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Connective Reading and Collective Identity
By Juliana Spahr
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"There Is No Way of Speaking English"
The Polylingual Grammars of Gertrude Stein
The United States is invaded by aliens, thousands of whom constitute so many acute perils to the health of the body politic. Modernism is of precisely the same heterogeneous alien origin and is imperiling the republic of art in the same way. It began, as our excessive immigration began, in an insidiously plausible manner. ... Such movements! — crude, crotchety, tasteless, abounding in arrogant assertion, making a fetich of ugliness and, above all else, rife in ignorance of the technical amenities. These movements have been promoted by types not yet fitted for their first papers in aesthetic naturalization — the makers of true Ellis Island art.
— Royal Cortissoz, American Artists
We have the illusion of a stronger vitality and of a greater intellectual freedom, but we are polyglot, parvenu, hysterical and often only semi-literate. When time shall have weeded out our less important writers, it is probable that those who remain will give the impression of a literary vaudeville.
— Edmund Wilson, The Shores of Light
There is something precisely ominous about Miss Stein. Her books of "about one thousand pages" may, and will, remain unread; but Miss Stein is going to make trouble for us just the same. In this Hogarth Essay of fifty-nine pages [Composition as Explanation] the atom is dissociated. ... Moreover, her work is not improving, it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one's mind. But its rhythms have a peculiar hypnotic power not met with before. It has a kinship with the saxophone. If this is of the future, then the future is, as it very likely is, of the barbarians. But this is the future in which we ought not to be interested.
— T. S. Eliot, "Charleston, Hey! Hey!"
[Stein] became the people she wrote about, adopting their illiteracies and colloquialisms. ... [She] gives proof of all the false "revolutionary," propagandist plainmanism of her time. The monstrous, desperate, soggy lengths of primitive mass-life, chopped off and presented to us as a never-ending prose-song, are undoubtedly intended as an epic contribution to the present mass-democracy.
— Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man
Gertrude Stein, living in France, has apparently forgotten English — at least the kind of English this reviewer speaks.
— Detroit News, qtd. in an advertisement for Transition
There is no way of speaking english. I say there is no way of speaking English. What do you mean. I mean that anybody can begin and go on. And finish. It's easy enough and especially hard when there is a use. Why do you say exchange. I do not know what they say exchange. They say they believe in exchange. I often talk about nothing.
What have I to say.
— Stein, "He Said It," Geography and Plays
"There Is No Way of Speaking English"
The years of Gertrude Stein's childhood were a time of unprecedented immigration. Five and a half million people immigrated to the United States in the 1880s; four million in the 1890s. These immigrants moved to cities. Farmers joined them. As Howard Zinn notes, "[b]etween 1860 and 1914, New York grew from 850,000 to 4 million, Chicago from 110,000 to 2 million, Philadelphia from 650,000 to 1 ½ million" (248). In 1910 it is estimated that German was the native tongue for about nine million people living in the United States. Those who moved from the country to the city and who spoke English did so in different, regionally specific dialects. It was thus a time of unprecedented language contact in the United States. People with different language skills, different accents, and different dialects gathered together in closely packed cities. They gathered with their localisms intact, yet they immediately entered into dialogue with speakers of other Englishes and other languages. Some were hopeful about this contact. As Marc Shell notes, "Many German-American writers and visual artists of the 1920s and 1930s were interested in developing a tradition at once multilingual and cosmopolitan" ("Hyphens" 259).
But language politics were also intense and, at times, ugly. English was changing as a result of disparate language knowledges and practices, and this caused various sorts of linguistic anxieties. Michael North charts the other side of Shell's story in The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. He recounts the reactive founding of organizations such as the English Society for Pure English and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, both of which mandated the preservation of the English language from the foreign influence perpetuated by immigration. The publications of these groups present inflammatory rhetoric against foreign influences. As North notes, "The boom in linguistic criticism in the United States coincided with the increased immigration of the 1880s and was one manifestation of the reaction against it" (17). The established figures of literary criticism reacted similarly. As North also notes, Royal Cortissoz complained about "Ellis Island art" and Edmund Wilson, in a mixture of complaint and observation, pointed to an American literature that is "polyglot" and a form of "literary vaudeville" (18, 246, 246).
Stein's parents were part of this mass immigration, and like many other immigrants, they spoke English as their second language. In 1875, when Stein was eight months old, her family moved to Vienna for four years. Then they briefly moved to Paris before returning to the United States when she was five. So Stein's prime language learning years would have immersed her in languages other than English. Once an adult, Stein reimmersed herself in the polyglot with her move to Paris in 1904. At the salon she held at 27, rue de Fleurus, many different languages were spoken, and the Anglo-modernist literary culture that she had constant contact with was one of linguistic cosmopolitanism. Raymond Williams notes that one cannot make sense of modernism without seeing it as the literature of the émigré, that "a very striking feature of many Modernist and avant-garde movements [was] that they were not only located in the great metropolitan centres but that so many of their members were immigrants into these centres, where in some new ways all were strangers" (78). As North and others point out, this literature of the émigré is now often indicted as guilty of elitism and racism. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, two of modernism's most indicted, often use languages other than English in their work to shore up their sense of hierarchies of knowledge. Eliot ends "The Waste Land" with a series of polyglot and worldly references. Pound's Cantos move among Chinese, English, Greek, Latin, Italian, and other languages. But there is another side to this story, much of it collected in Eugene Jolas's journal Transition. Published from 1927 to 1938, Transition has a uniquely utopian, if at times almost quaint, take on the political possibilities of nonstandard language practices. While showcasing Stein and James Joyce (with long excerpts from Finnegans Wake) in its early issues, it places beside these more established figures work by emerging international avant-gardists such as Gustavo Barroso, Hart Crane, A. Lincoln Gillespie, Jr., Sidney Hunt, St.-John Perse, Laura Riding, Kurt Schwitters, and William Carlos Williams. Editorial statements, almost always concerned with what Jolas would later call "the revolution of the word," propose nonstandard grammars as challenges to the troubled racial and class politics of standard English and high modernism. (Eliot and Pound are interestingly missing from Transition.) In issue number 2, Victor Llona predicts that those in the future will say that the "most striking characteristic [of post–World War I writing] was a determined straining towards an interpenetration of languages and other racial elements such as had never before been attempted or even dreamed of" (169). In issue number 24, Jolas introduces a section called "Inter-Racial Documents" that begins to appear regularly in the journal. He notes: "[The poet] builds the creative language of the future by consciously welding together the elements of all the languages in flux due to the interracial synthesis now going on. He seeks a new syntax and vocabulary in order to give voice to the enormously complicated world of psychic changes that are the result of the biological and politico-economic metamorphoses today" (112). This same issue includes an essay by Luis E. Valcarel which claims that "there are several Americas" (131).
Although North does not directly address Transition, he does argue that this modernist rhetoric of liberation was just rhetoric, and he argues that the war between liberation and anxiety over other languages in the 1880s and beyond "was fought over the body of a third figure, a black one" (27). He points to how much modernism aligned the deviance of the nonstandard language of the artist with the dialect of African America. But despite this rhetorical alignment, he notes that its possibilities were "never fulfilled" (129). He writes, "the Americanist avant-garde demonstrated instead a persistent inability to understand how race fit into its conception of modern America, or how the language of African America fit into its conception of 'plain American'" (129). He is right. Anglo-modernism failed on resolving race issues, on actually building a linguistic coalition of attack on dominant culture's exclusivity. Even Transition does not live up to its rhetoric, and at times work there seems to foster rather than avoid stereotype. Stein is part of this failure.
Yet while Stein personally failed, her work is more complicated on these issues than North and many other writers assume. North limits his examination of Stein to the undeniably racially troubling "Melanctha." But, her later work (which is a huge amount of work) abandons her appropriation of black culture and all that North notes that it represents at the time. In 1914 she begins, with Tender Buttons, to write a series of works that have more complicated takes on issues of language and liberation. And while her work from 1914 to 1933 may not be the "epic contribution to the present mass-democracy" that Wyndham Lewis notes with disdain, the endless (and still strong) anxiety around language issues that it provokes deserves more careful and wide-ranging attention (62). Further, while her work reads to many as divorced from immigrant concerns, I think it could not help but be concerned with the cultural situation where the growth of German-speaking peoples and their productivity result in an anti-German hysteria that begins with World War I and culminates in the United States with Theodore Roosevelt's banning of German-language schools in 1917. Her work is an ideal place for any consideration of reading's politics and possibilities because it is so extreme, so extremely repetitive ("Business in Baltimore"), so extremely fractured (Tender Buttons), and so extremely lengthy (The Making of Americans). In this chapter I place this much-noted extremity and multivalence of Stein's experimental works in a polyglot historical context, support her claims that she wrote for everybody, and conclude by arguing that what is most resonant about Stein's work is not its radical experimentalism but rather how she, with her attention to reading's autonomy, aligns her work with immigrant and other nonstandard Englishes.
"Fuss Is Spell with s So Is Business"
Fuss is spell with s
So is business.
— Stein, A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein
A grammar is a cause of poplars wire. By this I mean an island of whether green with attached whether finally knotted carried all reachable by after at a distance. Now let us know distance is grammar by after at a plain is description. Dealing is description detained is grammar. Appointed is grammar at and when is description.
— Stein, "Arthur A Grammar," How to Write
It has been a commonplace of Stein criticism to note its multivalence, what Marjorie Perloff first calls the "poetics of indeterminacy" in her book of the same name. And coming at Stein's work from an entirely different direction, Catharine Stimpson calls this multivalence "the lesbian lie." Multivalence, according to Stimpson, is what fools "a public that is both vigilant and unwary as it patrols the borders of permissible speech and behavior" (163). Multivalence is also what Maria Damon, respectful of Stein's ethnicity, notes when she argues in Dark End of the Street that Stein's work is like Yiddish. But Stein's multivalence is merely artistic excess (even Stimpson concludes that the lesbian lie is theatrical) unless one sees it as fully engaged with the polylingual politics of immigrant experience. Often the criticism of Stein seems caught between readings of her work as "sui generis" and readings of it as cultural. Yet what I find most useful about Stein's work is how she refuses to see art and culture as separate. Stein's experimental works turn the language patterns of immigrants into art. And, as I will argue in more detail in later sections, she uses this nonstandard English as a reply to grammar's authorities. Stein's works are connective ones. Their content often explores how people with different levels of fluency speak to each other, but they also encourage readers to bring to them different levels of connection, of meaning, of resonance. My argument here draws from Peter Quartermain's observation in the introduction to Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe that Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky all either "learned English as their second (or third) language or grew up bilingual" (10).
This reading of Stein's work might seem funny in the context of her professed patriotism about American English, but this patriotism is a good place to begin because it is, like much of Stein's writing, playfully complicated. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein claims that "english was her only language" (91). However, this claim, written in the voice of Toklas, comes at the end of a passage that situates Stein's English in a polyglot context: "Her father having taken his children to Europe so that they might have the benefit of a european education now insisted that they should forget their french and german so that their american english would be pure. Gertrude Stein had prattled in german and then in french but she never read until she read english. As she says eyes to her were more important than ears and it happened then as always that english was her only language" (91).
Similarly, in a much-quoted statement, Stein writes of her self-imposed exile in France as allowing her to be all alone with "english" and herself. But the passage as a whole reads (again in Toklas's voice):
When I first knew Gertrude Stein in Paris I was surprised never to see a french book on her table, although there were always plenty of english ones, there were even no french newspapers. But do you never read french, I as well as many other people asked her. No, she replied, you see I feel with my eyes and it does not make any difference to me what language I hear, I don't hear a language, I hear tones of voice and rhythms, but with my eyes I see words and sentences and there is for me only one language and that is english. One of these things I have liked all these years is to be surrounded by people who know no english. It has left me more intensely alone with my eyes and my english. I do not know if it would have been possible to have english be so all in all to me otherwise. And they none of them could read a word that I wrote, most of them did not even know that I did write. No, I like being with so very many people and being all alone with english and myself. (Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 85–86)
Thus Stein's English is, from the onset, impure, and her ability to be "alone" with it is predicated on the other languages that surround her.
Excerpted from Everybody's Autonomy by Juliana Spahr. Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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