Scene4-Internal Magazine of Arts and Culture
The Steiny Road To Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | Scene4 Magazine |
Karren LaLonde Alenier

Happy Birthday, Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874. In 2017 for the occasion of Gertrude Stein’s 143rd birthday, the Steiny Road Poet offers “On To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays: Was Gertrude Stein Medievalist, Futurist or Both,” the paper Steiny wrote and presented at “Lifting Belly High: A Conference on Women’s Poetry Since 1900” held at Duquesne University (July 2008).




Written during World War II, To Do bears reading as an apocryphal tale for the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

Stein’s unclassifiable book that seems to be neither for children nor adults suddenly has scary currency with the juvenile behavior of the sitting American president




Using Gertrude Stein's so-called children's story, To Do:  A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, this paper establishes a connection in Stein's work with medieval literature and her projections into the future to show how this neglected work adds another dimension to Stein's writerly landscape. At first, this thesis may seem outside the boundaries Stein set for her work. After all, Stein was focused on creating the continuous present, which means, according to Judy Grahn in Really Reading Gertrude Stein, that Stein used "participles of current happening" ("ing" words) but did not typically use "past or future verbal constructs." (RRGS 15) In other words, Stein did not situate her work in the past or future. However, To Do, a seemingly minor work, which I used in February 2008 for a Scene4 Magazine essay(q.v.) on the occasion of Stein's 134th birthday, cracked open an alternate reality wider than the present moment. 



Young Gertrude


While researching To Do, I found an article by Martha Dana Rust on Stein's bonafide children's book The World Is Round. Rust's article referenced To Do. Rust is a medievalist who wrote the book Imaginary Worlds In Medieval Books: Exploring the Manuscript Matrix. Curious about her current interest in Stein (her article did not involve anything about medieval topics), I asked her if she saw any similarities between To Do and medieval literature. Although she had not thought about Stein since graduate school, Rust saw a connection, starting with To Do's structure (a rare choice by Stein), an A-B-C primer, a form that was popular in the Middle Ages as a teaching device for children and for those wanting to learn how to read.


Had Stein consciously map her work to medieval literature? No evidence indicates that. What do I mean by futurist? Comfortable with alternate realities, Stein was a visionary and her intellectual reach extended beyond her lifetime. Stein was a Pragmatist, influenced heavily by her Harvard professor William James, and she believed in the present moment. She worked hard to reach her audience in that fleeting window of time. 




Stein's writing style in To Do, written in 1940, has eight factors in common with medieval literature that I have discovered so far . They are the oral tradition; vernacular writing pitched to a general audience; lists and, in particular in To Do, the A-B-C primer; allegory; stories of idealized love; the symbol of the rose; character portraits; and uncensored violence in stories written for children.


     "Alphabets and names make games and everybody has a name and all the same they have in a way to have a birthday.       

     The thing to do is to think of names.           

     Names will do.         

     Mildew." (To Do 3)


Stein's work is always poetry, no matter what genre she or we assign an individual piece of writing to. Her writing style includes rhyme, repetition, odd juxtapositions of details, suspension of usual logic, contradiction, alliteration, and a simple vocabulary. These elements produce a meditative, hypnotic, and harmonic effect on the audience, particularly when the work is read aloud.


     "And you have to think of alphabets too, without an alphabet well without names where are you, and birthdays are very favorable too, otherwise who are you." (To Do 3)




On the surface, she seemed to work in the style of medieval troubadours who relied on lyrically connected words to remember their scripts. For Stein, lyrical flow related to what she learned at Harvard (1893-1896) from William James, the psychologist, philosopher, and physiologist. Like nursery rhymes and lullabies, Stein's work aimed to circumvent the logical side of the brain and to enter her audience's head more immediately through the creative side.


     "Everything begins with A.

     What did you say. I said everything begins with A and I was right and hold me tight and be all right." (To Do 3)




In Western literature, the Middle Ages revolutionized how creative ideas were communicated. With Chrétien de Troyes, Chaucer, and Boccaccio, literature moved from the sacred languages—Latin, Greek, and Hebrew—to languages spoken by the common people. Stein, who has been called the People's Modernist by American art historian Wanda Corn, consciously chose to write in simple, predominately Anglo-Saxon words that everyone could understand and immediately relate to without being associated with anything else. (RRGS 14-15) When Margaret Wise Brown (editor at Young Scott Books and later, author of Good Night Moon) asked Stein to write something for children, the request was compatible with her writing style as well as with a tenet learned from James—that adults should never lose their ability to play like children.


     "Everything begins with A.

     A.    Annie, Arthur, Active, Albert.

     Annie is a girl Arthur is a boy Active is a horse. Albert is a man with a glass." (To Do 3)


The primer was used in the Middle Ages to teach children their A-B-Cs as well as their religious lessons. Primers mounted on boards with handles—known as hornbooks—were used into the 1900s, including in American schools. Perhaps Stein had seen this kind of primer. Nonetheless for To Do, Stein used an existing formal structure of writing and, for the most part, did not break its rules. Her journals show that she considered abandoning normal alphabetic order, but she realized this would confuse children and she decided against this approach.


"Q is Quiet, Queenie, Quintet and Question.

  It is hard to have names like that." (To Do 42)




Although called the “Mother Goose of Montparnasse” and the “Mother Goose with a mind,” Stein in To Do tends toward allegorical stories with moral implications and unhappy endings rather than sanitized fairy tales with magic and unusually happy endings. 


    "They had a favorite rabbit Mr. and Mrs. Quiet and he was the only rabbit they had who had a birthday. He was a very big rabbit and a very bad rabbit and he had the habit of always eating a little rabbit on his birthday, a very very bad habit, but Mr. and Mrs. Quiet could never quiet that habit it was the habit of this rabbit." (To Do 43)


While medieval allegories like Everyman and Piers Plowman preached Christian morality and how to live so that the human soul might be saved, Stein's moral commentaries illustrate the consequences of bad behavior. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Quiet's big bad rabbit, the Quiets took away his birthday so that he would no longer know when to demand a little rabbit to eat. Therefore, the big rabbit began eating a little rabbit every day, so the Quiets gave away all their other rabbits. Then the bad rabbit refused to eat and he got so mad, his eyes turned red and he burst into flames.


"...Mr. and Mrs. Quiet who were looking at him found it all terrifying, they were so frightened they could not do anything, they could not get any water to put the fire out they were so frightened they could not move about and so they just sat there watching and pretty soon it was over the burning there was nothing left of the big rabbit but a red cinder and that Mr. and Mrs. Quiet put out by dropping tears on him. And after that Mr. and Mrs. Quiet lived very quietly with their goats and everything but they never after had another rabbit." (To Do 44)


Is the story of the Quiets and the big bad rabbit that they loved, an allegory about World War II? By 1938, Hitler had told a group of news reporters that Germany was going to expand, and the next year, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland. One can easily see parallels between world events and Stein's story, which contains evil, aggression, and transgression of moral behavior. And Stein's main characters do not live happily ever after: the Quiets "never after had another rabbit."




The term "romance" is closely tied to literature evolving into vernacular languages. Roman, a prototype of the Italian language, became a synonym for vernacular. It also is the root term for the medieval form of literature about idealized love known as the romance. While Stein does not write about young knights and their older, and usually married, ladies, in To Do, she offers stories of idealized love that are often comic. The lovers vary between people, objects like typewriters, and ideas like numbers. 


In the story of Thornie Rose and Tillie Brown, two children of unrelated missionary parents serving in China fall in love while being surrounded by "so many little Chinese boys and little Chinese girls around that you could hardly see the ground but Thornie saw Tillie and Tillie saw Thornie and they were both there." (To Do 54) The obstacle in this love story is that there were no beds in China and no escaping from the company of the "miles and miles and more miles and miles of Chinese men and Chinese women and Chinese children" (To Do 54-55), so Thornie and his mother and Tillie and her father sing the song "Tender and True." When they get tired, everyone sits down on the ground and is asked to talk about the day they were born. Once again, there is no happily-ever-after ending. Stein concludes "And then you sing Tender and True and all for you and this is that thing. The end of the beginning. The beginning of the ending." (To Do 56)


What is also interesting about the story of Thornie Rose and Tillie Brown is that Stein offers her romance of the rose. In the medieval Roman de la Rose written by Guillaume de Lorris, Rose is the name of the lady and is the symbol of female sexuality. Stein flips the gender of the rose—hers is a male character—and suggests with his first name Thornie that love is not without hurt. Obviously, Thornie Rose, as a symbol of love, is an exception to Stein's model that "rose is a rose is a rose."


In Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer drew character portraits of pilgrims of all classes traveling to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket. Prominent among these pilgrims is Chaucer's bawdy Lady of Bath. Portraits of Stein's family fill her long novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress and represent her studies in discovering what she called a person's "bottom nature," a term Barbara Will in Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of "Genius" said Stein coined after taking part with an older graduate student named Leon Solomons in research experiments related to automatic behavior. At the time she wrote The Making of Americans, Stein was interested in observing a person's habits to understand what kind of person or type the person was. (Genius 23-25) In her lecture "The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans," Stein said that after she wrote The Making of Americans, she attempted to continue her studies of bottom nature in A Long Gay Book, but came to the realization that just describing behavior was no longer sufficient and what entered her writerly landscape regarding human behavior was philosophy. (Lectures 156-157)


Although the majority of Stein's characters in To Do are two-dimensional, occasional short studies reveal more fully formed beings, such as the gray-haired boy George, the typewriter Henriette de Dactyl, and the explorer father of a girl named Zed. Another developed character is a rich boy named Brave. (To Do 5-6) Brave gives away his money to Annie, who, in taking his money, seems also to take the daylight. Brave, who was normally "white with delight," always fished using a light, which the narrator treats as a moral offense. "Nobody should because that dazzles the fish and they cannot see where for the glare so it is not fair." In the new darkness of the night that Annie took all his money, Brave drowns and Stein concludes, "Brave was never any more white with delight. And the fish could rest every night." Was Brave's bottom nature good or bad? All the reader knows is that Brave, who fished unfairly, is a complex character—not easily typed—who loved a girl so much that he gave her all his wealth. 




William R. Scott, Stein's publisher of The World Is Round, rejected To Do. According to Margaret Wise Brown's biographer Leonard Marcus in Awakened by the Moon, Scott's editors, including Brown, thought To Do was too abstract. Brown described it as a completed work, but not for children. (Awakened 195) According to Donald C. Gallop in his introduction to Alphabets and Birthdays which includes To Do, Scott's editor John G. McCullough said the work "lacked episode and characters did not recur with sufficient frequency to hold children's interest." (viii) Most critics who have bothered to look seriously at To Do believe that the violence that weaves through the book made Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas say it was "too old for children and too young for adults." (Alphabets viii) 


Like Grimm's Fairy Tales, violence is pervasive in To Do—characters drown, disappear, burst into flame, lose an eye in war, get bitten by a pack of dogs, and one, a Mr. Pancake, gets eaten by girl named Pearl. Nicholas Orme, in his book Medieval Children, asserts that violence was a regular part of the medieval child's life. Children slept in the same room as their parents, and so witnessed sex and birth. They knew about war and other acts of violence. Though books were written for children in the Middle Ages as documented by Orme in his study of medieval England, children were not excluded from recitations or performances that included bloody scenes of battle and other acts from which modern day children are shielded. Then too, children, in the period when Stein was writing for them, were witnessing acts of war.


Stein recognized that war inspired advances in human ingenuity. For example, To Do opens with a story about a horse named Active that gets conscripted from his milk-wagon job to war service where he pulls a cannon. When Active comes home, he finds an automobile has taken his milk-delivery job and so the horse thinks about trading in his iron shoes for rubber ones and becoming an automobile. (To Do 3-5)




Another war story in To Do involves three conscripted typewriters (To Do 16-18) that don't get used. Then they hear a voice that says, "As you were."


     "Terrible terrible day, to be as they were.

     Nature never sleeps said Henriette." (To Do 17)


The small French and German typewriters sit on a high shelf until the French one, Henriette de Dactyl, falls and lands on the floor near the much larger and heavier American typewriter, Mr. House. House shares his cover with Henriette and saves her from the dust that ruins Yetta, the German typewriter. While Stein's story involves alphabet machines, from today's perspective the story seems presciently related to typewriters falling into disuse because of the advent of computers. It is also possible Stein knew something about military use of the message encoding system called Enigma that came into commercial use in the 1920s. The line "Nature never sleeps," seems to be a comment about human progress or stealth. Because Stein was a prolific reader, perhaps she was also tuned into the Zeitgeist of 1936 that included the work on modern computing ideas by England's Alan Turing (who broke the Enigma code used by the Germans in WWII) and the production of the first electrical binary programmable computer by Germany's Konrad Zuse.


At the mid-point of the alphabet, Stein offers a story about two children, Minnie and Martin, who see an airplane and want to fly. (To Do 17-19) Their parents forbid it, but the children say, "it would be better than cake to sit and swim in the moon." (One suspects that the children eventually fly, only to crash.) Here, Stein is a visionary about people flying to the moon.




At the letter Z, Stein puts an exotic horse (zebra) on an airplane. (To Do 80-82) The zebra is an explorer's last-minute gift to his daughter Zed. But Stein doesn't end with this unification of past and present transportation. The letter Z also brings Zero and what I call the romance of zero and one. (To Do 85-86) Stein describes how the partnership of zero and one that builds from nothing to 10, 100, 1000 and on up to one billion and keeps everyone from being alone, implying that it takes two to make a birthday. As a futurist, Stein is employing the binary system of 0 and 1, the information encoding system used by computers. 




This grand finale of the alphabet (and To Do) is presaged in preceding numerical stories that broach modern day concerns about genetics and population explosion. For example, Papa Uno had one blue eye and one brown eye and his children had the same odd eye-color combination. But Papa Uno loses his blue eye in the war and comes back with two brown eyes much to shock of his children. (To Do 57-59) In the story of Thornie and Tillie, an ever-expanding population of Chinese children surrounds the young lovers. (To Do 54-56) Thus, although Stein does not employ many recurring characters in To Do, many of the stories cross-pollinate as the numerical stories about genetics and population explosion do with the romance of Zero and one, as the story of the horse replaced by an automobile does with the romance of the shelved typewriters or with the story of the zebra and airplane.




Like Antonin Artaud, who coined the phrase virtual reality to define his radical concepts for theater and audience as recorded in his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double (49), Stein, who also had extreme ideas about theater, was similarly intent on creating immediacy between her work and her audience. In "Plays" published in 1935 in her Lectures in America, Stein discusses the problem of "syncopated time in relation to the emotion of anybody in the audience." (Lectures 93) What she means by syncopation is the time gap between an actor delivering his or her line and a listener receiving and understanding what was said. While Artaud used a phantasmagoric force of characters, objects, and images to create his virtual reality and theater of cruelty, Stein worked quietly in the manner of the Cubists (think Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" or Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon") and relied on slight changes in her repetitions and on facile rhymes to enter the conscious minds of her audience. For example, in To Do, Nero speaks to his friends who want to change the reality of their birthdays occurring on the unlucky thirteenth day of the month.


"...clocks talk, they tell time, if we smash all the clocks nobody will know when we were born..." (To Do 32)


Having already decided to count out the hours and to forever forego bed, Nero, Netty, Nellie, and Ned start smashing clocks—until an unknown someone questions what they are doing. When they stop, they hear the chime of a little clock telling them to go to bed and because they're sleepy "they did they just did go to bed, and each of them had a little bread and they laid their head [sic] on the pillow of the bed and they were not dead..." The story of the clock smashers emphasizes birthdays within the context of superstition (an old way of thinking), but simultaneously stirs thoughts about the new thinking of the space-time continuum—how does one stop the clock on aging and eventual death? For Stein and Artaud, their artistry was not complete unless their audiences were actively participating.


Although many might consider her work nonsensical, what saves Stein from being an absurdist is how she pragmatically shaped now-ness by using what had come before and what might come after. William James stated in his chapter on "The Stream of Thought" in The Principles of Psychology, "Our psychic life has rhythm: it is a series of transitions and resting-places, of "flights and perchings" (PP 236). Indeed, Stein had the ability to let her mind fly and yet as a scientist she could "perch" on significant discoveries that required her audience to be with her, mind and body, in the present moment. Was Stein a medievalist or a futurist? It's better to call Stein a metaphysical philosopher focused on the nature of being, existence, and reality. By intently focusing on creating the continuous present—that incredibly tiny window of time, Stein was able to demonstrate in To Do:  A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays a wide reach backward and forward in time.




Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and its Double. [1938]. Trans. Mary C. Richard. New York: Grove Press, 1958.


Corn, Wanda. "The Return of the Native: Gertrude Stein's 1934 American Tour." Washington: Lecture presented at the National Gallery of Art, 2007.


Grahn, Judy. Really Reading Gertrude Stein. CA: Crossing P, 1989.


James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918.


Marcus, Leonard S. Awakened by the Moon. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers


Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.


Rust, Martha Dana. Imaginary Worlds In Medieval Books: Exploring the Manuscript Matrix. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.


___. "Stop the world, I want to get off! Identity and Circularity in Gertrude Stein's The World Is Round." http://findarticles .com/p/articles/mi_m2342/is_n1_v30/ai_18631920


Stein, Gertrude. Lectures in America by Gertrude Stein. [1935] Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.


___. The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress. [1925] Introduction by Steven Meyer. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.


___. "To Do:  A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays" [1940]. Alphabets and Birthdays Introduction by Donald C. Gallop. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.


Will, Barbara. Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of "Genius." Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. 


Send A Letter
To The Editor

Share This Page

View other readers’ comments in Letters to the Editor

Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Read her Blog.
For her other commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2017 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine


The Steiny Road
Scene4 Magazine - Karren Alenier - The Steiny Road To Operadom |
A complete index of all of
Karren Alenier’s columns
in Scene4 with links.
Click Here for Access



February 2017

Volume 17 Issue 9

SECTIONS:: Cover | This Issue | inView | inFocus | inSight | Perspectives | Special Issues | Blogs COLUMNS:: Bettencourt | Meiselman | Thomas | Jones | Marcott | Walsh | Alenier | :::::::::::: INFORMATION:: Masthead | Subscribe | Submissions | Recent Issues | Your Support | Links CONNECTIONS:: Contact Us | Contacts&Links | Comments | Advertising | Privacy | Terms | Archives

Search This Issue


Search The Archives





Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine–International Magazine of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2017 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc. All rights reserved. Now in our 17th year of publication with Worldwide Readership in 127 countries and comprehensive archives of over 10,000 web pages (50,000 print pages).

Scientific American -
Penguin Books-USA
Character Flaws by Les Marcott at
Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine