How I Read Gertrude Stein

An incredibly helpful and thoughtful resource for anyone who’s dipping their toe into Stein’s work and finds themselves drowning. This is a copy of Welch’s 1950 senior thesis for Reed College, focusing on the period of her writing from 1904-1912, but also using some of her 1930s lectures and books to help explain. Lew Welch (I did not know, but now do) was a poet, step-father to musician Huey Lewis (who took his stage name in honor of Lew), who disappeared into the Sierra Nevada in 1971 with gun and left a suicide note (but body never found). In recognition for the service he did the world with this thesis, I’m obligated to dig up his other work to give it a read.

For someone reading How to Write (Stein, 1931) for the first time, I feel lucky to have been able to shout “Help!” and have the first chapter of Welch’s thesis appear within seconds. As I described to a friend at the time, the book (I’m still working through it, savoring the pages) is awful and amazing. By awful, I mean hard. GS doesn’t let you off the hook to float through her words lazily grabbing at meaning. You must work, and come to the understanding that the words are signs pointing to meanings. She doesn’t teach you “how to write,” but forces you to experience language in a way that will allow you to write. Here’s a bit by Stein, followed by Welch’s commentary:

And and they will go.
A is an article.
They are usable. They are found and able and edible. And so they are predetermined and trimmed. (HTW 129)
It is also interesting to notice that although of course articles are not “predetermined and trimmed,” by saying this she turns “predetermined” and “trimmed” into signs and at the same time one is entertained. The entertainment value of such verbal playfulness is extremely important in a work such as this, for unending examples of sentences could easily become terribly tedious. (p 3)

Hell yes! Welch understands that blockheads like myself develop a bit of a headache when faced with the hundreds of pages of not-easy-to-mindlessly-read text. As Welch states, How to Write “forces one into a consciousness of the formal structure of the sentence, by including groups of words which are not sentences among ones that are, and by repeatedly reminding one of sentences by using the word ‘sentence,’ until one feels a conscious relief and sense of solidness when a balanced sentence appears (p 5).” Those entertaining and balanced sentences are life rafts upon which poor swimmers like myself can clamber, wheezing to catch our breath before diving back in. Welch even helpfully ties a buoy around The Waste Land, which I lambasted mercilessly in my blockhead state; simply that the “meaning” of the poem is not where the beauty is, it’s the mechanism, the “manner of the saying” as he also applies to Stein. Stein’s writing insists that you to be conscious of what you’re reading, forcing you away from unconscious reading. This is the biggest gut punch for me, as I tend to read passively, speedily, until tripped up by a delicious morsel of text that I’ll let dissolve on my tongue before continuing.

From reading even a very small amount of her work we learn the importance of relaxing all standards until the experience of the work has been realized. We also learn that this can be done even if we have a large erudition, some very settled habits, and remembered responses. We learn it because we are forced to do it. It has always been true that we derive theories of art from experiences we have had with art. From Stein’s “difficult” writing, and it is difficult to learn to be simple enough to accept the fact that she means what she says, and that she says it as simply as it can be said, from Stein’s difficult writing, then, we can learn to depersonalize ourselves when we look at a work of art, so that the experience is not at once related to or rejected by other experiences, but is an additional experience that realigns, perhaps, our earlier perspective. (p14)

The second chapter gets into Stein’s “Creating Mind,” frequently quoting from the incredibly enjoyable lectures she gave in the 1930s in the US. Welch notes:

The experience while one is reading one of her lectures is therefore unique. It is as if you were Gertrude Stein thinking. If you question her points while you read you have two times going at once and you become confused. But if you let the writing do all of the thinking it is astonishingly clear… she “teaches” you how to think by making you do it, by getting into your consciousness and doing it for you. (p 27)

There’s a very short third chapter, “Composition as Explanation” which quotes the lectures, Picasso, Everybody’s Autobiography, and tackles the idea of continuous present. Chapter four dives into the evolution of her writing, from the story Melanctha through The Making of Americans, to A Long Gay Book. I’ve heard horror stories from people who have read the 1,000 pages of The Making of Americans but am now intrigued about reading it myself, thanks to Welch’s analysis:

These slow unfolding sentences, exactly balanced, with long periods, are the heart of this book. If they seem to be dull there is no way to enjoy this book. To me they are beautiful; they have the effect of building a structure that is monumental. It is slow building, careful building, you must relax and let it impress itself upon you… we must slow down, we must weigh each word, we must concentrate while relaxing standards, as in proofreading. And what is the hurry after all This book is very long and very slow, but after all, one reads the same numbers of hours in a day whether he reads the newspaper or The Making of Americans. The size of the impact of The Making of Americans is directly proportional to its ponderous going. It is a huge book. It has a huge impact. This is because it exactly records the workings of a monumental mind. Monuments are fixed in the earth. They are not brilliant. They are huge. (p 55)

In detailing the transition of Stein’s writing, Welch talks about how she gets deep into an idea and then once its essence is boiled down, becomes bored, lacks enthusiasm, but continues writing and showing us her boredom. Her mind wanders. Welch mentions wanting to go over and shake Gertrude into wakefulness. And she notices this herself, attempts to wake up, but if you can hold out and wait for the times she becomes interested in what she’s doing, it’s worth it. Welch talks about the tediousness of several pages, redeemed when Gertrude resumes her interest in what she’s writing, finally resulting in fantastic passages such as:

Wipe no more and pillow the time to rise, wipe in and have no shutter, weigh and rest more in the middle, protect the top, hold all principally.
Dimmer than a demand of a dance in the surrounding depreciation. And then than whom is the pleasure. A life was sardine to play. A land is thinner. Than which side was tacit. The noise was a pimple. A convex is not hurtled.
A private life is the long thick tree and the private life is the life for me. A tree which is thick is a tree which is thick. A life which is private is not what there is. All the times that come are times I sing, and the singing I sing are the tunes I sing. I sing and I sing and the tunes I sing are what are tunes if they come and I sing. I sing I sing.
A lovely night to stay awake and smell the cake and masticate. A lovely night and no need of surprises, that is what makes it so free of noises. (MPGS 107) (p67-68)

Welch wraps up with an exploration of Portraits and Tender Buttons, making interesting contrasts between Stein’s work and that of seventeenth-century heavyweights Sir Thomas Browne and John Donne. His final chapter puts further emphasis on the value of Stein’s extraordinary writing:

There has been an incredible volume of nonsense written about art, and how it is made, and how one must live while one makes it, written by artists who call upon everything from God to rotten apples on their desks in an attempt to explain their occupation, or make it seem important. If we read most artists on the subject of their art we are only discouraged, confused, enraged or perhaps terribly impressed by something that is beyond us. Gertrude Stein presents art and its creation as if it were just another thing that human beings do, and that is probably what it is. (p84)

She calls herself a genius. Since she is one, why not? And when she talks about it, it is with the same joy of realization that she talks about everything else. She slowly becomes certain that she is a genius and she feels the need to tell us just exactly what being a genius is. She tells us with the same charm, with the same “I am I not any longer when I see” with which she tells us that football games are done with numbers, numbers on the backs of players, numbers chanted while they “dance,” numbers written on the playing field.
Genius is simplicity. One does one thing, in one time, and recognizes nothing else. “It takes a long time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing” (EA 70). (p85)