking place also in Stein’s time.
For readers and writers interested in questions of authenticity, representation, subjectivity, language and power and politics, I believe that the debate about vernacular and representation is — or could be — a central focus of study. I have come to believe that this debate over vernacular and race representations is an important point of entry into a history-aware discussion of the literary postmodern.
Wright took the position that black writers should not write characters using black speech, a marker, he and others thought, of a stereotypically uneducated, racially segregated, naïve black person. Those who thought as Wright did believed that it was strategic, and ever so political, to represent blacks in the “best” light possible (one could read “whitest”), engaged in direct confrontation and struggle with white society and the white world, in order to argue that blacks were mistreated but fully human, able to be educated, hard-working, and deserving of equal treatment.
For black writers and those concerned with racial violence at the time, literature was to be part of a battle to stop the horrifying epidemic of lynchings of black people at beginning of the century and to advocate for justice and equal treatment. Therefore, representations by blacks of blacks were debated, contested, and through carefully crafted calls for work and editorial decisions, sometimes tightly controlled.
Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and others took up a different view regarding the use of black speech in literature. Celebrating Paul Laurence Dunbar’s late 19th century works called the “minors” — poems in dialect which were very popular among white audiences and this fact is part of what fueled Wright’s argument against using black speech as he saw it as a potential kind of minstrelsy — Hughes and Hurston and others saw black speech as a point of power, poetry, and cultural importance. They did not equate the so-called “uneducated voice” or the distinctly black voice in vernacular with a “less-than-equal” person.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his seminal text The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, explains that regardless of the “split” between Wright’s view and those who thought like Hurston, black writers of the time and in the U.S. shared this: a deep interest in character not divorced from the larger social context, a commitment to connecting character to dignity, humanity, and political purpose.
Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard with Franz Boas, essentially the founder of an American anthropology that was not based in eugenics or scientific racism, but rather the idea of culture in context, the practice of participant-observation, and non-typology-based classifications and racial hierarchies. In the academy and in the social sciences, Boas’ work began to undo the legacies of eugenics, of scientific racism that went hand in hand with the “enlightenment.” Boas and others were doing this work in Stein’s time.
Empowered, in part, by her training with Boas, Hurston studied the speech patterns and the stories of black people in several locations, including the Caribbean, and including in her home town, an all-black town in Florida. She was, incidentally, light-skinned and the daughter of a minister. Her Janie Crawford character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a representation of blackness that was unacceptable to Wright, is a light-skinned poor southern black woman who speaks in vernacular, and who is both admired and at the same time despised for her light skin and her smooth hair — the result of a white schoolteacher raping Janie’s mother.
This example of a kind of interior view of color and color lines — from within the community, well-researched, lived, and therefore a vastly different view from that of Stein’s — problematizes Retallack’s claim that in Melanctha Stein is merely transcribing the color hierarchy that was “assumed by the whole of American society, black and white, with relatively few exceptions” (55).
It might be more accurate to say that Stein did not know and wrote, perhaps even confidently and comfortably, what is usually the typical outsider’s and uninformed view of blackness: the myth of the benefits-only aspect of being light-skinned or of passing. Hurston knew well the intricacies of color within the black community and she knew that light-skinned blacks could be hated for their skin color.
Hurston’s representational complexities don’t stop at color. Though she doesn’t write or read, Janie Crawford is in possession of a poetics in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Gates, in “Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text,” points out that Janie pays attention to the philosophical riddles embedded in the mule stories she overhears. She is the character who listens to the stories that the Bahamian workers tell “down on the muck.” Janie understands, as one could presume Hurston also understood, that black culture is not monolithic, in any way deficient, without a history, and devoid of literariness and intelligence. This understanding is achieved through study that debunks myths of otherness created by the dominant white society — an understanding borne of interactions and observations, not just through “being black,” but through listening with ear and heart.
Turning to Stein, how does a writer interested in character, in subverting grammar to free the language, remain silent on violence against an oppressed people to whom she simultaneously extends curiosity? How does interest in “a people’s” speech patterns not necessarily mean that there is love and understanding and a sense of equality in the listenings, in the mimesis?
The years leading up to and during Stein’s book tour were terror-filled years and featured numerous incidents of false arrests, racist injustice toward black folks, especially the working class and poor. Do any of her writings on the sweeping and exciting 1934 book tour for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas— the event that starts off Retallack’s introduction and provides the image for the book’s cover — include how she experienced the extraordinarily tense racial segregation and violence of the U.S. at that time?
In response to these questions, I believe it is important to point out that it is very possible for white writers to consider themselves divorced from or unengaged with violent social realities, including racism — and they may believe that such realities for “others” do not affect them.
Stein has the potential to teach us that it may be a feature of whiteness, class privilege, and the Euro-centric modernist “make it new” maneuvers that enable an artist to work with “words only” (a kind of intellectual segregation), separating words (and self) from social realities and separating even from the physical body. I want to argue that Stein shouldn’t be disliked for this possible approach — rather, she is an example of how this approach to literature is possible.
In a statement to conclude the discussion of Stein’s use of black speech, Retallack claims that “there will always be a problem with mimicking the language of any people whose lives are affected by a culturally inscribed power deficit” (54). I wish that her sentence had been written: as long as racism exists there will always be at best, a challenge for, and at worst, a problem with white writers mimicking the vernacular languages of non-whites.
I hope that my re-writing of Retallack’s sentence, one that denaturalizes the linking of “writer” with “white,” acknowledges these things: that black writers have always been code-switching in language choices and here I’m thinking of slave narratives or Phillis Wheatley’s poems — so do we call this mimicking and if not, how is it different?; and, that all people, regardless of who “owns” or claims which language as their home language, regardless of skin color, are affected negatively by a “culturally inscribed power deficit,” — racism.
Restated, and returning to Toni Morrison’s thesis: racism affects us all, affects our living, intellectual, and aesthetic choices.
The Jeff Campbell character in “Melanctha” from Three Lives seems to be a Booker T. Washington “race man,” a doctor who “loved his own colored people” and is “always thinking about what he could do for the colored people” (96), a phrase and sentiment that is repeated numerous times in this selection. The world here described by Stein is a segregated world — Campbell and others go to “colored schools” and Melanctha has a “black neighbor” and there are no white characters except for the ghostly historical presence of the white family for which Jeff Campbell’s people “worked” and thus got their name.
Campbell appears to be a segregationist who wishes for his people — and this is the narrator Stein’s voice — “not to be always wanting new things and excitements, and to always know where you were, and what you wanted . . .” (97). Stein writes Jeff Campbell as then saying, “I don’t believe much in this running around business and I don’t want to see the colored people do it” (97). Is this “running around” a portrait of a segregationist’s view of the NAACP’s desires for integration? Is this piece a veiled or not so veiled portrayal of “know where you belong and everything will be OK” amidst an environment of terrible racial violence?
Stein’s Jeff Campbell character gets his winning ways and “free abandoned laughter that gives the warm broad glow to negro sunshine” (91) presumably from his father, “a good, kind, serious, religious man” who was “very steady, very intelligent, and very dignified, light brown, grey haired” and “was a butler” for a family from whom the family gets their surname (91, 92). Sounds to me like the stereotypical house slave or servant who, through a white narrator’s simplifications, paralleled by the benevolence of a good white master or “employer,” “knows his place” and does not desire anything outside this place, a segregated world, or a world where the only instance of desegregation is this kind of “employment” with its clearly delineated power hierarchies.
Where did Stein want to meet, on the page and in life, a black person? Where, in all her love for classification, did she want them to reside? Was Stein inscribing a simplified Booker T. Washington defense of segregation?
How do her inscriptions and representations here inform “whiteness” as a category? Does the racial hierarchy set up by Stein — dark-skinned “negro” as “brute” (93) and light-skinned black as “very steady, very intelligent” function to put whites at the top of such a hierarchy? How is this inscription naïve on questions of passing, legacies of rape, and problematic in its essentialism?
Do we ask these questions of Stein’s work — do we understand segregation’s violence then and today? Are we able to imagine how Stein “got” those views she inscribed? I believe that it is important that we do imagine how this is possible.
Interestingly, Hurston was a kind of segregationist — but her brand was one that sprang from a studied love of black speech, of black culture, perhaps of a simplified idea of “the folk,” but at least an idea of them that sprang from understanding and recognizing the deep intelligence that a person may have despite their education level and literacy. Hurston’s desires were not for black people to simply “know their place” but that they “take their place” and make for themselves a world free of racism’s violence, albeit separate from whites.
I am looking closely at the verb “love” in Stein’s “. . . I love it that every one is a kind of men and women, that always I am looking and comparing and classifying of them, always I am seeing their repeating” (99). In this excerpt from The Making of Americans, is it the love of classifying that she speaks of? I read it as such — not necessarily the love of every “kind of men and women.”
Is there a philosophical match between eugenics and “her interest in scientific approach to character psychology” (21), an interest that informed “her quest for a science of character into the discipline of a nondescriptive literary method” (28)?
If this innovative “method,” “resembling what Stein was enjoying in the nascent modernism of the Eruopean avant-garde” (29), was akin to eugenics, how could it be that an iconoclastic, well-educated, intellectually curious mind such as Stein’s would find so much agreeable material in this troubling framework?
This, to me, seems to be a highly important question to ask of Stein. It is a question of how it is that racism persists and is perpetuated, how it is tested and re-inscribed in literature and therefore in reading.
Stein’s typologies, according to Retallack, are “less determinate than the atrociously airtight racial typologies of so-called social scientists in circulation at the time” (52). But which “social scientists” is this statement referring to? And if the works are “less airtight,” do Stein’s typologies push toward truth or myth about black people? How could white critics, then and now, know which direction they lean toward?
What kind of integrated study is needed now?
In discussing some of the roots of Stein’s innovations, Retallack argues that Stein was backing away from 19th century novelistic romance, from novels with their tired plots that valorized the “viscous intimacy of families and other close relationships” (28). I love this idea. (I have memories of throwing a couple Jane Austen novels that I was supposed to read and love, across the room!)
Retallack describes traditional family as being essentially unhappy for Stein and so Stein’s ability to create “her own secure household with Alice” (29) is the refuge from which her innovative writing flows. Another kind of household intimacy is valorized, therefore, in Stein’s life and works. Stein’s discontent with the world of those novels does not have to do with any impatience around the global economic systems — with racism at their core — that makes possible those plots that rely on wealth and Victorian manners.
Perhaps it could also then be argued that Stein’s class and race privilege, as well as suppressing her Jewishness for as long as possible, isolated her from the troubles going on outside the household. Stein’s “self-identification with the normative transcategory of Americans, artists, and geniuses overrode a sense of Jewish identity” (25), explains Retallack.
However, in asking how Stein could have admired Weininger’s Sex and Character, “[p]art racist and misogynist diabtribe, part progressive approach to gender,” (insofar as it entertained the notion of feminine and masculine not attributed to biological traits only) (23), I believe it’s important to point out that Stein could admire and entertain eugenics because her privilege provided her with the imagination that she was protected from the day to day violence of these philosophies. Of course she was not — and that’s how privilege distorts reality.
The description of Stein and Toklas in exile in the French countryside during WW II is frightening and devastating — I shudder to think how they made decisions to stay and how each day must have been filled with fear.
And while I shudder, along comes this anecdote: perhaps as proof that class, race, and history does in fact always exist and play out within the home. Retallack reports, in a parenthetical statement, that Stein and Toklas “once briefly feared that they might be denounced by a disgruntled servant” (66). The white imagination may create the myth that a household is successfully isolated from the pressures of the inequalities that usually beget privilege.
Are Stein’s word works, described as often “intractably indeterminate” (50), a way to inscribe avoidance? Is it troubling or comforting or both to read Stein and conclude, among many things, that formal innovation may function as a mask or hiding place, a way of looking away, of not looking into the times?
How revolutionary is an art practice that, in the name of innovation, possibly erases or at least swerves away from some of the most troubling historical events of her time, of our last century? Do some of our back hairs bristle when we are reminded to read, as Lorenzo Thomas has said regarding black literature and Toni Morrison suggests for all literature, with a sociological mind? Who can choose whether or not to read and write with a sociological awareness?
Here I feel the need to be very clear: I would never want her works or the details of her life to be censored. I am not advocating for didactic literature. I am advocating for a kind of reading that sees race and privilege, even and especially when the one we are reading is white and even and especially when the one we are reading is considered experimental.
In a last example of the important questions that the book raises, I’m grateful that Retallack selects and includes a letter from Virgil Thomson to Stein in the “Documents” section, along with the New York Times review of the opera scored by Thomson.
In Thomson’s argument for the use of an all-black cast, Thomson claims that it is “their rhythm, their style, and especially their diction” that has lead him to this artistic choice, continuing by adding that “[a]ny further use of their racial qualities must be incidental and not of a nature to distract attention from the subject matter. … Hence, the idea of painting their faces white. Nobody wants to put on just a nigger show” (327).
His explanation is a raced insistence that the artist, the performer is “naturally” raced white, so that to be black and to perform is to be “just a nigger.” The New York Times review explains Thomson’s all-black cast thusly: “Mr. Thomson chose a Negro cast, he said, because they had … a more direct and unself-conscious approach to religious fantasy” (330).
These passages cause me to ask how many times, in our contemporary situation, are similar naturalizations made — that “experimental” is raced white, for example? That black writers, as Nathanial Mackey has pointed out, are stereotyped into being “content” innovators primarily?
Racing “experimental” as white occludes the fact that the first North American literary experiments were a result of colonialism, slavery, genocide, and the Middle Passage. Placing “the black Atlantic,” as Paul Gilroy argues, at the center of any concept of “the modern” and therefore “postmodern” certainly cracks open practices of appropriation and alters definitions of literary innovation.
One can’t begin to know how Thomson’s sweeping and speculative claim is made possible without understanding the cultural power dynamic inherent in such generalizations about “the other.” The Thomson document may teach us that art communities, even if experimental or counter-culture, are not “above” racism or even interested in “countering” racism.
Retallack concludes her essay by asking, “What can now be seen in the living with these words that we are doing?” (74, 75). This book, for me, provides evidence that artists and thinkers — especially those who operate within realms of privilege and segregation — no matter how revolutionary their forms, are entirely capable of inscribing and re-inscribing distorted notions of race.
If this capability goes unmentioned and unread, then my fear is that we are thwarting the potential of a revolutionary now. Another question to ask might be: What might now be unseen in the living with these words that we are doing?
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Mackey, Nathaniel. “Expanding the Repertoire.” Tripwire 5 (2001): 7-10.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Stein, Gertrude. Gertrude Stein: Selections. Joan Retallack, Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Thanks to Paula Austin for historical discussions about segregation, and to Warren Orange for his lecture on Hurston and U.S. history that helped to plant some of these thought-seeds.
Jill Magi is the author of Threads (Futurepoem), Torchwood (Shearsman), and Cadastral Map (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs). Two new text-image works, Poetry Barn Barn! and From the Body Project are forthcoming as chapbooks from Second Avenue and Felt Press this spring. Jill lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Eugene Lang, Goddard, and The City College Center for Worker Education.