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13 May 2016

Strolling with Stein and James (or, Romantic Meanderers)

            Gertrude Stein and Henry James paint material landscapes as background scenery for readers to stroll through while subtly contemplating the finer points of masculine and feminine dichotomies. The overall pace of their works and their word choices lead readers as if on a leisurely stroll through Hyde Park or the Louvre. In The American, Christopher Newman displays the tensions between strolling and sitting. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas, Alice exemplifies the tensions between sitting and standing. The differences, in both works, revolve around notions of motion (masculine or feminine) and states of being (active or inactive). Setting up dichotomous states of being increases dramatic tensions within the works. Dichotomies, primarily involving motion and/or lack of motion, also control the speed of scenes. Accordingly, moments of intensity wind up as intriguing bends in the garden’s path (i.e. momentary tangents). In other words, both, Stein and James, utilize the motions involved with sitting and standing to move their readers from one point to the next. The remainder of this paper will focus on explicating a few passages from each work in order to garner a better understanding of the effects of the sit/stand dichotomy as presented by Stein and James. (Note: Due to the length restrictions, I will limit passages to major plot movers specifically utilizing the words: sit, stand, and stroll.)
Gertrude Stein: “[A]pprenticeship of [S]tanding”
            In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, we’re immediately introduced to tense sitting: “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it” (Stein 1 emphasis mine). There is no further explanation. The ambiguity allows the reader’s mind to drift. Alice could be putting her back-to-a-view with the same presence as the paranoid who prefers to sit back-to-a-wall. Though, the distinct smugness in the statement leads the reader to imagine a girl who doesn’t feel a view is worth the effort of facing it. Either way, this brief sentence serves to transition the reader from Alice’s preferences to the next paragraph concerning her upbringing or “the gently bred existence of [her] class and kind” (Stein 1). This transition leads the reader to the conclusion that Alice is the type of girl who is concerned with “class and kind” and who has time to ignore the same view that others would barely have time to enjoy. This instance of sitting helps to pull the reader into the story, additionally, it serves to move the reader through the subtleties of Alice’s class consciousness.
            When moving from sitting to standing much masculine-feminine tension is placed in the gesture itself, however, this tension is packaged in material descriptions of “chairs” and their comfort inadequacies for “short-legged people”:          
The chairs in the room were also all italian renaissance, not very comfortable for short-legged people and one got in the habit of sitting on one’s legs. Miss Stein sat near the stove in a lovely high-backed one and she peacefully let her legs hang, which was a matter of habit, and when any one of the many visitors came to ask her a question she lifted herself up out of this chair and usually replied in french, not just now (Stein 9).
Sitting on one’s legs invites the inevitable reduction of blood flow which naturally causes blood to rush back into one’s legs upon standing. The image of Stein sitting with her legs dangling then standing up quickly impresses on to the reader Stein’s readiness to stand up at speed (Gertrude Stein in your face in 2.2 seconds). Additionally, since this moment is supposed to be an observation of Alice’s, there is an indication that this opposite action impressed Alice. Speaking of those dichotomies: this sit/stand scene involving Stein’s sit-to-stand preparedness is an observation of a more masculine action whereby one dangles because one is poised and ready for action. One sits upon their legs when one feels relaxed, safe, inactive, at which point it is unnecessary to stand quickly, there’s no rush. Such sitting indicates Alice’s (in)actions as those of a comfortable class and a feminine kind. I argue two points here: one, the sit/stand dichotomy is integral to the movement of the scene and the plotline; and, two, the masculine/ feminine dichotomy is integral to the observational relationship of Gertrude (masculine) and Alice (feminine). That said, this section initially implies paintings will be spoken of, then uses chairs and the act of (un)occupying them as a transition into character development and dichotomous observations. Then the reader is just as suddenly diverted back to a secondary implication of a promised paintings discussion before the reader is deviated into a description of the room, the lighting situation, a painter, the landlady, and the year they first got electricity (“1914”) (Stein 9).
            For fear of exceeding the scope of this paper, the final sit/stand scene we will discuss gave rise to the subtitle of this section:
It is a place where you were always standing and sometimes waiting, not for anything to happen, but just standing. The inhabitants of Montmartre did not sit much, they mostly stood which was just as well as the chairs, the dining room chairs of France, did not tempt one to sit. So I went to Montmartre and I began my apprenticeship of standing (Stein 20).
As seen in the earlier passage, Alice places a lot of importance on comfort while sitting. Yet, she also views sitting as a social function, whereby if the locals are sitting one also sits, if they are standing one also stands. For Alice, whose “gently bred existence” allows for turning away from a view, the act of standing for extended periods has become work, a social “apprenticeship” This moment acts as an indicator of the tensions Alice experiences over time and in new settings. For Alice, standing had previously been a masculine activity; once she begins her apprenticeship she becomes active, and therefore minutely more masculine. Interestingly, we’re only introduced to Alice’s apprenticeship after a forewarning describing the standing as unproductive and inactive. Thus, Alice’s self-affirmed apprenticeship was actually in feminine standing, a form easily contrasted against the earlier description of Gertrude’s masculine standing. Stein utilizes Alice’s class conscious voice to describe observations of sitting and standing, which feed the discussion of Alice’s “kind” (feminine) and “class” (inactive).    

Henry James: “An [A]esthetic [H]eadache”
            James, unlike Stein, doesn’t make it beyond the first sentence without making reference to “reclining,” though as promised, we shall skip over that sentence to another sentence about half a page down:
But his exertions on this particular day had been of an unwonted sort, and he had often performed great physical feats which left him less jaded than his tranquil stroll through the Louvre. He had looked out all the pictures to which an asterix was affixed in those formidable pages of fine print in his Baedeker; his attention had been strained and his eyes dazzled, and he had sat down with an aesthetic headache (James 1).
Here the reader is introduced to Christopher Newman, an active man who took a “tranquil stroll” through the Louvre to find himself sitting, mentally exhausted, sporting “an aesthetic headache”. James has painted an exquisite landscape for strolling, what better portrait to paint than inside of the Louvre, home to the greats? Yet, the action of a “tranquil stroll” leaves Newman without energy, “reclining” and inactive on a couch. Newman’s inactivity is not a feminine action, it is masculinity exhausted. This inactivity is also class- and kind-based as indicated by the “Baedeker” reference and the whirlwind tour of looking at everything premarked in the travel guide. Newman went to the Louvre for a “tranquil stroll” an elitist notion, but he preplanned like an active middle class tourist with a set goal and not like an inactive upper class local out for a leisurely stroll. For James, the act of strolling and sitting indicate class and kind, while simultaneously controlling the speed of the scene. As mentioned earlier the first sentence introduces Newman in a very inactive position, the reason for his inactivity is quickly explained and his inactivity is then reintroduced. In this introduction, it is less important what works of art were viewed, than that the implied acts of viewing, walking, standing, staring, and contemplating were cause for sitting and cause of his “aesthetic headache.”
            The second James passage which interests us, involves Newman’s marriage proposition to Madame de Cintre:
Madam de Cintre stood there a moment longer, looking away from him. If she was touched by the way he spoke, the thing was conceivable. His voice, always very mild and interrogative, gradually became as soft and as tenderly argumentative as if he had been talking to a much-loved child. He stood watching her, and she presently turned round again, but this time she did not look at him, and she spoke with a quietness in which there was a visible trace of effort (James 118).
The tension in this standing scene is wrapped up in the interplay between masculine and feminine as well as on the level of class. Though for James, this scene serves as an exploration of social expectations as viewed through dichotomous characters: one bound by class-based on blood (blood class), the other bound by class-based on finances (finance-class). That “thing [that] was conceivable [if…]” becomes the all important focal point of the scene, yet the readers are moved to the “thing” and moved out of the “thing” with a tension-in-standing that is elevated by James’ use of “looking” and “turning.” This scene is full of bodily motions affected by gaze and emphasized through voice. Those final four words provide a brief insight into Madam de Cintre’s take on “the thing”; a take which included her responding with “a visible trace of effort”.   
            For that promised sake of brevity, the final James passage which interests us is as follows:
He watched the deer in Windsor Forest and admired the Thames from Richmond Hill; he ate whitebait and brown-bread and butter at Greenwich, and strolled in the grassy shadow of the cathedral of Canterbury. He also visited the Tower of London and Madame Tussaud’s exhibition (James 342).
In this scene Newman takes in the English sights, strolls through the English countryside without mention of his Baedeker, and impresses upon the reader a sense of aimless wandering. Newman’s surety in his finance-class has been thwarted by members of the blood-class; even so, it is the thwarted Newman that comes closest to obtaining a genuine level of leisurely strolling. In other words, he has to escape Paris and lose himself in England to accomplish this approximation. Thus, readers are moved through Newman’s inner tensions as played out in his varied strolling habits. The early Newman is a purposeful stroller checking off pieces of art with intention (masculine action); whereas this later Newman, tainted by interactions with blood-class, finds himself strolling without purpose (feminine action). For Newman the class battle has stripped away his surety, his masculinity.

Looking at three passages from both texts hardly does this subject justice and further limiting this examination to three words (sit, stand, stroll) is unfair to the role that bodily motion plays in moving these works. Stein and James were observers in human behavior and these two works show their abilities to capture the subtleties of movement and the dichotomous tensions involved in interactions between people of varied “class and kind”. While sitting, standing, and strolling are at a minimum basic action descriptors, Stein and James harness these movements as transitionary aspects of their characters which also control the speed of scenes and the flow of the plot.   


 Works Cited
James, Henry. The American. New York: Penguin Group. 2005.
Stein, Gertrude. The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Random House. 1990.

Some Nights by FUN

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You want changes? Then, it is time for you to take an active interest in the good of the Republic. Do not leave governance to career politicians. Run for office. Vote for third, fourth, and fifth parties.)

This November vote them all out!
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Take Me to Church by Hozier

* 26 JUNE 2015 * LGBT Rights Victory *
read the Supreme Court's opinion:


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