Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Reading of The Making of Americans

The Making of the Gradual Reading of The Making of Americans
Being the History of a Reader’s Progress
by Lonely Christopher

On Sunday, November 23rd there was a congregation assembled to incite a progression through a notorious text from Gertrude Stein’s corpus that’s widely considered her swampiest and least readable: the six-hour (so-called “first installment” of a) marathon reading of The Making of Americans was staged at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The event was organized by students operating under the rubric of hybrid poetics, under the instruction of writer and publisher Rachel Levitsky. This petite band had addressed works by Charles Bernstein, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Rachel Zolf (who visited one afternoon) but the class was to conclude by designing and undertaking a monolithic reading project. Beckett’s fiction, the theater of Brecht, and The Alphabet by Ron Silliman were among the diverse suggestions --- but we decided enthusiastically on Stein’s unruly early novel. The Making of Americans is currently available in an unabridged paperback edition from Dalkey Archive Press, but the text was long out of print (sometimes only procurable in heavily abbreviated form) and seldom read in full even by the most ardent Stein aficionados and critics. When I happened to lug my copy to class, we marveled at the blockish weight of the thing and decided the only way to enter it was to hold a drastic marathon reading. Such an approach to this text is not without precedent: Rachel recalled the 1992 Paula Cooper Gallery reading and I soon found a recording by Gregory Laynor on UbuWeb. Our reading was to be mostly localized within the Pratt community, attended only by the brave (or, fleetingly, the curious), and well documented despite its intimate scale. As the date approached I began to feel increasingly guilty about my involvement in the conception of this project. I love Stein --- my poetics wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t discovered this love --- but I can’t deny that reading her can be an excruciating experience; one that yields an intense sort of alphabetic, epiphanic gratification only after sustained engagement. I feared we wouldn’t be able to launch significantly into the 925-page galaxy of the novel in six hours because it takes me practically six months to thoroughly complete a work of hers that is a quarter of that length. Also I had never participated in a “marathon” like this --- some of us read Proust’s voluminous magnum opus once, but it took an entire summer. For me reading Stein had been a private struggle and private pleasure. I recall spending hours feverishly perusing her book How To Write after finding a fascinating rhythm while simultaneously listening to Philip Glass’ Music with Changing Parts; I remember the first time I opened Tender Buttons and was excitingly startled by the calculated abstraction of her object portraits. The Making of Americans makes monstrously adventurous use of the form of the novel; it can be said to be a “hybrid” work, I posit, even in the context of Stein’s corpus. This mammoth thing exists in a space somewhere between the psychological impressionism of Three Lives and the circular taxonomy of a piece like A Long Gay Book. As literature the novel is a rhizomatically exploded familial pastoral. The few scholars I’ve read who are familiar with the whole thing tend to point to the novel primarily as evidence of biographical specificities re Stein’s childhood. That isn’t wrong but it’s certainly also reductive. The Making of Americans isn’t about Stein’s family but about every American family. The narrative progresses sluggardly --- everything considered cyclically --- in such a way that family experience repeats until losing singularity or distinction (thus turning queer --- to invoke Stein’s usage of the term). This sort of problematizes the familiar in a way inaccessible by narratives that conflate the expansive patterned quality of American existence. Stein writes: “And then there were so many ways of considering the question […] and the many ways to look at them led to many queer things.” The reading commenced in the Pratt Institute library at 2pm. Picasso’s portrait of Stein was projected on the wall, each reader spent about twenty minutes behind the podium (although the computerized clock was broken ergo, as it was often hard to keep time when speaking through Stein, presentations ranged from ten to forty minutes), and it was frequently documented by a photographer and a filmmaker. By way of introduction, Rachel Levitsky played a recording of the author reading an extract of her novel and then the first volunteer began: “Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. ‘Stop!’ cried the groaning old man at last, ‘Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.’” The most pleasant discovery we made about the novel is that the reading experience, perhaps especially considering the collective atmosphere of the event, is more delightful than arduous. Stein’s prose can become overwhelming enough to cause a rupture through which readerly bliss can be accessed (this is most true of repetitive compositions like Many Many Women); The Making of Americans is so widely feared and neglected I assumed the text operated as the foremost example of that compositional technique. Yet while it certainly exists quite radically within the form of the novel, it seems that when a readerly surrender to the style is presupposed the book is, from the start, an exceptionally friendly animal. Spending six consecutive hours with it became more of a happy challenge than a malevolent punishment. Halfway through the event some of the audience had wandered off and been replaced with others, but none of the organizers appeared weary or bored (At 6pm Rachel whispered to me, “This is fun, I love this!”). I feel like I experienced the novel more than I read it --- since I didn’t always read along in my copy with the speaker, and for several hours allowed the words to wash over me gently (but, I don’t think, incidentally), I wouldn’t cite my presence at the event as proof that I “read” any of the novel (even when I was actually at the microphone speaking the words I wasn’t internalizing it on the level I would if reading in solitude). I never listen to audiobooks, and am a rather slow and deliberate reader, so my definition of the act of “reading” a text is pretty specific (conservative?). For me the event was more like an introduction to the act of reading, which was much needed considering how untroubled I have been by leaving The Making of Americans untouched on my shelf. When I presently take up the book again and read the pages that we covered during the marathon I might feel as if I’m re-tracing somewhat but I suspect that will be a welcome support (or a foundation as I study closer the aspects of the writing that I may have glossed in listening). Something else that definitely distinguishes the group reading from personal engagement with the text: each individual presenter articulated a unique delivery that shaped the meaning. Some softer and slower styles de-emphasized the cyclic patterns of the writing, bringing out buried resonances; more fragmented and particular deliveries accentuated the ungainly syntax and the gradual progression through repetition. A few casual volunteers, likely strangers to Stein’s idiosyncrasies, tripped awkwardly over the language or even became emotionally disturbed, but that was also educational. I tried to read in the usual way that I verbalize Stein: as fast as possible with extremely precise enunciation that compartmentalizes the grammar (and its queerness) while expressing a cyclic rhythm. I was fortunate to be able to read an exceptionally witty section wherein the character Julia Dehning takes daily walks with her father and tries to convince him that her suitor is worthy to marry. The extensive repetition of the dialog and its slow trudge toward minor variation (and, finally, a tentative resolution) is somehow wholly accurate in its exaggeration and exasperation. I’ve never encountered such well-conceived dialog from Stein outside of her popular novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. We averaged a little less than twenty pages an hour and concluded on page 108, but if making The Making of Americans was a gradual process for Stein I suppose it’s apropos that we will be gradual in our way through. To begin to conclude this summary I hereby direct the interested reader toward Stein’s essay “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans,” from Lectures in America. It might serve as an introduction to what she’s here doing. Now: we will continue climbing the mountain of what she’s here doing as we keep making progress through the novel being a history of a family’s progress. I will finally end with a collaged extract from William H. Gass’ intoxicated foreword to the Dalky Archive edition: “[Stein] mimics the movement of life itself, aims at a target reflected in a mirror, returns, redoes […] because life belongs to the progressive present, it is living, but living is ‘same after same,’ it is variations on a theme, a deep theme, made of the mixtures of natures […] how does it happen that we feel we are present in a present our reruns make us absent from? shifting gears, poking in a purse […] if the feeling failed to materialize, we’d be as good as dead […] and every one of us will die, but only a few, a small sum at any time, can remember --- really remember --- something of some such thing: when our organs no longer peal, when our words no longer rhyme.”


Steven Fama said...

I love the presentation of your report in a single long unbroken paragraph!

Jeff said...

In December there was the world premiere opera of The Making of the Americans at the Walker Art
Center in Minneapolis. It was, from what I can tell, universally well received. See my blog for my interview of poet and opera-buff Greg Hewett: