Monday, May 18, 2009

A Note on Modernism: “Language is an order of reality itself."

A Note on Modernism: “Language is an order of reality itself.”By Ann Bogle

Willa Cather (1873-1947) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) are American modernists. Both were born in the East and migrated with their families West. Both returned East –Cather to New York and Pittsburgh, Stein to Paris–and both were mentored by the brothers, novelist Henry James and psychologist William James. I discovered these and other biographical similarities—both lesbians, as another example–in writing about them in 1991: “Stein was pitching forward in time and language; Cather was casting back.”

In The Making of Americans, Stein wrote, “The old people in a new world, the new people made out of the old, that is the story I mean to tell.” How different is that from Cather’s use of the biographical past to write her pioneers? Stein lived as an expatriate, Cather as a city dweller exiled from the Nebraska prairie of her childhood. When Stein returned to Oakland to visit, she said, “There is no there there,” meaning that the place in her memory no longer existed. Yet the two writers could not in other ways be more different. Stein wrote in the country of language surrounded by Europeans; Cather “reached back into her personal past for a record of Europe in America instead of looking for America in Europe.”

In her essay, “Six Stein Styles in Search of a Reader,” Marjorie Perloff writes, “(Like) the great realists of the nineteenth century who were her precursors, Stein believed that the domain of literature was the real rather than the ideal, the ordinary rather than the unusual, the everyday rather than the fantastic. But, as Lyn Hejinian observes, realism can be an attitude toward language itself rather than only toward the objects to which language refers: ‘Perhaps it was the discovery that language is an order of reality itself and not a mere mediating medium—that it is possible and even likely that one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog, bishop, piano, vineyard, door, or penny.’”

Ann Bogle has published short stories, prose, and poetry in many literary journals in print and online. For a listing of her publications and a sampling of her writing visit Ana Verse at:
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