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Gertrude Stein and the Essence of What Happens

Gertrude Stein and the Essence of What Happens

by Dana Cairns Watson


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In this provocative study, Dana Cairns Watson traces Gertrude Stein's growing fascination with the cognitive and political ramifications of conversation and how that interest influenced her writing over the course of her career. No book in recent decades has illuminated so many of Stein's works so extensively--from the early fiction of The Making of Americans to the poetry of Tender Buttons to her opera libretto The Mother of Us All.

Seeking to sustain Stein's lively, pleasant, populist spirit, Watson shows how the writer's playful entanglement of sight and sound--of silent reading and social speaking--reveals the crucial ambiguity by which reading and conversation build communities of meaning, and thus form not only personal relationships but also our very selves and the larger political structures we inhabit. Stein reminds us that the residual properties of words and the implications behind the give-and-take of ordinary conversation offer alternatives to linear structures of social order, alternatives especially precious in times of political oppression. For example, her novels Mrs. Reynolds and Brewsie and Willie, both written in embattled Vichy France, contemplate the speech patterns of totalitarian leaders and the ways in which everyday discourse might capitulate to--or resist--such verbal tyranny.

Like recent theorists, Stein recognized the repressiveness of conventional order--carried in language and thus in thought and social organization--but as Watson persuasively shows, she also insisted that the free will of individuals can persist in language and enable change. In the play of literary aesthetics, Stein saw a liberating force.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826514639
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 01/21/2005
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Dana Cairns Watson has taught American literature and English composition at Middlebury College, Santa Monica College, and the University of California, Los Angeles. She has written on Tim O'Brien, Barbara Kingsolver, Paule Marshall, and Alice Munro.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: "Announce what you see" 1

1 Talking and Listening in Stein's Early Life and Works 15

"Interested in the mere workings of the machinery"
The Potential Remaking of Americans, or Revising America
Sound Writing
A Sensible Education

2 Modifying the Mind: William James and Tender Buttons 36

Tender Buttons Disturb a Center: Questioning Our Rhetorical Religion

3 Conversational Relations in Geography and Plays 57

Recognizing the Real in a Collage of Words and Phrases
Food and Talk
The Motivations behind What Happened
What Can Happen When People Talk and Read
Conversation Patterning as the Essence of What Happens
Some Discoveries: Subtle Antagonism, or Free Play in Language
Repairing Friendship in "Susie Asado"
One-sided Conversations with Shakespeare, or Tricked by Talk

4 Talk in the Thirties: In the Present, with the Past 89

Starting Conversations in America
What They Might Have Talked About
Stein and Einstein
The Closed American Mind
Writing and Speaking in Stein's Quirky Defining
Learning about Listening through Reading Borrow and Smollett
Stein's Reading and Writing of "Rights" and "Rites"

5 Talking Boundaries into Thresholds in Ida 119

"Who is any one said the wife to the husband"
Fame and the Public: Alienation from the Self
The Self and Its Trappings
Stein at Night Means Delight
Standing in the Window
Also Known As, or The Metaphor of Sight
The Death of Conversation, or The Monologue of Death
Human Intertextuality

6 Expressing a State of Mind: Conversation, Politics and Individuality in Mrs. Reynolds and Brewsie and Willie 149

Talking under an Angel Harper Cloud
"A queer state of living," or Resistance through Reticulation and Local Area Networks
Getting Together and Thinking in Brewsie and Willie
Yes-and-No "Job-men"
Stein "ain't so phony as she sounds"
Real Ideas

Conclusions: Feminine Endings 193

"The Woman Who Changed the Mind of a Nation"
Sublime Amalgamations

Notes 205
Bibliography 235
Index 251

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