Scene4 Magazine-inSight

September 2009

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

A Big Read

Listen up. The Steiny Road Poet took the plunge and read every page of Gertrude Stein's magnum opus The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress. Big deal? Yes.

Was it hard to do? Yes and no.

First let the Poet gush. She never expected to come out of this 900-page-plus book thinking now what was so hard about that? Stein is deceptive this way. The Poet will get to the ontological, psychological, scientific, post-modern stuff later. She was surprised on so many occasions about what Stein embedded in this psychological portrait of two American families living in two fictitious coastal cities. No matter what the Poet read about the novel, she also was not prepared for Stein being a character in the novel.

Here's what the Poet would like to accomplish with this installment of The Steiny Road: she would like to provide an entry for the reader who has always wanted to read this tome but was afraid of drowning in too much Stein.

So what would be a good strategy for reading this work? Step One is to get oriented. The Poet started with some notes prepared for student consumption but the Poet will give you that here. Also it would be entirely helpful if you had already read a biography or two about Stein (e.g. Charmed Circle by James R. Mellow, The Third Rose by John Malcolm Brinnin, and Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein by Brenda Wineapple) and Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  


Stein analyzes the character of two families—the Herslands and the Dehnings. David and Fanny Hersland are parents to Martha, Alfred, and David. The Herslands anchor the novel as the table of contents reveals since full chapters are devoted to them as a family and individually to the three children. With the help of his sister Martha, Alfred marries Julia Dehning despite the warnings by Julia's father Henry. Although Stein reveals less about the Dehnings, she tells us that Henry is married to Jenny and they have three children: Julia, George, and Hortense. For both families, Stein provides portraits of the grandparents, some of whom were born in Europe and who brought their families to the United States.  

The subtitle Being a History of a Family's Progress, while referring mostly to the Herslands, takes on active power as the novel opens with the vignette of a son dragging his father through the old man's orchard. The old man shouts stop, I did not dragged my father beyond this tree. The Steiny Road Poet takes this potent scene as a metaphor that feeds directly into what Stein means about a family's progress and particularly how it relates to becoming Americans. Fanny Hersland's father Mr. Hissen had to be cajoled out his European town and while the family is driving away, he steals off for another look at his town. His wife has to run after him and get him back on their departing wagon. Another point of importance is that Stein, who is noted for her desire to stay rooted in the present moment and to create what is now, uses the word history in her title. Literally what she is doing with her novel is dragging literature out of the past and into the future with her portrait that not only makes Americans but also shows what Americans make, including Stein who is making a modernist novel.


The Herslands live on the West Coast of the United States in a city named Gossols. Gossols is said to be Oakland, California, where Stein grew up. The Dehnings live in Bridgepoint, which is where Fanny Hersland is from and where many of her family members live. Bridgepoint, which is on the East Coast of the U.S., is said to be Baltimore where Stein's mother's family lived and where her oldest brother Michael sent Stein and their sister Bertha after their parents died.

SO WHAT'S THE STORY?           

If you, Dear Reader, are familiar with anything by Stein, you already know Stein doesn't do linear, let alone traditional storytelling. Still there are story threads and there are also other characters that play into the story threads of the Herslands and Dehnings. So Step Two is to understand the narrative lines Stein offers about mostly the Herslands and to a lesser degree the Dehnings.

One compelling thread deals with the marriage of Julia Dehning to Alfred Hersland. As the Poet already mentioned, Henry Dehning doesn't want his daughter Julia to marry Alfred. Why? The father doesn't know and has no evidence against his daughter's suitor except that Henry doesn't trust Alfred who comes from a wealthy family and has had many privileges. Julia suggests her father doesn't like him because he plays the piano and parts his hair in the middle. Laughing, Henry agrees that he doesn't like such things in a man. Also Julia's brother who is much younger than his sister doesn't care for Alfred because Alfred knows nothing about the out-of-doors. Jenny Dehning's take is Alfred knows nothing about money and business and so how could he provide for her daughter? Despite the family's disapproval, they marry and eventually the marriage ends in divorce. What's interesting about this story is that it sets up a landscape of middle class morality and assimilation from the Old World of Europe to the new of America. In this world, the Dehnings represent the traditional things of the past and Herslands represent what is new and privileged.

The failed marriage of Martha Hersland and Phillip Redfern reverberates against, what by certain standards seems to be, the more successful union and separation of Julia and Alfred. The marriage of Julia and Alfred produces children and when they divorce, they both know the marriage is over. Martha and Phillip have no children and pretty quickly in their marriage, he falls in love with a colleague at the college where he is newly hired. Phillip rejects Martha because he does not find her smart enough and Martha, who has to be told by the college dean that Phillip is fooling around, never gives up the hope that they will reconcile.


Step 3 is to understand that education and knowledge play a big role in what Stein is delivering. Stein constructs a parade of governesses that the Herslands hire to teach Martha, Alfred, and David junior. These governesses reveal much about David Hersland Senior's beliefs concerning education and learning as well as his own personality, which is volatile and alternates between overbearing and unconnected in much the same way as Daniel Stein, Gertrude's father, was reported to have behave. One particular governess becomes Fanny's project and confidant. The relationship with the governess emphasizes the isolation of Fanny in the rural community of Oakland where Fanny is the wife of a wealthy upper middleclass businessman. Fanny's well-read children have little interest in the governess and what she might teach them because they prefer hanging out with the Oakland locals.

Alfred actively dislikes rich kids and so when he hears rich kids will visit them, he makes sure that he and his siblings pick all the fruit in their orchard so the rich kids won't have that pleasure. The Steiny Road Poet assumes these fruit trees and the ones in the scene of the son dragging his father represent the Tree of Knowledge. Also the Hersland children tend to look down on their mother who prefers the company of other wealthy matrons whom she occasionally visits in San Francisco and who are more like the community she left in Bridgepoint.

For Martha, education is the antidote for an incident she witnesses in Oakland. A man beats a woman with an umbrella. Afterward, Martha vows to get a college education and does, but the issue of education or what she actually knows does not protect her from the violation her husband Phillip perpetrates. For Martha, the umbrella is a vivid but confusing symbol (does it protect or hurt?). As a little girl she is abandoned by her local Oakland schoolmates and so she has a meltdown in which she cries and threatens to throw her umbrella in the mud and then does it, though no one is listening to her threats.

In Alfred's chapter, learning and the way people go about learning is examined and extolled.  

"Some one has just glanced at a book and you have read that book and the other one knows everything in that book, in short the other one is a quick one and you are a slow one, it is a very difficult thing to really find it convincing that that one has really been reading that book in such a quick glancing. That one is telling all the things in the book that is certain, to mostly every one any one being a slower one or a quicker one in detail of daily living is an astonishing thing, a thing very difficult to be realizing a thing to be believing because of its being a thing every little minute is proving, a thing that always is a little like seeing a slight of hand performing" (page 614).

"I am describing what is to me a beautiful thing, learning being in women and men." (p. 646)  

Stein has a way of rolling together the exercise of education and learning with the wisdom one acquires through careful study of anything in life. So while Stein is carefully noting the details of how people read books fast or slow or take instruction from private or public sources such as governesses or public schools, she is always charting philosophical perception and ways of seeing.


Step 4: open yourself up wide. The Steiny Road Poet thinks you have to be a student of philosophy, a poet, an adolescent (take this seriously), or a reader completely open to an unconventional reading adventure to appreciate the chapter about David Hersland Junior. If you loved J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Joris-Karl Huysmans' À rebours (translated into English as Against the Grain or Against Nature), you are likely to appreciate the voice of David and Gertrude Stein in this chapter. Here is how David's chapter opens. The "I" is Gertrude Stein, the author speaking.

"I do ask some, I would ask every one, I do not ask some because I am quite certain that they would not like me to ask it, I do ask some if they would mind it if they found out that they did have the name they had then and had been having been born not in the family living they are then living in, if they had been born illegitimate. I ask some and I would ask every one only I am quite certain very many would not like it, if they would make a tragedy of it, if they would make a joke of it, if they found they had in them blood of some kind of being that was a low kind to them."

Is David Hersland junior a bastard child? No. Is Stein trying to confuse the reader? No. The Steiny Road Poet believes Stein is establishing the environment of immense complexity and paradox represented by David junior who is unlike any other character in The Making of Americans. David junior, who seems to be amalgam of Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, is, according to George B. Moore in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans: Repetition and the Emergence of Modernism, on a quest to find answers to questions about life and death as well as idealized concepts like what is beauty (p. 155). To complicate things, the obsessive David junior dies just as he is getting to the middle years of his life. As Stein puts it, David "comes to be a dead one."

Another possibility that comes to the SR Poet's mind about the David chapter is that Stein is trying to give the flavor of some older novels that dwell on the education of a young man such as Tobias Smollett's picaresque The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748). Random is a young man who is the son of a Scottish gentleman and a lower-class woman. He has a boatload of trouble, including being shunned by his father's family and abused by one of his teachers. However Random is smart and learns Latin, French, and ancient Greek despite the abusive teacher.

Oops. Now the S.R. Poet sees that George B. Moore in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans talks about Stein's notebooks indicating that she was "reading extensively in the prose works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries" (p. 33). He also discusses similarities and intentions in Stein's approach to the writing of The MoA that point to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. Apparently Lyly's Euphues (and there are two of these books—Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and its sequel, Euphues and His England) created a literary sensation and made an obscure Oxford graduate a popular writer of his day. Possibly Stein set Lyly up as one of her models for how to succeed in her own writing career. But more importantly, Lyly plays with language in ways that reverberate with what Stein accomplishes in her euphonious writing style.  

OK, pick up your teacup here for a pause. From the Euphues books came the term Euphuism which was a mannered writing style of English prose popular in the 1580s but also include similar characteristics of writing in other languages such as the préciosité style in French, which was known for its word play. Euphuism included such devices as antitheses, alliteration, repetitions, rhetorical questions, and more. Lyly's style influenced William Shakespeare. Stein often mentions Shakespeare in her writings. Word play and the music of words are her game.


Step 5: prepare to listen deeply to Gertrude Stein, the character in The MoA, and prepare for queer (Stein uses the word queer frequently) things happening with language and approach in this book. First answer this—where does Stein stop using the third person narrator and insert herself? Answer—in Martha Hersland's chapter, which begins, "I am writing for myself and strangers" (p. 289). Is this self indulgent for the author to insert herself into her great American novel? Before you answer that, what about Stein asserting at various points in her life that she was a genius? She does this in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas though she doesn't do this in The MoA. What happens in The MoA is that she performs a self-analysis, which not only charts what she knows and whether she is being silly or stupid (she uses these words), but also evolves her approach to examining her characters and how she writes. From Martha's chapter on, statements like these come up:  

"…sometimes there are so many ways of seeing each one that I must stop looking" (p. 337).  

"…sometimes then I think it is all foolishness this I am writing…" ( p. 587).

"I am important that is certain and here I am full up now with knowing that mostly those to whom I am explaining are not completely hearing" (p. 595).  

"It comes then sharply to one then to be deciding whether one is really then ever certain about anything, any one" (p. 610).  

"No one will listen while I am talking" (p. 726).  

William Gass in his foreword to the Dalkey Archive Press edition of The MoA (this is book the S.R. Poet quotes from), waxes on about the rhapsodic language Stein provides. Here are some examples the S. R. Poet picked that rock her socks:  

"Some know what they are and are always cutting and fitting and fitting and cutting and painting and sometime they come to be that thing in dressing and daily living…" (p. 644).  

"Some one is one to whom some one is regularly teaching something. Someoneisone [sic] whom some one is teaching. Someoneisone whom some one is regularly teaching something and that is in the middle of the young living of that one…" (p. 767).  

"Some are jumping when they are young ones, jumping from a place and landing way below from where they jumping and it is a pretty thing to see them doing…" (p. 795).

"…this one had been one being a young enough one so that some one could toss that one, toss up that one and one did toss up that one, did regularly toss up that one and then this one was one that that one could not toss up any longer and this one then the one that had been a tossed one had then to toss himself to earn a living…" (p. 843).


Step 6 is to realize something about the theoretical structure Stein uses to frame her novel. Bottom nature is what Stein invents to chart what makes people tick. Bottom nature involves repetitive and habitual behavior some of which may appear to be automatic. Supposedly these behaviors add up to a character type. Bottom nature comes out of her studies and experimental work under the psychologist-philosopher William James, who was her teacher at the Harvard Annex, the precursor to Radcliffe.  

Bottom nature also comes out of her reading Otto Weininger's work  Sex and Character, which categorized people by gender and race. While James taught Stein to be a careful scientist who studies, counts, and charts before theorizing, Weininger offered Stein personally a way that is still puzzling scholars today to rise above the male-dominated culture of her time so that she could get past gender and race (being a Jew) and claim her state of genius. Moore writes extensively about James' and Weininger's influence on Stein in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans as does Barbara Will in Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of "Genius." Here is some of the vocabulary Stein uses to express her character studies involving bottom nature which, by the way, she comes to see that this system is not sufficient to chart a human being—independent dependence, dependent independence, engulfing, attacking, being one being living.

Creating the continuous present is also a huge part of Stein's process and framework for writing. It is seen immediately in her title: The Making of Americans. Her writing style swims with the gerund form of the verb (verbs end in ing). Steven Meyer in his introduction to the Dalkey Archive Press edition of The MoA ends his essay by emphasizing that Stein says she creates a space "filled with moving." This is how Stein sees Americans—they jump, they toss, they cut and fit. Unlike Europeans, Americans don't stay in place.


Step 7 is decide how to crack the book open and make progress reading. What the Steiny Road Poet did was she went on retreat to New Hampshire during a rainy week and within four to five days she read more than 400 pages. This gave her the momentum to keep reading and making notes in the margins when she got home where there are more distractions and responsibilities. Another suggestion is to do what Julie Powell did to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking—create a blog to chart your progress. Or set a timer for 60 minutes and then get up and slam-dance. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself going. Is there anything else to know? Yes, of course, but suffice it to say there are many rewards and surprises.

The Poet will end by saying that had she known that Stein based her big novel on 15th and 16th century literature and riffed on jumping, tossing, and dressing, the Poet would have made herself one with the heavy volume sooner. However, one has to be ready and willing.


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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