Identity in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans Essay

Identity in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans Essay

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Identity in Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans


Throughout her career, Gertrude Stein was fascinated by the possibility of revolution in the sense of "a complete or drastic change," especially in relation to her ideas of identity and agency. But critics disagree about her conclusions. For example, Bruce Goebel sees her early texts as "embrac[ing a] deterministic attitude about the formation of identity" (238) that conceives of identity as locked within historical and biological contexts. At the other extreme, many critics such as Caren Kaplan locate Stein's work within the context of expatriate modernism and so see it within the discourses which "celebrat[e] the rootless traveler" (7), cut loose from nation and history and thus free to create a self of her own choosing. I believe this contradiction arises because Stein's texts are themselves often contradictory, with one passage exploring the inescapable weight of history and heredity on her characters, while the next admires her characters' capacity to resist cultural prescriptions, to exercise agency, to transform themselves, to be "singular." Identity in many Stein texts, especially in The Making of Americans, is, then, a negotiation between cultural prescriptions, biological and historical determinants on the one hand and self-definition, change and agency on the other. In this sense, Stein's work anticipates Foucault's later theories of identity in which he explores possibilities for "freedom" or agency. In "The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom" Foucault begins to define what he calls "the practices of the self":

I am interested . . . in the way in which the subject constitutes himself in an active fashion, by the practices of the self, these ...


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...ad to Die': The Problem of Mortality in Gertrude Stein's The Geographical History of America." Philological Quarterly 70.2 (1991): 237-252.

Hovey, Jaime. "Sapphic Primitivism in Gertrude Stein's Q.E.D." Modern Fiction Studies 42.3 (1996): 547-568.

Kaplan, Caren. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Spencer, Benjamin. "Gertrude Stein: Non-Expatriate." Literature and Ideas in America. Robert Falk, ed., Ohio UP, 1975.

Stein, Gertrude. "The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans." Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Vintage, 1990.

-----. The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.

-----. Narration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1935.

Wald, Patricia. Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

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