Your child, the modernist

Gertrude Stein’s long-lost kids’ book is bizarre-and a great reflection of how children think

(Giselle Potter/Yale University Press)
By Stephen Burt
July 10, 2011

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The writers we now call modernists-T. S. Eliot, for example, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound-often aimed for shock or surprise. They created their most famous poetry and fiction, during the first decades of the 20th century, out of frequently shifting impressions or violent, juxtaposed fragments (“these fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as Eliot put it in “The Waste Land”), with omissions, transitions, and allusions that still challenge thoughtful adults.

It might come as a surprise, then, that one of the modernist writers considered among the most difficult of all-Gertrude Stein-wrote not one but four books for children, all without forsaking her recognizable style. Though the first of these books, “The World Is Round,” met with some success, the second, “To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays,” was rejected by publishers and was released only after Stein’s death, without illustrations, as part of her collected unpublished work.

In May, however, “To Do” was rereleased by Yale University Press in a handsome, stand-alone volume, illustrated by artist Giselle Potter. A long, perhaps overlong, sequence of anecdotes and poems about groups of characters based on letters of the alphabet, it takes the reader on a tour of an unpredictable world, where typewriters talk, birthdays can be picked up and put down, and (in Stein’s own words) “Alphabets and names make games.” Stein’s tales and impressions are funny, but also absurd, and often violent, driven as much by sound as by narrative logic. Based on “To Do,” you can understand Stein’s reputation as a difficult writer.

But to anyone who has spent time recently with young children-or anyone up on the latest child psychology-some of Stein’s book may seem oddly familiar. These playful yet confusing stories, liable at any moment to end abruptly, change characters midstream, or pause for some unhelpful explanation, sound very much like the stories that young children tell. As an experimental writer, it turns out, Stein was performing some of the same experiments that we now know children perform as they learn to speak, to assemble narratives, and to understand the world.

Gertrude Stein is known for novels, essays, and poems whose fractured language recalls the perspectives of Cubist art, which she and her brother Leo collected. Born in 1874, Stein grew up mostly in Oakland, Calif. She attended Radcliffe (where she studied psychology with William James) and Johns Hopkins Medical School before following Leo to Paris in 1903. There, she began to write, in a style that was modernist by any definition. Her book “Tender Buttons” (1914), for example, includes a poem called “A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass,” which begins: “A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing.” Even more than “The Waste Land,” this work is a hard nut to crack.

And yet Stein’s writing, with its repetition and attention to the littlest words, also reveals traces of the ways that children speak-for better or worse. During Stein’s lifetime, detractors mocked her work as baby talk, especially after her quirky, best-selling memoir of life with her partner, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” (1933), made her a celebrity. But after that book made Stein a good proposition for commercial publishers, she turned this criticism on its head, writing a book expressly for children: “The World Is Round” (1938). In it, a girl named Rose climbs a mountain, along with her cousin Willie and her lion Billie. Clement Clark Hurd drew the pictures (he would go on to illustrate “Goodnight Moon”). Though the book was less straightforward than, say, Eliot’s turn to kids’ writing (in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the basis for the musical “Cats”), it was a success. The closing song (“I am Rose and when I sing/ I am Rose like anything”) still appears in children’s anthologies.

Stein’s second work for children, “To Do,” fared less well. It was rejected by the publisher of “The World Is Round,” and by subsequent editors, though Margaret Wise Brown (who wrote “Goodnight Moon”) encouraged Stein to keep sending it out. Stein finally placed it in 1942, but troubles securing an illustrator, along with wartime delays in the publishing industry, meant that it did not appear until after Stein died, and then only within Yale University Press’s long series of unpublished writings by Stein.

Reading “To Do” today, it’s not hard to see why it was a tough sell: It is indeed a strange children’s book, as children’s books go. It must have seemed stranger still in 1940, before Maurice Sendak, before “The Cat in the Hat.” Characters move oceans or catch on fire, and they are treated with equal curiosity whether they are people, dogs, or feisty animate objects. Here are the characters starting with A: “Annie is a girl Arthur is a boy Active is a horse. Albert is a man with a glass.” And here are the characters starting with Q: “Q is Quiet, Queenie, Quintet and Question. It is hard to have names like that.”

The goings-on in “To Do” do not correspond to the categories through which most adults view the world. But they do reflect what goes on in the minds of children themselves, as observed by psychologists and cognitive scientists in recent decades. Katherine Nelson of the City University of New York, for example, has studied transcriptions of what a 2- and 3-year-old said to herself before she fell asleep; she discussed her findings, along with other scholars, in “Narratives from the Crib.” Another psychologist, Alison Gopnik of the University of California-Berkeley, has become perhaps the foremost researcher explaining this work for a popular audience, in books including “The Scientist in the Crib” and “The Philosophical Baby.” These researchers and others are observing how children’s language, imaginations, and minds develop, and Stein seems almost to have predicted their findings.

According to Nelson in “Narratives from the Crib,” kids learn to use speech, very early, to find the right categories for what has happened to them. Their fragmentary and literally experimental sentences try “to organize, generalize, categorize, narrativize, and thus ultimately to clarify” events that may not have made sense the first time through. “To Do” works on language almost as Nelson’s kids do, presenting grammatical and semantic categories as problems rather than things to be taken for granted. Take Stein’s discussion of horses: “What are horses. Horses are animals were animals with a mane and a tail ears hoofs a head and teeth and shoes if they are put upon them.” It is as if she, or her young reader, is trying to figure out which information about horses matters.

As “To Do” proceeds through the alphabet, it becomes a book not just about language learning, but about pretending, about how children learn to distinguish the abstract from the concrete, the made-up from the real. Gopnik’s work confirms the centrality of this kind of exploration in early childhood cognition. “For young children,” Gopnik writes, “imaginary worlds seem just as important and appealing as the real ones. It’s not, as scientists used to think, that children can’t tell the difference between the real world and the imaginary world....It’s just that they don’t see any particular reason for preferring to live in the real one.”

Pretending that words are people, that letters are physical things, “To Do” mimics the magical thinking of young children, still drawing the lines between real and imaginary. The children in “To Do” experiment and even interact with words, as Stein does: “Brave was a rich boy. One day, it might have been his birthday because he was not born on his birthday and any day might be his birthday well one day he met the letter A.” Letters are characters; so are the number zero, a xylophone, a carnivorous rabbit (owned by Mr. and Mrs. Quiet, who dislike its diet), and “two dirty dogs” named Was Asleep and Never Sleeps, who act in accordance with their names.

The children Stein portrays, too, often act like real children taking the whole world in: They are amused, frustrated, surprised. Pearl, for example, is “was astonished by everything...and what astonished her most was everything.” Indeed, that kind of astonishment characterizes young children’s approach to the world. Adults already know what matters, what aspects of language signify, what parts of a room or a car are the most important; young children do not know, and so attend to it all (until they tire out).

If this sounds familiar, well, it hints at what Stein’s modernism for kids reveals about modernism more generally. When we read Stein’s writing (even her writing for children), we do not know which parts are important; the adult categories and narratives that we’ve learned to take for granted are all in play again. Like kids, we have to attend almost equally to each sound, until we, too, get tired.

Both lovers and haters of modernism have long noted a link between this art and children’s modes of thought. The late Roger Shattuck, in his classic book on the arts in Paris, “The Banquet Years,” wrote that “the child’s wonder and spontaneity and destructiveness” lay at the base of what French modernists such as Erik Satie and Guillaume Apollinaire invented. Skeptics make the same comparison when they object to modern painting (or to Stein’s writing) by saying their 4-year-old could do it.

And yet “To Do” feels so much like a book about children, about how they think and what they say, that it does not always feel like a book for children. You could read parts of “To Do” to a curious kid, but if you want a whole book of kid-friendly modernism, with quirky visual interest at every turn, a better bet is Shelley Jackson’s “Mimi’s Dada Catifesto”-a story, workbook, and primer on the modernist movement of Dadaism. “Only art that does not look like art is art!” cries the Dadaist owner of the feline protagonist, Mimi. (It’s a slogan that our 5-year-old now loves to shout as well.)

That motto captures the same radical attention to everything-the same playful exploration, collapse, and remaking of categories-that occurs in Stein’s disorienting prose. And, as Gopnik, Nelson, and their peers are showing, that essentially modernist process is rooted in our earliest experiences of learning. To read either Jackson’s more accessible book or Stein’s more ambitious one is to rediscover-ideally, along with a child-how odd modernism could be. And yet it is also a reminder that what adults find in the fractures and challenges of modernism is no stranger than what children get from talking, listening, and seeing the world every day.

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. His most recent book, written with David Mikics, is “The Art of the Sonnet’’ (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Writer Gertrude Stein in 1937. (Gordon Anthony/Getty Images) Writer Gertrude Stein in 1937.