I have traditionally categorized Gertrude Stein as an important figure in the arts of her time but a lousy, self-centered writer. Way back in college I read a good deal of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas but probably only to get a good recipe for brownies. Through the years, though, I have run across praise for Stein, soon followed by literary conclusions that her prose was laughable. I suppose it’s confusing but I tend to lean towards bad writing.
Today I was messing around on the iPad and ended up reading the entirety of Tender Buttons (which is quite short). I know that this is considered one of Stein’s hermetic works, usually described as a collection of sound and little sense but somehow captivating. As I read I realized that this was a very different form from the standard concepts of novel, poem, essay, etc. At first I considered it a collection of thoughts, often very strange thoughts, and began to consider it a form of Journal. I know I have a couple of old Bell Labs record books where I scribble down little thoughts, quotations, etc. and I suppose that would also be a journal. But as I neared the end of Tender Buttons I considered that Stein was actually writing little prose poems.
These poems are very different from the expository prose they seem to mimic. Consider this one:
A Centre in a Table
It was a way a day, this made some sum.
Suppose a cod liver a cod liver is an oil,
suppose a cod liver oil is tunny,
suppose a cod liver oil tunny is pressed is china
and secret with a bestow a bestow reed,
a reed to be a reed to be, in a reed to be.
Next to me next to a folder, next to a folder some waiter,
next to a folder some waiter and re letter and read her.
Read her with her for less.
Rather than have the prose run-on I formatted it more like a poem. It looks like a poem, sounds like a poem … what is it?
Reading the collection of passages I began to associate them with two other literary styles: first with Alain Robbe-Grillet in his Snapshots collection and second with John Dos Passos in his experiments with automatic writing. Or is Gertrude Stein truly original, alas.
By the way: has anyone else noticed the resemblance between Gertrude Stein and Raymond Federman?
Note: I first heard it as “Spiders on the Grass, Alas.” To my ear ‘spiders’ is superior to ‘seagulls’.