My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One hallmark of modernism is a reversal in the priority of literature and painting. While theorists from antiquity through the 19th century debated in the abstract the relation between the two media, between word and image, literature pragmatically ruled over painting: the latter was an anecdotal or narrative art that took written stories, whether from scripture or mythology or history, as its subject matter. But by the end of the 19th century, painters increasingly abandoned subject matter as such and began to explore the nature of the medium itself, more interested in shape and color than what the artist could make them pretend to be.
The Penguin Classics edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1909 triptych Three Lives insists on this visual context. In her introduction, Ann Charters links Stein’s innovations in prose fiction to her inspiration by the modernist art she and her brother always were collecting (as Stein herself might write) when they moved to Paris. From Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, she learned to dispense with conventions of plot and grammar and experiment instead with “incremental blocks of description” and “repetition in her description and dialogue” as verbal correlates for the painters’ visual explorations.
She was likewise influenced by her old professor, William James, who, according to Charters, “believed that consciousness was experienced in repetitive, short, incremental stages, not in logical sequences.” (Can one wonder, without spoiling the avant-garde fun, why, if this is true, humanity had been writing for so long in logical sequences?) Finally, like so many Anglophone experimentalists, Stein took heart from the French literati, and modeled her Three Lives on Flaubert’s Trois contes.
Three Lives was too formally radical to be published by a mainstream press, so Stein had the book put out at her own expense by a vanity publisher. (How much great modern writing was independently published, from Blake to Whitman to Crane to Woolf? Doesn’t it suggest that some great contemporary fiction might be found outside the Manhattan mainstream? But I digress.) The book is, as its title states, structured in three parts: two shorter pieces about German-American servant women frame the show-stopper central novella, “Melanctha.”
First is “The Good Anna,” modeled on Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” about a definitively good woman who is always “scolding” both her employers (she loves to work for “large helpless women”) and the servants who labor under her. She scolds because she alone knows “the right way for a girl to do.” Anna’s is an uneventful life well lived, marked by devotion to her helpless mistresses, conflicts with recalcitrant subordinates, and only one “romance” (“Romance,” Stein defines,”is the ideal in one’s life and it is very lonely living with it lost”). Her romance is not with a man, a potential husband, but with a widowed Mrs. Lehntman, who visits spirit mediums, loves to “deliver young girls who were in trouble,” eventually gets mixed up with an “evil” doctor (implicitly an abortionist), and who constantly asks Anna for money.
Anna’s endless generosity is the story’s motif, the gratuitous selflessness that saves her moralism (“her firm character, her vigorous judgments and the bitter fervour of her tongue”) from becoming mere priggishness, that prevents her from being obliterated by the irony of the narrative voice in its amused focus (“You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life”) on her foibles:
So the good Anna gave her all to friends and strangers, to children, dogs and cats, to anything that asked or seemed to need her care.
At the other end of the book, “The Gentle Lena” narrates the life of a more docile protagonist. The titular heroine was brought from Germany to work in the household of richer relations. Though her hazel eyes have “the earth patience of the working, gentle german woman,” the household’s daughters, aspirant Americans, resent her and her background:
These hard working, earth-rough german cousins were to these american born children, ugly and dirty, and as far below them as were italian or negro workmen, and they could not see how their mother could ever bear to touch them, and then all the women dressed so funny, and were worked all rough and different.
Eventually, after one attempt to abscond on the part of the groom (who “did not like to see girls and he did not want to have one always with him”), Lena enters a more-or-less arranged marriage (“a bargain, just like one you make in business”), and dies in childbed along with her newborn after her fourth pregnancy. Before she dies, the narrator sums up her lethal passivity:
Lena did what she had to do the way she always had been taught it. She always just kept going now with her working, and she was always careless, and dirty, and a little dazed, and lifeless. Lena never got any better in herself of this way of being that she had had ever since she had been married.
The story ends on the ironic note of her husband’s satisfaction, her husband who “now always lived very happy, very gentle, very quiet, very content with his three children. [A]lways alone now, with his three good, gentle children.”
As with “The Good Anna,” we’re left with an ambivalent portrait of a German-American woman of the working class—ambivalent because Stein refuses overt authorial judgment, and because it is unclear what we are to make of the juxtaposition between Anna’s and Lena’s genuine naïveté and the high modernist artifice, the Picasso-like primitivism and willful Cézannesque simplicity, of Stein’s narratorial “naïveté.” If the elite Stein isn’t writing about the lower orders to incite sympathy for the plight and reform of their condition, the way a Victorian writer would, what is she doing?
Despite some feminist attitudes evident in the stories’ satire of marriage and depiction of female friendship, we can’t attribute a progressive political intention to Stein. As Janet Malcolm frankly states in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, in the course of explicating Stein’s compromises, possibly amounting to outright collaboration, to survive in occupied France during World War II, “Stein was a conservative with an increasingly reactionary bent—she loved the Republican Party, she hated Roosevelt, and she actually supported Franco.”
Sympathy with the political right was no more unusual among female modernists than among male—the list includes Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, and Zora Neale Hurston. While this no doubt rightly offends us, with our post-1960s presupposition that all artists (not to mention all women and all queer people) should be on the left, “The Good Anna” intimates what Stein might have seen as the aesthetic merits of a reactionary outlook:
Anna looked very well this day. She was always careful in her dress and sparing of new clothes. She made herself always fulfill her own ideal of how a girl should look when she took her Sundays out. Anna knew so well the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life. […] She knew the best thing in each kind, and she never in the course of her strong life compromised her sense of what was the right thing for a girl to wear.
A stable sense of rank empowers the reactionary artist, like the good Anna, to apprehend society as an ordered aesthetic object with every element, from ugliness to beauty, in its proper place.
These political issues become more acute in the collection’s last-written, centrally-placed, and enormously influential novella, “Melanctha.” Here Stein turns her attention from the white immigrant milieu to black society. Her heroine is a light-skinned (“half made with real white blood”) daughter of “a very unendurable black father,” a violent drunkard (and “big black virile negro”) whom she hates, and “a sweet-appearing and dignified and pleasant, pale yellow colored woman,” about whom Melanctha feels ambivalence if not resentment. The novella’s narrative focuses on this “complex, desiring” heroine’s quest for knowledge, implicitly erotic knowledge, a quest crossed and countervailed by a need to find someone who makes her “feel a little safe inside her.”
She seeks both knowledge and safety in the company of less reputable women—the alcoholic Jane Harden and the “real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress” Rose Johnson. But at the story’s center is her doomed romance with the conservative physician (who attends her mother on her deathbed), Jeff Campbell.
Jeff, also black, is a devotee of Booker T. Washington-style uplift and respectability (“I don’t believe much in this running around business and I don’t want to see the colored people do it. I am a colored man and I ain’t sorry, and I want to see the colored people like what is good”), and he is so consumed with thought that he finds it almost impossible to express his feelings. Melanctha, by contrast, is untroubled by scruple or rumination or the need to be “a credit to her race” as she befriends drunken women and walks the railyards and docks and job sites to attract the attentions of men.
Much of the novella is taken up with their long, repetitive, and constantly-renewed dialogue on thought vs. feeling, morality vs. passion. This mismatch of sensibilities first brings them together, because opposites attract, and then drives them apart. I have to quote at length to give you the flavor of their long quarrel; their romance, and their dispute, goes around in circles for about 70 pages of this archly stylized dialogue before Jeff concludes that “Melanctha was too many for him”:
“Yes I certainly do see that very clear Dr. Campbell,” said Melanctha, “I see that’s certainly what it is always made me not know right about you and that’s certainly what it is that makes you really mean what you was always saying. You certainly are just too scared Dr. Campbell to really feel things way down in you. All you are always wanting Dr. Campbell, is just to talk about being good, and to play with people just to have a good time, and yet always to certainly keep yourself out of trouble. It don’t seem to me Dr. Campbell that I admire that way to do things very much. It certainly ain’t really to me being very good. It certainly ain’t any more to me Dr. Campbell, but that you certainly are awful scared about really feeling things way down in you, and that’s certainly the only way Dr. Campbell I can see that you can mean, by what it is that you are always saying to me.”
“I don’t know about that Miss Melanctha, I certainly don’t think I can’t feel things very deep in me, though I do say I certainly do like to have things nice and quiet, but I don’t see harm in keeping out of danger Miss Melanctha, when a man knows he certainly don’t want to get killed in it, and I don’t know anything that’s more awful dangerous Miss Melanctha than being strong in love with somebody. I don’t mind sickness or real trouble Miss Melanctha, and I don’t want to be talking about what I can do in real trouble, but you know something about that Miss Melanctha, but I certainly don’t see much in mixing up just to get excited, in that awful kind of danger. No Miss Melanctha I certainly do only know just two kinds of ways of loving. One kind of loving seems to me, is like one has a good quiet feeling in a family when one does his work, and is always living good and being regular, and then the other way of loving is just like having it like any animal that’s low in the streets together, and that don’t seem to me very good Miss Melanctha, though I don’t say ever that it’s not all right when anybody likes it, and that’s all the kinds of love I know Miss Melanctha, and I certainly don’t care very much to get mixed up in that kind of a way just to be in trouble.”
Melanctha, like her white counterparts, dies at the end. Unlike Anna and Lena, with their respective goodness and gentleness, Melanctha at least acts to elaborate the complexity of her nature in the world and so stands above any attempt by the ironies of the plot or the narrative voice to put her in her place. She even rises above Stein’s racialism—as the author had enlightened us on the German and Irish character in her immigrant stories, she dilates in “Melanctha” upon “the simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people” and “the wide abandoned laughter that gives the broad glow to negro sunshine”—to attain the status of an almost tragic heroine.
Despite what reads to us now as overbearing racism, we can see how this anti-heroine might have attracted, for instance, Nella Larsen to Three Lives. Larsen, reports Thadious M. Davis in the Introduction to the Penguin Classics Quicksand, sent her own first novel, with its Melanctha-like heroine, to Stein in Paris with a note saying she had read “Melanctha” “many times” and called it a “truly great story.”
The broader African-American reception of “Melanctha” has been mixed. Richard Wright, like Larsen, admired it; according to Elaine Showalter in her history of American female writers, A Jury of Her Peers,
Richard Wright claimed to have read “Melanctha” to a group of black stockyard workers who “slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped”; he, too, felt that the story was the first long serious treatment of Negro life in the United States,” much more authentic than the work of Zora Neale Hurston.
A certain type of reader will cynically relish this story, with its implication that black stockyard workers, like Jewish lesbians, might not, in the early 20th century, have held progressive identity politics that could measure up to the exacting standards of the early 21st century—that where the oppressed gather is no idyll, that the meek may not inherit the earth, nor even be especially meek. Yet I heard a formidable carrier of our contemporary standard, Claudia Rankine, express onstage, in conversation with Marilynne Robinson in October of 2016, her own awareness of how “Melanctha,” despite its blemishes, widened the possibilities of American expression and representation for everyone.
Toni Morrison, by contrast, was more skeptical. In “Gertrude Stein and the Difference She Makes” (collected in The Source of Self Regard), Morrison admires Stein’s forays into sexual and linguistic transgression, but accuses her of appropriating a stylized and essentialized black mask to do so, and this in distinction to the white immigrants who frame Melanctha and, by contrast with her blackness, become American:
Like the French doctor who was able to develop the paradigm for his gynecological instruments after sustained experiments with his black servant woman, Gertrude Stein is comfortable advancing her “newness,” safe in her choice of forbidden territory because she is operating on a body that appears to be offered up to her without protest, without restraint. Wholly available for the articulation of the illegal, the illicit, the dangerous, the new. Like the white entertainers who were able to garner huge audiences when, in blackface, they spoke through the Africanistic persona (as), they could say the unspeakable, the forthrightly sexual, the subversively political.
While the first simile unduly catastrophizes (a fictional character is not really like a flesh-and-blood person such that experiments with the former are morally akin to experiments on the latter), and while Morrison might underemphasize the thoroughness of Stein’s “racial science”—in Three Lives, she makes sharp distinctions among those she labelled (lowercase hers) germans, irish, and italians, and thus didn’t think much in terms of “whiteness”—the overall point is hard to argue. It is even harder when we learn, from Malcolm’s Two Lives among other sources, that “Melanctha” is a fictionalization of Stein’s own early affair with May Bookstaver—a relationship in which Stein apparently played the ruminative, sexually cold and conservative Jeff Campbell role. In her experimental fiction, she casts a black woman as both Other and wishful surrogate, to teach herself to feel passionately, as Melanctha taught Jeff—to “Melancthate it,” as William H. Gass has it in his fiercely admiring essay on Three Lives in A Temple of Texts.
Gass changes the subject, if it is a change of subject, from politics to style. He narrates his own dazed single-sitting cover-to-cover reading of Three Lives early in graduate school, and he explains why it stunned him. Contra Ann Charters’s emphasis above on the modern painters, Gass shifts our focus from pictures to music.
Why hadn’t I known long before reading Stein—was I such a dunce?—that the art was in the music—it was Joyce’s music, it was James’s music, it was Faulkner’s music; without the music, words fell to earth in prosy pieces; without the music, there was only comprehension, and comprehension may have been analysis, may have been interpretation, may have been philosophy, but it wasn’t art; art was the mind carried to conclusions ahead of any understanding by the music—the order, release, and sounding of the meaning.
Music is not just a matter of taste, any more than is any other art, since art is discipline and tradition as well as pleasure, but I did not read Three Lives straight through in one sitting; I crawled through it dutifully instead, in about 10 days.
One commonplace of Steinoclasm is that she wrote in babytalk (the youngest of five siblings, she relished a cosseted infantile role all her life, and Alice B. Toklas referred to her as “Baby”). But babies do not speak. The impression “Melanctha” made on me was of a brilliant story that with enviable economy crystallizes into the clash of two sensibilities the erotic, affective, political, epistemological, and aesthetic differences that divide us all, the story of Helga Crane and Dr. Anderson that Nella Larsen never quite got around to telling in Quicksand. And yet, forgive my philistinism, Stein tells this story in the maddening, ceaseless babble—needy, repetitive, demanding, now certain, now furiously unsure—not of a baby but of a toddler.
Like a perseverating three-year-old, Stein often hits on startling verbal coinages and earworm rhythms. Gass claims to find metrical precision in Stein’s lines, yet by all accounts she wrote automatically, letting the papers drop to the floor for Toklas to collect and type up, and rarely if ever revised. The patterns Gass sees can no doubt be found if you’re looking, but so can Jesus in the wall plaster. Still, Stein provides plenty of local verbal interest. This paragraph, for example, is a perfect chanting prose-poem with its hypnotic epistrophes:
Jeff Campbell too began to feel a little his old joy inside him. The sodden quiet began to break up in him. He leaned far out of the window to mix it all up with him. His heart went sharp and then it almost stopped inside him. Was it Melanctha Herbert he had just seen passing by him? Was it Melanctha, or was it just some other girl, who made him feel so bad inside him? Well, it was no matter, Melanctha was there in the world around him, he did certainly always know that in him. Melanctha Herbert was always in the same town with him, and he could never any more feel her near him. What a fool he was to throw her from him. Did he know she did not really love him. Suppose Melanctha was now suffering through him. Suppose she really would be glad to see him. And did anything else he did, really mean anything now to him? What a fool he was to cast her from him. And yet did Melanctha Herbert want him, was she honest to him, had Melanctha ever loved him, and did Melanctha now suffer by him? Oh! Oh! Oh! and the bitter water once more rose up in him.
And the rhymes here, in the faithless Rose Johnson’s final judgment on Melanctha, just as Melanctha is about to meet her end, are utterly beguiling:
“I certainly don’t never want no kind of harm to come bad to Melanctha, but I certainly do think she will most kill herself some time, the way she always say it would be easy way for her to do. I never see nobody ever could be so awful blue.”
But too much of “Melanctha,” where her style really comes into its own, is recursion and repetition: repetition with a difference, this technique being the key to Stein’s art, but the question of how much we should endure, at least if we’re not enjoying it, for a supposedly fresh way to significance, remains open. Paintings can be taken in at a glance, and much can be excused for the sake of experiment in a poem or short story, but you have to live with a novella, like a roommate or a lover.
In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter, always cheerfully dismissive of modernist grandiosity (her history of English female writers, A Literature of Their Own, disparages Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf), pronounces the other commonplace of the anti-Stein contingent—that the author was a hoaxer:
But as more information about Stein’s ongoing battles with Toklas, the casualness of her texts and methods of composition, and the unsavory details of the couple’s survival in Vichy France as the pet Jews of a Nazi collaborator comes to light, through Janet Malcolm and other scholars, the harder it will be for Stein’s supporters to defend an investment of time in her work. Stein seems more and more like the Empress Who Had No Clothes—a shocking sight to behold in every respect.
I am not unsympathetic, but I wouldn’t go quite so far; I might even defend on principle, if not in every case or even in this one, Stein’s own rebuke to the Showalters of the world, guised as Melanctha’s reproof of stodgy Jeff:
“I certainly never did see no man like you, Jeff. You always wanting to have it all clear out in words always, what everybody is always feeling. I certainly don’t see a reason, why I should always be explaining to you what I mean by what I am just saying.”
Finally, Stein’s enormous influence is too important to allow her ejection from the canon on political or aesthetic grounds. No doubt in the Hegelian annals of literary history Three Lives had to walk so that The Sun Also Rises, Quicksand, and Native Son could run. But just as we can’t will the past to have happened otherwise, history for all its majesty can’t command our appreciation.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!