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The difference between Stein and Hemingway can be seen even in their handwriting. Her letters were tall, sprawling, arrogantly sloppy, with the large telltale spaces between words that were characteristic of her reflective mind. His letters were close, carefully and slowly shaped--a demonstration of his own planned, tidy assemblage of words as objects (Kazin 204).

 

 

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William James

spacer.gif (67 bytes)Gertrude Stein merits the ironic title of social butterfly. Although she seems to have lacked the flitty nature of this characterization, she certainly meets the social requirements. The relationship between Stein and philosopher William James, for instance, is well-documented. We can see the signs of this interaction both in Stein’s personal statements and in her distinctive and innovative style. Similarly, Stein’s connection with author Ernest Hemingway can also be detected in Hemingway’s own style. The relationship between these two famous literary figures is even more well-known than the connection between Stein and James.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)Perhaps less documented is the connection between James and Hemingway. Although it is likely that these two men may have interacted directly, it is even more plausible that Hemingway adopted certain Jamesian concepts after reading and admiring the writing of his mentor Stein. Certainly, Stein’s style can be seen as a exploration and application of principles outlined in James’ philosophy on the stream of consciousness. Hemingway’s style also contains strands of Jamesian philosophy. Arguably, it is this philosophical influence that accounts for much of the popularity and richness of Hemingway’s style. In contrast, this very same influence leads most readers to reject Stein’s difficult style.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)We can see the possibility of this selfsame similarity and difference when we note that James identifies two sides to our consciousness--the transitive tract and the substantive tract. In her exploration of the stream of consciousness, Stein attempts to convey the least easily-grasped area of consciousness--the transitive. Her style is subsequently very difficult to follow. Hemingway, on the other hand, writes purely about substantive moments. Our interaction with people generally occurs along the substantive tract of consciousness. Hence, Hemingway’s writing is more easily grasped. We can then see that the connection and exchange of ideas between James and Stein and subsequently Hemingway is one that should not be ignored.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)The exchange of ideas between Stein and James began when Stein attended classes at Harvard in 1924 under the tutelage of James, the author of such popularly-acclaimed pieces as Principles of Psychology and Psychology: Briefer Course (Knapp 23). It is in this second writing that James explores in-depth his ideas concerning the stream of consciousness. By all accounts, Stein was a favorite pupil of Professor James. Moreover, we can see her great admiration for the man in the following remark: "Is life worth living? Yes, a thousand times yes when the world still holds such spirits as Professor James" (qtd. in Bridgman 20). It was at this time that Stein, under the tutorship of James, began investigating problems of attention and automatic reading. Along with a fellow student, she eventually published her findings in an undergraduate scientific journal (Knapp 24).
spacer.gif (67 bytes)Thus began James’ considerable influence on Stein, an influence that was to last many years after she left his professorial wing. Indeed, critics as famous as psychologist B.F. Skinner have proposed that Stein’s supposedly innovative style was nothing more that a continuation of the investigations she began while a student at Harvard (Mellow 404). Although this statement seems rather harsh, and perhaps reflective of Skinner’s professional dislike of James, Stein’s style undeniably contains strands of Jamesian philosophy. The terms Stein uses to define her personal aesthetic can easily be seen as variations on the terms and concepts James outlines in his discussion of the stream of consciousness.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)Invariably, the self-proclaimed aim of Stein’s style is just as much psychological as literary. "One can delve more deeply into a human being’s psyche," Stein notes, "through the repetition of words, actions, thoughts, and behavioral patterns in a present setting" (qtd. in Knapp 87). In her writing, Stein attempts to lay bare the human psyche of her subject for all her readers to enjoy. She believes that this is best achieved by describing life in what she calls the "continuous present". The use of a continuous present preposedly allows readers to view fragments of a life drawn from past, present and future time frames, yielding greater insights into the character. Essentially, the continuous present "focuses on the now and the perception and ‘insistence’ of sequenced and repetitive, but never identical, nows" (qtd. in Knapp 96).
spacer.gif (67 bytes)Compare Stein’s summary of the continuous present with James’ assertions that consciousness is "sensibly continuous" but that "no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before" (James 5,8). Through this comparison we come to realize that Stein’s literary style attempts to mimic natural consciousness as James describes it. James defines consciousness as a stream that constantly flows. In addition, he labels the aforementioned two states of consciousness--the transitive and the substantive. After saying that our stream of consciousness is "like a bird’s life, an alternation of flights and perchings", James suggests that we call the "resting places the ‘substantive parts’, and the places of flight the ‘transitive parts’" (James 10).
spacer.gif (67 bytes)Stein echoes this sentiment when she describes her method of "insistence", or repetition where with each subtly different repetition the emphasis is changed-- "It is exactly like the frog hopping. He cannot ever hop exactly the same distance or the same way of hopping at every hop" (qtd. in Sprigge 89). Stein’s aesthetic, therefore, attempts to capture the whole of consciousness--not only the substantive parts but also the entirety of the transitive parts. Importantly, James mentions the difficulty of expressing the transitive states of consciousness:

Let anyone try to cut a thought across in the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tracts is. The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself (James 11).

Hence, the difficulty many readers have with reading Stein may be a result of this difficulty with capturing the transitive state. On paper, Stein effectively does capture the transitive tract of thought. In Susie Asado, for instance, lines such as "It shows a nail. What is a nail. A nail is unison." reflect the strongly associative and rambling quality of the transitive tract of consciousness. The repetition or "insistence" of the word "sweet" in lines two and four seems to mimic the way our mind returns over and over to certain words when we are trying to recall something. Stein repeats numerous words in Susie Asado--in addition to "sweet" and "nail", the words "slips", "this is a please", "pot", "bobbles", "drink pups", and "render clean" also pop up more than once (Stein 1303).


 

 

 

 

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