Gertrude Stein Recites ‘If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso’

Although her own works are sel­dom read, Gertrude Stein cast an impos­ing shad­ow over the evo­lu­tion of 20th cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture. Like oth­er high mod­ernists, she broke from tra­di­tion to exper­i­ment with new forms, but where­as her rival James Joyce’s writ­ing became more dense and com­plex over time, Stein’s became abstract and sim­ple. Like Paul Cézanne and oth­er mod­ern painters, Stein sought to tran­scend rep­re­sen­ta­tion and reveal an under­ly­ing struc­ture in the per­cep­tu­al world. Her non­lin­ear prose and poet­ry are like paint­ings, frozen in what she called a “con­tin­u­ous present.” As Jonathan Levin writes in the Barnes & Noble Clas­sics edi­tion of Stein’s Three Lives:

Stein clear­ly takes plea­sure in words, almost in a way that a sev­en-year-old might, end­less­ly repeat­ing a word, and var­i­ous­ly inflect­ing it, to the point that it is effec­tive­ly emp­tied of all mean­ing. Rely­ing most­ly on sim­ple, often mono­syl­lab­ic words, Stein wields lan­guage much as the mod­ern painters she admired and col­lect­ed were wield­ing paint, sug­gest­ing form through a rad­i­cal­ly sim­pli­fied use of line and color.…By com­bin­ing and repeat­ing such sim­ple words and phras­es, Stein helped rein­vent the Eng­lish lan­guage for the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Much as Paul Cézanne, Hen­ri Matisse, and Pablo Picas­so helped peo­ple under­stand how the eye con­structs its field of vision, so Stein helped read­ers under­stand how words con­struct a field of mean­ing.

But most read­ers find Stein tedious and unin­tel­li­gi­ble. As Edmund Wil­son writes in Axel’s Cas­tle: A Study in the imag­i­na­tive Lit­er­a­ture of 1870–1930, “Most of us balk at her soporif­ic rig­maroles, her echolali­ac incan­ta­tions, her half-wit­ted-sound­ing cat­a­logues of num­bers; most of us read her less and less. Yet, remem­ber­ing espe­cial­ly her ear­ly work, we are still always aware of her pres­ence in the back­ground of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture.”

Among the writ­ers who knew Stein and were influ­enced by her was Ernest Hem­ing­way. Echoes of Stein’s rhythms and rep­e­ti­tions can be sensed in some of Hem­ing­way’s prose. In his pos­tu­mous­ly pub­lished mem­oir, A Move­able Feast, Hem­ing­way offers his own frank assess­ment of Stein and the nature of her influ­ence:

She had such a per­son­al­i­ty that when she wished to win any­one over to her side she would not be resist­ed, and crit­ics who met her and saw her pic­tures took on trust writ­ing of hers that they could not under­stand because of their enthu­si­asm for her as a per­son, and because of their con­fi­dence in her judge­ment. She had also dis­cov­ered many truths about rhythms and the uses of words in rep­e­ti­tion that were valid and valu­able and she talked well about them.

For a sense of Stein’s exper­i­men­tal style you can lis­ten above as she recites “If I Told Him: A Com­plet­ed Por­trait of Picas­so,” a poem Stein wrote in the sum­mer of 1923 while vis­it­ing her friend Pablo Picas­so on the French Riv­iera. (To read along as you lis­ten, click here to open the text in a new win­dow.) The record­ing was made in New York dur­ing the win­ter of 1934–35, when Stein was pro­mot­ing her pop­u­lar but less exper­i­men­tal book The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Alice B. Tok­las. Encoun­ter­ing Stein today, we can still feel the same annoyed bewil­der­ment that her first read­ers felt. “Per­haps,” writes Levin, “this is because lan­guage, unlike paint, does not sim­ply become ‘beau­ti­ful’ once a style is wide­ly accept­ed. In any event, we might con­sid­er our­selves for­tu­nate to be able still to feel what is shock­ing and irri­tat­ing in mod­ern writ­ing. It reminds us that we are in the pres­ence of some­thing that still feels gen­uine­ly new and dif­fer­ent.”

To hear more of Stein recit­ing, and to hear a rare record­ed inter­view of her from 1934, vis­it the archive at PennSound. And to read sev­er­al of Stein’s works, please vis­it our col­lec­tion of 375 Free eBooks.

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