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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Gertrude Stein's Q.E.D., A Writer Coming Out

inSight

August 2014

Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) meaning, "which had to be demonstrated" and often used after mathematical constructs, was Gertrude Stein's first work. This was Stein's novel written in 1903, a very short novel but the genre to which this work is always referred, which she put in a drawer for 29 years. Her partner Alice B. Toklas, who organized all Stein's work, knew nothing of this hidden manuscript that told the story of Stein's failed love affair with a woman named Mary (May) Bookstaver. Moreover, Stein had never disclosed to Toklas details of this affair.

 

At the time Stein revealed this manuscript and the affair, she was writing Stanzas in Meditation, a love poem to Toklas, and Toklas, as usual, was typing the work. According to the penultimate Stein scholar Ulla Dydo, when Toklas noticed the proliferation of the word may in Stanzas, she became so incensed that she made Stein edit out many occurrences of this word that seemed to point to her partner's first lover. The story of this incident was revealed in the 2012 Corrected Edition of Stanzas in Meditation, which Steiny has written about for Scene4 Magazine. [1]

 

Gertrude Stein - "A Writer Coming Out" - Scene4 Magazine | Karren LaLonde Alenier | August 2014 - www.scene4.com

 

During the international online study of Tender Buttons that the Steiny Road Poet has been conducting since October 2013 inside the Coursera MOOC Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo), a ModPo student associated, to plausible effect, a repeated use of the word may with Stein's May Bookstaver affair. The repetition occurs in "A Piece of Coffee.", a very language-play dense subpoem of section 1 "Objects."

 

So Steiny, now on break from leading the Tender Buttons study group, decided that her summer reading had to include Q.E.D., the corrected Liveright edition of Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings of Gertrude Stein published in 1971. Originally the work, as edited by Toklas, was published (for the first time and after Stein's death) in 1950 under the title Things As They Are.

 

This just over 80-page novel (as rendered in the Liveright edition) is organized into three sections—"Book 1: Adele," "Book 2: Mabel Neathe," and "Book 3: Helen." Adele, a stand-in for Stein, is the protagonist. Helen, whose complete name in the novel is Helen Thomas, is the stand-in for May Bookstaver. Mabel Neathe, a stand-in for Mabel Haynes, is Helen's other female lover. The structure of the sections blatantly establishes Mabel as the obstacle between Adele and Helen. Possibly because this novel is Stein working on her own moral issue about loving a woman and wanting that woman as a sexual partner, Adele is never fully named. The reader only knows her as Adele.

 

Several aspects of Q.E.D., possibly the earliest American coming out story, shocked Steiny. Prominently, the work is prefaced by a page-long citation from William Shakespeare's play "As You Like It" and makes other literary references to such figures as Kwasind, a character of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha" ("And then she chanted with tender mockery, 'And the very strong man Kwasind and he was a very strong man' she went on…") and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote ("I suppose one might in a spirit of quixotic generosity deny oneself such a right…"). Also at the end of Adele's section, the reader finds the protagonist lying on the ground in Granada, Spain, reading Dante's Vita Nuova, completely losing herself in the tale of Dante and Beatrice. These literary references seem to flaunt what Adele and Stein knew. However, in Stein's day, it was out of the ordinary for a middle-class woman to be so well educated and have the leisure to read classic and contemporary literature. Moreover, Helen and Mabel belong to the upper class. Therefore, Stein is emphasizing that Adele is crossing class lines.

 

Written in traditional prose without the repetitions seen in Stein's story "Melanctha," (written around 1905-1906) which is also based on Stein's affair with Bookstaver, Q.E.D. is Stein exposing herself as an apprentice writer. She uses clich茅s ("she thought the game was worth the candle" or "…the key of the lock is surely not in me"). She slips with mixed metaphors ("As long as one is firmly grasping the nettles there is no sting. The bitter pain begins when the hold begins to relax. At the actual moment of calamity the undercurrents of pain, repentance and vain regret are buried deep under the ruins of the falling buildings…") What do nettles have to with fallen buildings, neither of which are physical artifacts of the story? Stein invokes an antiquated word like heigho, which was an exclamatory expression used in the early 1800s by the British newspapers Judy and Punch. ("Heigho, it's an awful grind: new countries, new people and new experiences all to see, to know and to understand; old friends and old experiences to keep on seeing, knowing and understanding.")

 

Steiny would not be so shocked about these pedestrian aspects of Stein's first piece of writing if this writer, who still to this day is considered a cutting-edge experimentalist, had not done the following:

    路  Uses realler versus more real (e.g. "Surely one has to hit you awfully hard to shake your realler things to the surface.")

    路  Repeats the word intercourse but not in a sexual context though the frequent use of this word makes the reader expect detailed sexual relations.  (e.g., "She reveled in the American street-car crowd with its ready intercourse, free comments and airy persiflage all without double meanings…" or "Their intercourse as was usual now consisted in a succession of oppressive silences.")

    路  Works up to the use of the word queer as the pejorative meaning homosexual. (e.g., "It's a queer game coming as I do from a community where all no matter how much they may quarrel and disagree have strong family affection and great respect for the ties of blood…" Here Adele is reacting to Mabel who is describing the psychologically abusive parents of Helen. But this use gives way to Helen wanting to introduce Adele to a woman who is queer just like Adele, "Let's go and see Jane Fairfield….She is queer and will interest you and you are queer and will interest her. Oh! I don't want to listen to your protests, you are queer and interesting even if you don't know it and you like queer and interesting people even if you think you don't…")

    路  Employs twentieth century innovations to focus on the sexual relationship that develops between Adele and Helen. (Because Adele is about to set sail for Europe, she says, "Unless we Marconi to each other we will then for some little time be unable to get into difficulties." Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian inventor known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio. Also late in the novel, Mabel sees Adele and Helen kissing as they stand under a bright electric light. In the United States in 1903, only wealthy people had electric lights in their homes and that is probably true for Florence, Italy, where this text is set: "She realized as Helen kissed her that they had not been as discreet as usual in their choice of position for they stood just under a bright electric light."

    路  Expresses her love of America ("Book 3: Helen" opens with expression of deep love for America. "She steeped herself in the very essence of clear eyed Americanism.")

    路  Suppresses her Judaism within a landscape of other belief systems but still hints at her Jewishness ("…I have the failing of my tribe. I believe in the sacred rites of conversation even when it is a monologue."). Adele also makes these comments: "Great is Allah, Mohammed is no Shodah! though I dimly suspect that sometimes he is." and "I suppose that is due to the Calvinistic influence that dominates American training and has interfered with my natural temperament. Somehow you have made me realize that my attitude in the matter was degrading and material, instead of moral and spiritual but in spite of you my puritan instincts again and again say no I get into a horrible mess."

Known for labyrinthian repetition, simple Anglo-Saxon words, elaborate word play, hidden (if any at all) literary allusions, and philosophic threads, in Q.E.D., Stein still shows word play, ardent American nationalism, her love of twentieth century innovations, and a context of big ideas that embrace religious, moral, and philosophic thought.

 

In very understandable prose, Stein tells her reader in Q.E.D. a remarkable number of her life-long tenets that thread throughout her later work such as:

    路  "I always did thank God I wasn't born a woman…"

  • 路  "The whole duty of man consists in being reasonable and just."
  • 路  Castigating Helen, Adele affirms that she embraces her middle-class status and everything that goes with it—"You have a foolish notion that to be middle-class is to be vulgar, that to cherish the ideals of respectability and decency is to be commonplace and that to be the mother of children is to be low."
  • 路  On the subject of accepting luxuries from an unwanted suitor, which she considered prostitution—"I would rather starve or at least work for a living."

In other words, Stein considered herself a male persona, ethical (and moral), middle class but comfortable enough financially to never have to work for a living. Therefore, she didn't have to compromise her standards. Still she also said—through Adele—things like: "I am a hopeless coward, I hate to risk hurting myself or anybody else. All I want to do is to meditate endlessly and think and talk." Certainly admitting to cowardice and being concerned with not hurting self or others are feminine traits though meditating and thinking have historically been associated with men.

 

Here's another Adele quote: "It is very strange how very different one's morality and one's temper are when one wants something really badly. Here I, who have always been hopelessly soft-hearted and good-natured and who have always really preferred letting the other man win, find myself quite cold-blooded and relentless." Adele has already stated that she is honest but in this quote, which deals with Adele's desire for Helen, she reveals that her moral standards could be compromised depending on how much she wants something.

 

This kind of thinking dovetails with Stein's educational foundation of New England pragmatism learned at Harvard. Steiny also believes that this line of thought allowed Stein to be enthusiastic about the anti-Semitic misogynistic Otto Weininger who defined standards for genius, something that Stein wanted to attain in the worse possible way. And this line of thinking opened the door for her substantial friendship with the French intellectual Bernard Fa每, another anti-Semite who was convicted and imprisoned for collaborating with the Nazis during World War II, but who was responsible for saving Stein's sizeable art collection and largely responsible in the first two years of WWII for keeping Stein and Toklas safe.

 

Despite Q.E.D. being an apprentice work, Stein lays the groundwork for future writings with a large palette of rich details. The only thing Stein does not include in this remarkable true-to-life story based on her first lesbian affair is that the object of her affection May marries a man.

 


[1] Stanzas On Meditation - Scene4 - September 2012

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Scene4 Magazine 鈥 Karren AlenierKarren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She also writes a monthly column in Scene4
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