'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years

Lewis P. Simpson, writing about this southern regard for the past, cautions that writers who vivified the eccentric folk of the region were not just making myths. "Mark Twain, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris suggest how memory, searching the drama of the antebellum southern experience, molded itself into a construct of cultural will, or a metaphysics of survival."

Survival is the key word, I think, when it comes to contemporary southern writers: survival necessitated not by the Civil War's destruction of Camelot, or even the influx of industry and suburban subdivions after World War II, but by the pervasive homogenization of the culture, brought by federal marshals, K marts, rock 'n ' roll. Mason, Phillips, Smith, and Boyd all use shopping centers and television as emblems of the contemporary South, conjuring them as one might an ancient burial site hidden in the caves. These unmysterious bleeps on the landscape, like billboards, block the trees and historical markers. TV in particular has wiped out the immediate environment.

As TV came of age in the '50s, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the antebellum years that made the South so "different," southerners began to forget the South's notoriousness. The coverage of the civil rights movement may have traumatized many blacks, especially kids like me who faced integration battles in the South. We saw men, women, and children brutalized—but those bloody images were soon gone too. The villains of the slavery era disappeared; the records of the slaveholders were burned; school books were rewritten. TV once again refused to acknowledge to existence of the region. Imagining anything of the real South became as difficult as finding as ad for contraceptives on TV. The characters in southern fiction, the barren fruit of such a place, lost what was in their own backyards and became folk who had little left that was unique except their legendary racism. The South's supposed past grandeur was a myth devised of vaunted ancient roots. That grandeur, which made their racism some strange necessity, was gone—there was no history. [return to top]

VLS, November 1988

The Lost Generator

Gertrude Stein Builds a Better Reader
By Albert Mobilio

We first know her as an icon: the sharply sculpted, masklike face hovering above the piled-upon folds of her body. Her head tilts slightly forward to catch an unnaturally harsh light. Her eyes are askew; one is indifferently wide, the other squints in judgment. Depicting an unsettled Buddha who seems both at rest and about to rise from her overstuffed chair, Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein is, perhaps, the most familiar emblem of the Modernist epoch. We can hardly look at this painting and not imagine, standing just outside the frame, Braque, Apollinaire, Matisse, Pound, Hemingway, assorted Futurists, Dadaists, and Cubists—all those who made the art that made this century. Stein appears enthroned, a high priestess presiding over her charmed circle at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Inevitably, the grand scene the portrait conjures—Paris in the teens and '20s, the Lost Generation—obscures its subject. While we view her as a pivotal, even essential, participant in the artistic turmoil of her times, it is always in relation to her legendary salon, her role as hostess. Yet it was Stein, among her guests, who truly executed the letter of the Modernist law the "make it new." She did this in some 40 books that leave no genre untouched. Whether as librettist, poet, novelist, or essayist, Stein consistently produced work so radical it remains so today. Sadly, this achievement too little informs what we see when we see Stein. Regarded more as icon than artist, more as aphorist than author, she is our century's most famous unread writer.

Stein lacks readers not merely because the writing is difficult but because it is, at times, literally unreadable; that is, she cannot be read the way we've been taught, the way we want to read. She sought to reinvent the relationship between reader and page. Arriving in New York to lecture in 1934, she made her intent plain to a group of inquiring newsmen. Surprised by the clarity of her responses, one asked, "Why don't you write the way you talk?" "Why don't you read the way I write?" she replied. Doing that means unlearning the fluid rapidity and instantaneous assimilation we automatically bring to bear. We are sent back to our earliest experiences with written words, when their size, shape, and sound were as consequential as the information they conveyed. By tearing at the seams between sentences, between words, Stein invites readers to join in an almost physical act; she forces the eye to retrace, the mind to rethink. Unraveling one of her commaless run-on sentences can resemble a tug-of-war in which Stein pulls you heedlessly forward while you dig in you heels with imagined commas, colons, and periods. Stein unnerves us; she contorts what we think is the natural flow. The violation of so many conventions upends the implicit contract between writer and reader. In place of that neatly struck bargain, Stein insists her readers read recklessly, with no hands on the wheel and a busy eye on the words ahead. [return to top]

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