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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

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Activities: Author Activities

Gertrude Stein - Teaching Tips

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  • In Really Reading Gertrude Stein, poet Judy Grahn offers several suggestions that may help students appreciate what Stein was trying to do with her often confusing prose. Grahn suggests reading Stein's work aloud to help readers appreciate the sound of her writing and to involve them actively in the language Stein chooses. Grahn also cautions against being too serious in one's pursuit of meaning in Stein, and invites readers to skip around Stein's sometimes exceedingly lengthy meditations on people and objects. She reminds readers that there are ideas lurking behind the jumble of words and recommends paying attention to point of view in particular. It might be useful to tell students that getting a handle on Stein isn't supposed to be easy and that there isn't one right "answer."

  • To help students navigate the repetitious prose of The Making of Americans, preview the first few paragraphs in class before you ask students to read the selection in its entirety. A brief introduction to what Stein was trying to accomplish could be followed by a look at what she outlines as her project in the opening paragraphs. You might ask students to speculate about what "it" is in these paragraphs and about why so many people don't want to know "it" and why Stein does.

  • In a consideration of modernism, you might compare Stein's repetition in The Making of Americans to Ezra Pound's extremely spare poem "In a Station of the Metro" and ask students to think about how modernism can take such different forms. Ask them to speculate how these different techniques might achieve some similar ends (e.g., working in fragments, and thereby emphasizing the modern sense of perception as fragmentary).

  • Tender Buttons can be read as a series of still lives, or portraits of objects. Traditionally, a still life is a painting of an inanimate object, such as flowers, food, or books. Still lives allowed artists to demonstrate their skill in representing these objects realistically and by manipulating color, light, and texture. Like elegies, still lives emphasize life's fleeting qualities and offer a stay against mortality by immortalizing these objects in paint. Using reproductions of modernist still lives by Cezanne, discuss with your students what innovations painters made in this genre in the first decades of the twentieth century. Was the goal to be as realistic as possible? If not, what was the goal of the modernist painter of still lives? How may you apply these conclusions to the still lives Stein presents in Tender Buttons?

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