No Southerner by origin, Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. "As I am an ardent Californian," she has Alice B. Toklas say in The Autobiography, "and as she [i.e., Stein] spent her youth there I have often begged her to be born in California but she has always remained firmly born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania" (69). The Autobiography goes on to say that Stein's family left Allegheny when she was six months old, and that she has never seen it since—the city itself having ceased to exist, in fact, annexed by the burgeoning city of Pittsburgh in 1907. According to The Autobiography, Stein took the most pleasure in her birthplace during the time she was doing war work in France during World War I, and was frequently asked by French officials for her name and birthplace; she found watching them try to imagine how to write and spell "Allegheny, Pennsylvania" a reliable treat.
|Listen to Stein read excerpts from The Making of America|
Once out of Allegheny, Stein, like her teacher William James and his brother Henry and their other siblings, had a famously peripatetic and cosmopolitan childhood. In her case, Allegheny was followed by family sojourns in New York City, Vienna, Paris, and Oakland, California, where (as she has Toklas say) she grew up. Then to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for college, to Baltimore for medical school, then back to the Paris where she had lived with her family as a little girl and ultimately spent most of her adult life, a permanent expatriate. During the decades she spent as a fomenter of several major waves of International Modernism, alongside such tactical allies as Picasso and Alfred North Whitehead, she remained a fascinated student of past and present life in the United States, from the time she began writing The Making of Americans in earnest in 1906 to her late-life reflections on war, G.I.s, and the atom bomb.
Before the publication of The Autobiography in 1934 propelled her into celebrity status and—even better—bestsellerdom, Stein had spent three decades searching for a form and a format in which to present her writing that might help readers beyond her tiny coterie of admirers appreciate its value and interest. At one point just past the middle of her career she pulled together a collection of relatively short pieces of hers about the United States and some of her fellow American writers. The volume, entitled Useful Knowledge and published in 1928, contains a "Valentine to Sherwood Anderson" and "A Second Portrait of Carl Van Vechten," but it also includes a series of analytical-sounding pieces: "Wherein the South Differs from the North," "Wherein Iowa Differs from Kansas and Indiana," and "The Difference Between the Inhabitants of France and the Inhabitants of the United States."
"Writing about Americans comes to be very much what is natural to any one thinking that it is pleasant to be one.... Once in talking and saying that in America the best material is used in the cheapest things because the cheapest things have to be made of the best material to make them worth while making it, it is really that it comes to be a romantic thing that has been so added to the history of living for an entire generation.... This is the American something that makes romance everything. And Romance is Useful Knowledge.... When there are many Americans and there are there is a great deal of pleasure in knowing that not only do they differ from one another but that Iowa and California are very pleasant and very different from one another.... Any one wishing to add a state can add one."
By the 1920s, of course, the allegedly vast and supposedly enormously consequential differences between the South and North had been a major topos in discussions of the United States for over a century. Stein, like many other Americans of her generation, who had seen the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of all the major events of the Civil War come and go as young adults, remained a fascinated student of the Civil War and especially of the powerful writing it had generated. She admired the prose of US Grant's Memoirs, at once lapidary and soldierly, highly, and opens her late work Four in America with an eighty-page biography of Grant—but a biography with a Steinian difference: her Grant is not a Civil War general but a great evangelical religious leader (one of the other lives that she tells in the same book is Henry James's, as a military genius). But in thoroughly rewriting the life of Grant, Stein takes over much from ordinary, "non-Steinian" biographies of him. What she calls "Volume XXVI" of her life of Grant reads in its entirety:
I think I see why I am an American.
Ulysses Simpson Grant.
Hiram Ulysses Grant.
They are not the same.
Were they always so. Yes or no. (77)
This is very near the end of her life of Grant, and this is exactly where it had begun, with a consideration of the meaning and effects of Grant's having changed his name. Stein's "Grant" begins:
Grant in his very early life was under obligation to an older man and took his name. If he had remained Hiram Ulysses, as he was born, would he have been ultimately successful. I am unable to doubt it. But would it have been possible for him to have been called United States Grant or Unconditional Surrender Grant. It would not. Naturally it would not. If he had remained Hiram Ulysses Grant would it, in the meantime, have had something to do with what he would do if he were a religious leader or a saint. (3)1
"I think I see why I am an American," Stein writes as she contemplates Grant's "two names" in simple apposition, observing that they "are not the same" and may never have been so. I wonder if Stein "see[s] why [she] is an American" because she, too, feels—as a secular Jew, a lesbian, an experimental writer, and a lifelong expatriate—that her life represents both a confirmation of and a radical reinvention of and departure from her "birth," her family and childhood, Allegheny and Oakland, and that there is (to her mind) something significantly "American" about this simultaneous confirmation/reinvention/departure?
Stein goes on to argue at the beginning of her life of Grant that "really and truly the surname makes no difference, it is the first or Christian name that counts, that is what makes one be as they are":
I have found it to be a fact, that little as one can think of it, which is the same as say they do not believe it, it is nevertheless true that the names that are given, the given name or the Christian name does or do denote character and career. (3)
Once renamed "U.S." ("Ulysses Simpson," "United States," "Unconditional Surrender"), Grant was destined for the "character and career" of the military leader he had become. But "in the meantime," continuing to bear the names he was given at birth, "Hiram Ulysses," "he [would] have had to be "a religious leader."
It is Stein's phrase "in the meantime" I want to linger over, for it is, so to speak, on the back of that slight phrase that we can toggle from an ordinary historical perception (US Grant was an important US military figure) to a visionary one (and "in the meantime," "Hiram Ulysses Grant" was a great religious leader or saint). Stein does not present the two “characters and careers" as polar alternatives; the opening and closing of her life of Grant do not say that in the process of getting renamed, Grant the religious leader was lost to the world and Grant the military leader was born. The two "characters and careers" exist in some parallel, "meantime" relation to each other – just as in "Volume XXVI" quoted above Stein raises the question (and declines to settle it) whether the two names / characters / careers "Ulysses Simpson Grant" and "Hiram Ulysses Grant," obviously "not the same," were always not the same? Despite Toklas's entreaties to decide that she had actually been born in California, Stein says in The Autobiography that she had "always remained firmly born in Allegheny Pennsylvania." Perhaps in something of the same way, "Ulysses S." "always remained firmly" named ("as he was born," Stein writes) "Hiram Ulysses." If, as Stein insists, it is the first name that determines one's "character and career," was not "Hiram Ulysses" actually "Ulysses Simpson's" first name—the first name he was given, and for that reason, embued with some of the effectuality of "first" (in the sense of "Christian" as she uses it) names? Although at the end of her life of Grant Stein declines to answer the question of whether his names had "always" been different, pressing the question instead onto the reader, what she has written at the beginning of the life suggests that the two names and the different characters and careers they make inevitable may coexist in some kind of parallel worlds or universes, "in the meantime." By the same token, visionary biography and visionary history may coexist alongside ordinary versions of the same practices.
In Stein's "Wherein the South Differs from the North," it becomes clear not only that there is also a visionary geography that exists alongside ordinary geography but that it is inseparable from—even perhaps the same thing as—the visionary history she practices in her life of Grant in Four in America.2 In this earlier piece of writing, North and South do not differ as names, for while "North is a name," "South is not a name," "The south is not a name" (19). I take this to mean, among other possibilities, that while for Stein, the "North" designates something clear or comprehensible enough to her, "South" (upper-case, the ostensible place) doesn't hold together in the same way that a ready-to-hand concept of the North does: Stein, after all, had done serious time living and working in Baltimore (in the large urban obstetrics clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, among other places), and she consequently had some idea of the diversity and complexity of life at least in the Upper South (Ogden Nash called Baltimore "the tip of the South and the toe of the North"), and by extension in the Lower South, and appears in this piece loth to call these widely different life-forms and environments one thing ("the South").
"What do you think what do you think when each one has a name," Stein asks later in the piece. "Do you think it indicates the place a place. Place it" (25). For Stein, the common category of "place name" is highly problematic. Names, at least first names, for persons are determinators of character and career, but names for places are not nearly as effectual—indeed, for her, there is something about place that is unnamable. Names can name persons satisfactorily, but although persons (and communities) seem to think that when they have named a place (or learned the name of a place) that the very name "indicates a place a place," it does not—in other words, naming a place does not necessarily effectually "place" the place. Naming places or trying to name them is perhaps an inevitable practice on the part of persons, given how (as Stein sees it) important and consequential being named is for us, but for her it is crucial for us to see that naming does not work at all in the same way, or with the same effectuality, for places.
William Carlos Williams presciently observed in one of the earliest critical essays on Stein's work that she views the language that she writes as if she saw her pages from the air, as if "from an airplane."3 A few years later, as if to fulfill this poetic prophecy, Stein herself wrote about (on her lecture tour of the United States after the popular success of The Autobiography) the delightful and illuminating shock she had of seeing a stretch of flat Illinois landscape through the window of an airplane and realizing how different it was from a map of the same area. In "Wherein the South Differs from the North," Stein writes about "the duty of an explorer," which is not so much to name places as to recognize places that he has already seen when he comes upon them again in his explorations, and then, later, "to make maps of the region which he has traversed." Place names may be inevitable in the processes of map-making and -reading, but we must never forget that they can never be more than reminders, orienters, "place-holders," for places and regions are not persons and names for places in an important sense do not "take hold" in the same way names for persons do.
The image of the United States that Stein and her contemporaries grew up with emphasized above all else the clear linear demarcation of national, state, and county borders (as in the 1901 map of the US above). Flying over Illinois on her lecture tour of the country in 1934, Stein was delighted by the very different kind of image—in some ways quite different from the standard cartographic one—that filled the eye all the way to the horizon (as in the 1908 aerial panoramic photograph of LaGrange, Illinois, below). Google Maps makes it easy to toggle back and forth between the print-style map and the satellite photo of "the same" landscape. Courtesy of American Memory, Library of Congress.
To talk and think about, and to love and hate, places and regions with sufficient ardor or intensity, we need quite other kinds of terms, concepts, and language from those commonly associated with names and naming. Stein's largely unread work provides us with some very useful models of this kind of visionary language and its capabilities, from her 400-page collection of her early writings, entitled Geography and Plays, to her late, great meditative work The Geographical History of America; or, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind.
Recent scholarship has in its own way split "Gertrude Stein" in two: after an earlier wave of feminist and queer scholarship that tended to exalt her for what scholars saw as her radical rejection of patriarchalism, her utopian faith in the creative spirit, and her triumphant successes in revolutionizing literary language, a second recent wave has troubled this idealized image of a Stein who could do no wrong by insisting on making her possible collaboration with France's wartime Vichy government a focus for research and eventually for the revaluation of her career and legacy.4 I hope the admittedly simplistic fiction of the lesbian-feminist "Saint Gertrude" will not simply be replaced by a counterfictive "Stein the Political Reactionary" or "Stein the Collaborator." As Stein's own work makes clear, naming and name-calling can be consequential activities, but they do not necessarily work or function in the ways we tend to assume they do. Stein may need to be renamed in some complex way, but she and her work may need to be resituated, "re-placed." She tended to work in two main forms, portraits and landscapes. We may need to revise our portrait of her, but "in the meantime" we also need to revisit the landscapes in which she lived and wrote—one hopes, with something of the enlivening sense of the resistance of place to being definitely and definitively named that animated some of her best work.
About the Author
Michael Moon grew up in rural Oklahoma in the 1950s and '60s, and since then has lived for extended periods in New York City, Baltimore, Durham, NC, and Atlanta, where he is currently Professor of American Studies at Emory University.
- 1. Ulla Dydo, following William McFeely's 1981 biography of Grant, tells the story of Grant's change of name rather differently from the way Stein does in Four in America. Dydo writes, "Hiram Ulysses Grant—always called Ulysses—changed his name when he entered West Point at age seventeen. He planned to be Ulysses H[iram]. Grant. The congressman who made the appointment forgot his middle name and sent in the appointment under his mother's maiden name, for Ulysses S[impson]. Grant. The name was never corrected, and Grant signed himself 'U. S. Grant,' though he never used 'Simpson'" (Ulla E. Dydo with William Rice, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923-34 [Evanston IL: Northwestern UP, 2003], 579 n. 48). That it was something between a clerical error and congressional fiat that changed the initials the young Grant planned to adopt ("U.H.") to "U.S.," with all that the latter letters portend for Grant's and the country's future (according to Four in America), tends to confirm Stein's claims about the ineluctable shaping force of first names.
- 2. Ulla Dydo, who has worked long and closely with Stein's manuscripts, provides a stimulating and succinct account of the meanings of "geography" and "composition" in Stein's thought and writing in Dydo's book (written with William Rice) Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923-34 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2003), 70-75.
- 3. William Carlos Williams's pioneering essay, "The Work of Gertrude Stein," first appeared in the avant-garde magazine Pagany in 1930. It is reprinted in Kirk Curnutt, ed., The Critical Response to Gertrude Stein (Westport CT: Greenwood, 2000), 194-99.
- 4. Wanda Van Dusen published an early consideration of the politics of Stein's wartime activities entitled, "Portrait of a National Fetish: Gertrude Stein's 'Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain (1942)," which appeared in Modernism/modernity 3:3 (1996), 69-92. Barbara Will is at work on a book about the matter; until it appears, see her article, "Lost in Translation: Stein's Vichy Collaboration," Modernism/modernity 11:4 (2004), 651-68. See also Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007).