The Last Book I Loved: The Geographical History of America by Gertrude Stein

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I’m quite sure that if I lived when Gertrude Stein did, I would have not enjoyed her person—the pronouncements, the relentless self-promotion, the blatant self-absorption (“I am a genius”). If I lived in her time I probably, like so many else then, would not have enjoyed her writing either—the repetitions, the lack of story, the blatant self-absorption (“I am I because my little dog knows me”).

What would Gertrude have made of the internet? She probably would have done with it all there is to do before anyone would have thought to make web pages, profiles, accounts and the like temples to the primary person who screams for attention like some importunate shade forever ensconced in the backwards/forwards accretion of information.

The sunny truth is Gertrude Stein created herself and her persona decades before anyone was given free electronic access to do so, and she did because she was smart, because her family moved around and she was raised in Europe, because her brother knew art and a hell of a lot else and they had a healthy competition, because she went to medical school, because she studied under William James, and because, she was finally, fantastically, a genius. And a genius who believed people needed to read what she had to say on the page.

Geographical History1932 to 1935 were pivotal years for Gertrude. She wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in six weeks for money and though Alice, her lover and guise through which she really wrote about Gertrude Stein and not Alice B. Toklas, thought the work would not come to anything, it was a bestseller and suddenly they had more money than ever before. After returning to America and going on a lecture circuit, the famous exile began work on a piece whose title constituted her grand obsession besides sentences, America and Americans, called The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, having already written her 1000-page novel The Making of Americans, Four in America, and Lectures in America.

There is much braying about experimental writing today. What is truly experimental? Does such writing even exist? The more fitting question might be who has read Gertrude Stein beyond Three Lives and The Autobiography? Because whenever someone goes Duchamping about with language she is there. The Geographical History of America is the ultimate think piece, because the thought is raw—it sits on the page newborn, squirming in blood, with the American placenta very warm. Stein greatest commenter, William H. Gass, said of the book:

We not only repeat when we see, stand, communicate; we repeat when we think. There’s no other way to hold a thought long enough to examine it except to say its words over and over, and the advance of our mind from one notion to another is similarly filled with backs and forths, erasures and crossings-out. The style of The Geographical History of America is often a reflection of this mental condition. (117-8)

There are many chapter IV’s in the book and a chapter III follows a chapter I and so on. Here, some pages into the text, she talks to her critics:

Chapter IV

They say I am not right when I say that what you say is not the same as what you write but anybody try to write and they will say that this is so.
When you write well when you write anybody try to write and they will say that I am right.
What you say has nothing to do with what you write.
Does it rain in America oh yes and there is snow. High up and low down there is snow, snow snow really beautiful snow. (387)

She wasn’t into the comma thing, “…commas are servile and they have no life of their own…a comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it.” (Poetry and Grammar, 320) Commas conspire—they point the head in the wrong direction, like looking at the sound of a plane when it’s already across the sky. Her music already had its tone and as the crackling words contained a child’s jabberwocky, her common sense danced with no sense and came out crisply baked. And so her philosophy is wrong in all the right ways, because the head does squawk centuries removed from how the hands spell the sentences. She explicitly warns against trusting what she says, but this history isn’t oral, it’s written. Who are we to say she is right? Sentences composed in the head have to pass by the checkpoint of the heart before the hands write or type them.

As Stein proceeds, her alliterations and repetitions pack the ideas so full of stuffing they eventually explode into epiphany:

You may say I think you may say that no one can really give anything to anybody but anybody can sell something to somebody.
This is what makes the human mind and not human nature although a great many one might say anybody can say something about this not being so. But it is so.
And the human mind can live does live by anybody being able to sell something to somebody. That is what money is. (398)

The tussle between the human mind and human nature is the more capricious theme in the book. A rancorous bout—which side can be taken? Because without one we aren’t whole. This farrago into ontology is the perfect complement to Stein’s lexical devolutions. See the ways of the first sentence. “May say” repeats and she plays with the “any’s” and “some’s” on “things” and “bodies,” with the sss of “sell something to somebody” placed and then repeated as an unfriendly refrain. The last line of comedy is the ye olde punchline and when she puts that leafy tender at the end—a tender that is the current God, begetter, and begotten—everyone chillingly remembers what really directs our life; everyone except the rich, who have little need or interest in reading fiction.

Later, she introduces a seeming dead end of information:

Part fifteen.

Four things that having nothing to do with this.
1. That when anybody is elected to anything although he has never done it before he begins to do that.
2. I said to Upton Sinclair what would you have done if you had been elected and he said thank god I was not elected.

I used to wonder when I saw boys who had just been boys and they went into an office to work and they came out with a handful of papers and I said to them how since you never had anything to do with papers before business papers how do you know what to do with them. They just did. They knew what to do with them. (417)

She never gets to numbers 3 or 4 by the way. Since it is a Geographical History of America, one needs Americans in the cast and so enter Upton. And because it’s a history it has to be political, even if human nature is political and the human mind is not. The “boys” grow out of the “What is the use of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man,” (370) which she batted about like a tiger with a duckling in the beginning of the piece—a mantra and a process that puts the reader in an Oscar Wilde mood, but these boys aren’t British. They go into an office, get their papers, and suddenly they are men—slipstream. Gertrude wrote in every genre.

As the book goes on, she more and more weaves her philosophy into the country’s flag:

Part X

I think that if you announce what you see nobody can say no. Everybody does
everybody does say no but nobody can nobody can say so, that is no.
That is the reason that you can say what you see
And so you see.
That is what the national hymn says the star spangled banner.
Oh say can you see. (442)

Gertrude made use of what most abuses us, but turns that pain into laughter. To go steady and read Gertrude is the same as going outside to play catch, but the reader only catches. She throws, throws some “sees” and some “says” and sees if you can see.

Later in the History a pivotal word is introduced over which Gertrude pivots all ways— master-pieces.

But to accustom oneself to the problem the problem of why if human nature is not interesting are master-pieces supposed to be interesting because of the subject of human nature in them…Human nature is not interesting and what the masterpieces tell about human nature in them is not what makes them everlastingly interesting, not it is not. (461-2)

In a companion essay, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” written in the same year as the History, she said:

There are so few of them because mostly people live in identity and memory that is when they think. They know they are they because their little dog knows them, and so they are not an entity but an identity. And being so memory is necessary to make them exist and so they cannot create master-pieces. (360)

Though a “History” of the West, her dissecting of modes of being verges on Eastern, as she packs koans, “they are they because their little dog knows them,” into the groundwork for her metaphysics of morals. She adds in the History:

You see the only thing about government and governing that is interesting is money. Everything else in governing and propaganda is human nature and as such it is not interesting. (462)

This talks back at the essay and points toward its culminating dismissal of ego and history itself:

If there was no identity no one could be governed, but everybody is governed by everybody and that is why they make no masterpieces, and also why governing has nothing to do with master-pieces it has completely to do with identity but it has nothing to do with master-pieces. And that is why governing is occupying but not interesting, governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly what they are not. (363)

Gertrude SteinIs this why old newspaper articles are not interesting? The same government issues—the only difference is the amount of money involved. Perhaps no one has stated so straight-laced why politics has no place in art—and this was before the second war she was to see. If Gertrude had an interest it was to turn the world on its head and though still yoked and yodeled about unwittingly and disingenuously as prolix (a prominent history professor says of her, “She was not a radical feminist. She was Jewish and anti-Semitic, lesbian and contemptuous of women, ignorant about economics and hostile to socialism” )—she remains our best statesman; ahead of economists, self-help gurus, creative writing professors, ahead of everyone, except her little dog. She owned a portrait of Mme. Cézanne painted by her husband and she stared at it while working on Three Lives. She transferred her sights into sounds and said, “Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole…” The blurred colors she meditated on assaulted a mind that had read Shakespeare continuously and later Henry James and James Joyce. The revolutionizing of the English language had to based on the previous paragons and her prose piece called “Henry James” from Four in America, is more about enunciating the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, than the American exile who lived in England, one of the few other writers she would stoop to call a “genius.”

Why aren’t we writing like Gertrude? Because we are writing like Hemingway (and Eliot in poetry) who was taught by Gertrude how to write better. She clipped his sentences and he won the Nobel Prize—certainly a chain of events reminding us how it has always been a man’s world. Two eccentrics, Gertrude and Ezra Pound, took English Language writing into the modern age and those they helped, who had more timid aesthetic instincts, Hemingway and Eliot, collected the gold.

Stein created individual works, including stricter poetry, plays, lectures, and two more autobiographies, but they were all part of one giant book with many gradations. The History, supported and composed out of the ideas in many of her lectures on method, is a hinge in that grand design. Because her mind turned in the wake of the success of The Autobiography—she was confounded by it and eventually sad—her art had to ape these other sensations. The History is a fittingly proud book because she returned to “writ[ing] for herself and strangers,” taking “the oldest country in the world” and attempting to give it a Geographical History.


Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →