Post-Impressionism in the Prose of Gertrude Stein

Mable Dodge Luhan (1879-1962)

Mable Dodge wrote this exuberant appraisal of Gertrude Stein in 1913: “In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives and, apart from the concept, it is so exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced, that when read aloud and received as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music… there emerges gradually a perception of some meaning quite other than that of the contents of the phrases… though [the listener] did not know what meaning the words were bearing, nor how they were affected by them, yet they had begun to know what it all meant, because they were not indifferent.”

I admit I am among those people who have never been able to make sense of Gertrude Stein, so I approached Mable Dodge’s essay in a hopeful frame of mind. Maybe at last…. In this spirit, I read the essay for the 70th volume of the LibriVox Nonfiction Collection. You can listen to my recording here.   You can read Dodge’s essay here.

Dodge quotes an example of Stein’s prose, which she claims produces “a coherent totality through a series of impressions which, when taken sentence by sentence strike most people as particularly incoherent.” The example reads thus:

“It is a gnarled division, that which is not any obstruction, and the forgotten swelling is certainly attracting. It is attracting the whiter division, it is not sinking to be growing, it is not darkening to be disappearing, it is not aged to be annoying. There cannot be sighing. This is this bliss.”

Hoping to “begin to know what it all meant” I let these words form their own image in my mind, and this is what came to me:

Photo of gnarled tree, roots forming steps up bank

Tree Steps

The steps formed by the roots of this gnarled oak are the only way “up” at the point where a stream-side trail in our local forest preserve comes to a dead end at the base of the eroded bank shown in the photo above. I’ve climbed this staircase many times myself, but I always feel as if I am pounding a coffin nail in the oak as I dislodge bits of soil and abrade its roots clambering up the slope.

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