Narration: Four Lectures

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Newly famous in the wake of the publication of her groundbreaking Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein delivered her Narration lectures to packed audiences at the University of Chicago in 1935. Stein had not been back to her home country since departing for France in 1903, and her remarks reflect on the changes in American culture after thirty years abroad.

In Stein’s trademark experimental prose, Narration reveals the legendary writer’s thoughts about the energy and mobility of the American people, the effect of modernism on literary form, the nature of history and its recording, and the inventiveness of the English language—in particular, its American variant. Stein also discusses her ambivalence toward her own literary fame as well as the destabilizing effect that notoriety had on her daily life. Restored to print for a new generation of readers to discover, these vital lectures will delight students and scholars of modernism and twentieth-century literature.

Narration is a treasure waiting to be rediscovered and to be pirated by jolly marauders of sparkling texts.”—Catharine Stimpson, NYU

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226771540
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2010
  • Pages: 62
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) was one of the most important American literary modernists. She is the author of many books, including The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Three Lives.

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Four Lectures

By Gertrude Stein

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1935 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77155-7



IT IS a rather curious thing that it should take a hundred years to change anything that is to change something, it is the human habit to think in centuries and centuries are more or less a hundred years and that makes a grandfather a grandmother to a grandson or a granddaughter if it happens right and it often does about happen right. Is it the human habit to think in centuries from a grandparent to a grandchild because it just does take about a hundred years for things to cease to have the same meaning that they had before, it is a curious thing a very curious thing that everything is a natural thing but it is it is a natural thing and it being a natural thing makes it a curious thing a very curious thing to almost anybody's feeling. One is always having to talk to one's self about it that a natural thing is not really a strange and a peculiar and a curious thing. So then there we are a hundred years does more or less make a century and this is determined by the fact that it includes a grandparent to a grandchild and that that is what makes it definitely different one time from another time and usually there is a war or a catastrophe to emphasize it so that anyone can know it. It is a very strange thing that such a natural thing is inevitably to all of us such a strange thing such a striking thing such a disconcerting thing.

The eighteenth century finished with the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars the nineteenth century with the world war, but in each case the thing of course had been done the change had been made but the wars made everybody know it and liberated them from not knowing it not knowing that everything was not just exactly what it had been. I am quite sure that the world's history the world made up of human beings is made up in this way of about always a century and it is determined that is made by the natural filling up of time from a grandparent to a grandchild. Twenty-five years roll around very quickly but four times twenty-five years which makes a century does not really roll around at all it makes a complete change but it does not roll around at all at least not to anybody's feeling.

That is what narrative is that twenty-five years roll around so quickly but that one hundred years do not roll around at all but that they end, the century ends in being an entirely different thing and so any century comes to begin and comes to end. That makes one of the great difficulties of narrative to begin and to end and I think it has to do with the fact that a century begins and ends but that no part of it begins and no part of it ends and this serious problem in narrative I will take up very much later but now first to know what English literature is in connection with English life and what American literature is in connection with their life and their lives because of course most literature is narrative that is in one way or in another way the telling of how anybody how everybody does anything and everything. To begin then with English literature and what it is and American literature and what it is.

But before going on to this matter I have just been thinking that the civil war in America was another case of about a century, seventeen sixty to eighteen sixty again made a grandfather to a granddaughter a grandmother to a grandson and so as usual everything changed as it always has done very likely it will do so again, very likely a century every so often will do what a century always has done.

But to commence again with what English literature has done in telling everything and what American literature has done in telling everything and how although they completely differ one from the other and they use the same language to tell everything that can be happening it is naturally very naturally not at all the same thing.

I have already written a lot about what the English people are and what their literature is and how it changed in every century not how the English people changed the English people did not change. That is something that again we must remember as a contradiction that makes everything the same. Once a nation has lived long enough anywhere to be that nation and that commences very soon after they have come to live where they are to live the character of that nation can naturally never be changing. When they asked me when I came back to America do you find America changed I said no neither America nor Americans after all when you say changed how could they change what after all could they change to, and when you ask that of course there is no answer. How could there be any answer. After all how could they change what could they change to. Different things happen and at the end of more or less of a century the different things that have happened makes everybody do all the different things that have happened very differently, but they as a nation although they do do things differently do do those different things differently in the way they as that nation always has done them always will do them. And therefore any nation's literature is a homogeneous thing although in every century everything is different.

I do know about English literature that it has been determined by the fact that England is an island and that the daily life on that island was a completely daily life, that they could do nothing but lead a daily life on that island and that the more they owned everything outside of that island the more inevitably and completely were they forced to live the daily life in a more daily way, because if they owned everything outside they could not possibly allow themselves to confuse the inside with the outside. Every hundred years or so everything changed, that they were English people living on an island did not change but things in relation one thing to another changed and that is what makes a century and in every century the relations of anything to anything changed and this change is what makes history, and really this is a thing for all of us to remember and to realize because it is going to make very clear the interesting thing that mostly history is not literature that literature is not history.

Literature we may say is what goes on all the time history is what goes on from time to time and this is what is terribly important to think about in connection with narrative.

But to come back again to English literature.

As I say the English people did different things the nations near them or around them did different things and about once every hundred years everybody became conscious of this thing that everybody had come to do different things that is to say had come to do the same things in a different way in a way so different that everyone could come to know this thing know that it was a really different way and so of course a different way that had come to stay. That is inevitably what every one once every hundred or so years really comes to say. And this had happened in England in the same way as it happens anywhere where there is a grandfather or a grandmother to a grandson or a granddaughter. But all the time the English people were living their life every day, that had to be because that is what their island life had made them be that they lived their daily life every minute of the day. And the whole of English literature was a description of this daily life that they lived every day. And now there is another thing to say. If you live a daily life every minute of the day the description of that daily life every day must be moving, it must fill you with complete emotion and it must at the same time be soothing. It must be completing as emotion and it must be soothing. If you live your daily life every minute of the whole day there must really be very little excitement in the narrative with which you while the time away that is natural enough if you think about it and a great deal of the written narrative in English literature has to do with this thing, they want narrative they need narrative because as they live their daily life every minute of the day narrative has so much to say it has to say that that daily life is being lived every second of that day. And that is what literature does it emphasizes what every one has as the life of the nation which the life of every one in that nation makes it be. That is what literature is as anybody can see if they read the writing as a nation makes it be.

It makes it be absolutely clear that the daily life in England is a daily life lived every minute of the day. That is to say. The minutes succeeding each other each one has in it in the daily living that minutes succeed each other give them and every one knowing that daily living is going on in each one of them can know this in them in each minute of them and each minute can give anyone this thing, that daily living is existing.

Americans and English use the same language but the Americans have not a daily living as any Englishman does and can have.

In America life goes on but not from minute to minute and each minute being filled full with it.

Therefore Americans do not need a narrative of every day of any day, they have nothing to tell of the living of every moment in a daily living, they have nothing to say of living every day that makes it be a really soothing thing to say. Think of any American narrative and what it has to say.

Not at all.

One may say that in America there is no daily life at all.

The English live their island life every day every minute of the day and if there could be one moment in the day in which their daily life was not lived in the daily island way their narrative would be at an end there would be nothing to say. Now the English write their narrative in English because that is the language they have made and it is made to tell of a daily life lived every minute of the day. Also as it is a daily life lived every minute of the day it is a soothing thing to say and mostly what the English have had to say has been that it has been a soothing thing to say that they live every minute of the day even when the day has been a difficult day.

Now the Americans also tell their story in English, but as they have no daily life every minute of every day and as the language is written down so much any and every day they can not change that language and still they have nothing to say no narrative to tell about living every day no narrative to soothe anyone who is living every minute of every day.

So what can they do.

At any other time at a time when everybody and everything is not being written all the time it would have been an easy thing to make the language the Americans are using another language but now it is almost impossible to do this. Little by little it does not change the words they use continue to be all the same and yet the narrative they have to tell has nothing whatever to do with the narrative the English have and had to tell.

The American not living every minute of every day in a daily way does not make what he has to say to be soothing he wants what he has to say to be exciting, and to move as everything moves, not to move as emotion is moving but to move as anything that really moves is moving.

It is going to be very interesting and it is very interesting and it has been very interesting to see how two nations having the same words all the same grammatical construction have come to be telling things that have nothing whatever in common.

It is something that anyone interested in narrative has to very much think about, because it has never happened before. Always before the language of each nation who had a narrative to make a story to tell a life to express a thing to say did it with a language that had gradually become a language that was made gradually by them to say what they had to say. But here in America because the language was made so late in the day that is at a time when everybody began to read and to write all the time and to read what was written all the time it was impossible that the language would be made as languages used to be made to say what the nation which was coming to be was going to say. All this has never happened before. History repeats itself anything repeats itself but all this had never happened before.

So what has there been and what is there and what is there going to be to do about it. That narrative is going to be made that the story they have to tell is going to be told that the nation which lives in a land that has made it that nation will have to tell its story in its own way about that there can be no doubt, the story must be told will be told can be told but they will tell this story they tell this story using the exactly same words that were made to tell an entirely different story and the way it is being done the pressure being put upon the same words to make them move in an entirely different way is most exciting, it excites the words it excites us who use them. These words that were made by those who finally made them to tell the story of the soothing of living every minute of the day a daily living these words by the pressure of being used by those who never any day live a daily living have not come to have a different meaning not at all but they have come to have a different movement in them and this is all so very very exciting and interesting and unexpectedly a real thing. As always it has taken a century for anybody to really completely know this thing about the language we use we Americans use to tell that there is in us for us by us and with us no daily daily living.

So then we must really realize that the language the English language was made by the English people to tell this thing that the daily living the daily island living is every moment existing and that any and every Englishman is always conscious of the necessary existing every minute of his living of the daily living which makes him an Englishman with a daily island living, this is true of Englishmen Englishwomen and English children.

There is never a moment in the day when the English people do not live their daily living every day their daily island living every day, and this as the language formed itself to tell what the people who made it had to tell of how they lived every day they lived in their daily way every moment of the day it changed from the language as it began in Chaucer's day to the nineteenth century when it completely told in every way that they lived their daily life every moment of every day.

Think well of English literature and you will see what I mean.

As I said in the nineteenth century as the sun never set upon the English flag and that island owned everything outside they had more and more to tell every minute of every day that they were leading their daily living every moment of every day because otherwise the outside might come to be inside and the inside might come to be outside and then their way of telling about the way they lived their daily living every day would have gone away.

And so by the time the English language had its final form made by the English who had made a language it was a language that could completely soothingly movingly say that they lived their daily life every day.

So there they were and the Americans were not at all that way they did not live their life at all no not at all in that way and they had it to say that they lived their own life in their own way and they had it to say it with the words that had been made to tell a nation's story in an entirely different way as the nation who had made the language had the entirely different story to tell of living their daily life every moment of every day.

You do understand if you think about it that the American people do not live their daily life in every minute of every day.

Think about it and you will see that you do realize that. Think about how the American lives his life and you must realize that although he is alive any day unless he is dead never the less he does not in any way feel himself as living his daily life every moment of any day.

And so we have this situation, a settled language because a language is settled after it does not change any more that is as to words and grammar, and it being written so completely written all the time it inevitably cannot change much and yet the pressure upon these words to make them do something that they did not do for those who made that language come to exist is a very interesting thing to watch.


Excerpted from Narration by Gertrude Stein. Copyright © 1935 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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