Wednesday, January 26, 2011
January 26, 2011: Repetition. Repetition.
There are all sorts of reasons why authors create dense and difficult works, or perhaps more exactly why those authors refuse to simplify such works when faced with editorial critiques or resistant audiences. To cite three examples about which I’ve blogged in earlier posts: Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in one of her more straightforward and clear phrases (ever, but I mean specifically in their long correspondence), that when she “put [her poems] in the gown” (dressed them up for another person’s, in this case his, reading), “they look alike and numb”; for me that’s as good an explanation as we could get for why Dickinson wasn’t willing to accede to his editorial suggestions. I believe (and argued in my first article) that Faulkner made Absalom, Absalom! as difficult as he did for more thematic reasons: because he was trying to get at core elements of Southern and American identity that were as painful and in many ways frightening for him as they are for Quentin Compson at that novel’s end. And the manuscript of George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes, which includes the extended conversations and debates he had with his publishers’ two readers, highlights just how necessary to his historical and regional and political goals he felt that the novel’s difficult and multi-layered use of dialect to be.
And then there’s Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925). Stein wrote the novel between 1906 and 1908 but didn’t publish it until nearly two decades later, mostly because she couldn’t find a publisher that was willing to put out the novel without cutting it drastically. In case you might be tempted to curse draconian and unreasonable publishers, always worried solely about the bottom line, here is one sample sentence from the novel, chosen at random from a page (14 in the Google books version linked below) likewise chosen at random: “Could one ever have it real to him that in one life time a man could have it all so different for him, that a man all alone in his single lifetime could make it so that he could have it to be truly all so different in him.” Lest I be accused of just lifting a sentence out of context and thus making it seem less readable as a result, here’s the next sentence: “Nay for a man to have it in a single life time all so different for him is more strange than being born and being then a baby and then a child and then a young grown man and then old like a man grows old and then dead and so no more of living, it is more strange because it makes so many lives in this one living.” The novel is just over 900 pages long, and to say the prose is just as repetitive on the 900th page as it is on the 14th would be both accurate and yet not quite sufficient to express the feeling of reading 900 pages of such prose.
Right about now you’re likely wondering how I could possibly know (even if I can’t quite express) that feeling. The answer is that yes, I did in fact read every single page—every single word on every single page, no less—of Stein’s book, for the start of the first chapter of a book that I might or might not ever get around to completing. Doing so was without any question the most difficult, frustrating, crazy-making experience of my scholarly career (and I’m including trying to master cursive handwriting in first grade as part of that career). And yet even if I never get to publish that book or chapter, or even the ten pages or so that I wrote about Stein’s book, I’m incredibly glad that I stuck with it and got to the point where I could produce those pages of my own about it. Not just so I can brag about having done so in a blog, either. Also and most meaningfully because it was worth it—just as is the case with those three aforementioned difficult authors and their texts, Stein’s book, not in spite of the repetitions but in large part through them, offers hugely compelling and important perspectives and ideas on and images of familial and national histories, on what the past means for each of us both as an individual and as an American. I don’t think any other American text comes close to hers in its willingness to represent the slow, gradual, hesitant, difficult, and yes repetitive and yet ever-changing nature of families’ and communities’ multigenerational experiences and transformations—and I don’t know that there are any unifying national experiences more unifying and more national than such transformations.
Am I recommending that you too read all of Stein’s book? I suppose I am, although I hereby abdicate responsibility for any psychiatric expenses that you might incur as a result of such readings; no literary lifeguards will be on duty, swim at your own risk. But what I’m really arguing isn’t limited to Stein, nor to any of those other authors and texts, and is really more about us: the more we engage with challenging texts and ideas, with those that frustrate us and refuse to be simplified and so refuse to fit our simplifying narratives , the greater the possibility that we can make some progress, as individuals and as Americans. That’s a goal worth repeating. More tomorrow, on the song we all sing but don’t really sing like it was meant to be sung.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The Google books version of Making: http://books.google.com/books?id=cRMjLSUJB-8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=gertrude+stein+the+making+of+americans&source=bl&ots=xY1wo2gfPT&sig=ih5vavg7xmsFvAaX8Foq8wOqkLk&hl=en&ei=DIo_TcCQO4-p8Aby_L3SBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDcQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
2) The full text of Tender Buttons (1914), a book of poetry that is, well, slightly less frustrating, in shorter doses, and just as worth it: http://www.bartleby.com/140/
3) OPEN: Any difficult or even crazy-making texts that you found worth the effort (or any that you didn’t and want to warn us to stay away from)?