In an interview done by Karen Winkler for the publication of Elaine Showalter’s new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf), described as a “600-page survey of known and not-so-known authors,” Showalter answers one question in a way that really surprised me:
Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?
Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a "sister": That doesn't sanctify her work. We can criticize it.
The idea that Stein is unreadable is hardly new, although I’m a little disappointed that such a well-known scholar as Showalter finds work unreadable that not only I have read with pleasure, but many of my undergraduates as well—Stein often ended up being the favorite writer of many students who took a class I used to teach on Modern American Poetry at George Washington University. Still, the unreadability charge, no matter how transparently incorrect, is one I’ve heard many times. Beyond a bit of bored bemusement, it doesn’t get much of a rise out of me anymore.
The point that surprised me though was the idea that Stein played an important role in modernism but only, apparently, for men.
My goal here isn’t primarily to criticize that idea, although I will a bit. Instead, I simply don’t understand it. What does it even mean to play a role in modernism only for men? Can someone explain that?
For instance, I hope Showalter doesn’t mean that Stein wrote on subjects only of importance to men. Leaving aside the problem that if she’s unreadable, it wouldn’t be possible to know what subject she was writing on, there’s nothing inherently masculine that I can identify in the subjects that she writes on: reconsidering of the value of the domestic in Tender Buttons or exploring lesbian sexuality in “Lifting Belly” are only two examples of subject matter that hardly strike me as masculine.
(Note: by unreadable, I know that Showalter probably means "no fun to read," but still...)
Does Showalter mean that the way Stein wrote was only of interest to men? That her concerns with the nature of language and representation are theoretical concerns that only men care about? That one seems wrong also, given the significant influence Stein has had on many women writers since, whether Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack, Harryette Mullen or many others.
Does it mean that, politically and socially, Stein’s writing, and perhaps her behavior (“played a role for men” doesn’t automatically suggest that it’s Stein’s writing under consideration here) played no role in the development of feminism or the history of feminist literature? Here I’m a little out of my own area of expertise. I don’t know enough about Stein’s relationship, say, to the Women’s Right Movement in the U.S. or any other kind of feminist social action, so I suppose it’s possible that she had no connection to women’s political movements in her own time, without quite believing that the phrase “played a role (only) for men” really expresses the problem adequately. And again, since many feminist writers of later generations (again, see short list above) have been very influenced by her work, how can it be true that her role was played only for men?
Can anyone help me? What does Showalter mean here? And is the point uniquely her own or have others made it and I’ve simply never heard it before? Is there a discussion going on among experts on women’s literature about what makes literature “for men” or “for women” that involves grounds by which Stein might be seen as a writer for men?
Thanks for anything you can tell me.