Kendra Steiner Editions

March 9, 2019

My Years in Oklahoma with Gertrude and Washington

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 12:51 pm

During my six years in Oklahoma, while I was attending and working at Oklahoma State University (as well as juggling other part-time jobs the way a poor student does), I spent a lot of time in the massive OSU library. It was air-conditioned in the hot North Central Oklahoma summers, and it was heated in the frigid winters of the Oklahoma plains, which meant that it was very much preferable to the cheap inadequately cooled and heated apartments where I lived.

Also, there was an incredible variety of literary works available, particularly in American Literature. I considered this a period in my life when I was a sponge, soaking up as much original and diverse American literary writing as I could. I’d written and published some poems when I’d lived in Colorado prior to coming to Oklahoma, but I somehow knew that this time, in deep and intensive graduate-level literary classes, would be a time of drinking from the well and growing strong from what I’d consumed. I also knew that I would use this deeply felt immersion into original and creative and individual American writing later in my own writing, after a period to digest the material and to apply it to my life experience and my overall aesthetic.

gertrude 2


During this period, there were two scholarly multi-volume editions that I spent many late afternoons and Sundays with over those years, and I tended to read them AT the library, not check them out. I tasted from these books while among acres of other books, with the smell of books, with the overall vibe of the library and of learning, in the company of graduate students and librarians, both groups who understand the multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary magic of books, in particular, literature.

These sets were the eight-volume YALE EDITION OF THE UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS OF GERTRUDE STEIN, published by Yale UP in the 1950’s,  and the thirty-volume THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WASHINGTON IRVING, published by first the University of Wisconsin Press and then by Twayne, from the late 1960’s through the mid-1980’s.

The beautiful and historic EDMON LOW LIBRARY at Oklahoma State University was one of those older, classically designed, high-ceilinged libraries (see pic) where one could lose oneself in a literary work for hours on end. I could find myself a comfortable armchair and get caught up in the supple, hypnotic, shifting rhythms of one of Stein’s long minimalistic pieces from the 1900’s or 1910’s (having an effect on me not unlike Terry Riley’s PERSIAN SURGERY DERVISHES, but on the page), and the next thing I know the sun has gone down outside but I’m fully illuminated inside by having an audience with Gertrude Stein.

If you’re not familiar with this series of Stein volumes, GS left money in her will to finance the publication of her unpublished writings through Vale University Press after her passing. Yes, a famous character such as Gertrude Stein had probably 1200+ pages of writings she could not get published during her lifetime (and let’s not forget that during her lifetime, she and Alice B. Toklas started their own press, Plain Editions, funded by the sale of some paintings that Stein owned, to publish other works that could not get published, seminal works such as LUCY CHURCH AMIABLY and HOW TO WRITE) and had to pay AFTER HER OWN DEATH to get them in print. The next time someone talks condescendingly to anyone who self-publishes some of their works (because you believe in the literary vision you have and you want to get that work out to others, when the gatekeepers stand in the way), tell those who condescend and whine to get lost. If Gertrude Stein or (with his later poems) Melville had to do it, you should have no apologies–actually, you should wear it as a badge of pride because your unique vision is being presented in its pure form. Thankfully, Stein had friends and supporters—-Carl Van Vechten, Donald C. Gallup, Donald Sutherland (the literary critic and author of GERTRUDE STEIN: A BIOGRAPHY OF HER WORK, not the actor), and Thornton Wilder—-who agreed to take on this task after her passing. There works included such now seminal pieces as the erotic classic LIFTING BELLY and the sublime long-poem STANZAS IN MEDIATION, which in recent years has been issued in a wonderful variorum edition. Yale later published a kind of “best of” the material from these eight volumes, THE YALE GERTRUDE STEIN  (which is available in paperback at a reasonable price and anyone reading this far should order ASAP–see pic below), but I first encountered these works in the eight-volume 1950’s series, and many original and striking and fascinating pieces of Stein’s have still never been published elsewhere. If you remember the old “head cleaners” from the age of VHS video tapes and audio cassettes, for me Stein was a literary head cleaner. She removed the crud from my brain and re-arranged and sharpened my literary magnetic field. Not to mention the beauty and freshness of her language constructs.

And yes, these volumes contained what would have been called her more “experimental” works. She WAS able to get the more accessible pieces such as EVERYBODY’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY or BREWSIE AND WILLIE published, though surprisingly, those ‘popular’ pieces of hers managed to still retain most of her best qualities. I’d argue that those works would be the equivalent of being served a fine Islay Scotch with ice and soda (and maybe a twist of lemon), as opposed to the less commercial works which served the Scotch up neat. The former makes it more palatable to a wider audience, but it’s the same Scotch. In Stein’s case, if you ever want to “open up” her work, the way you’d “open up” a good Scotch with a splash of rainwater, I’d suggest you listen to the Caedmon recording of her reading her own works. When you hear the rhythms of the author’s reading (especially on “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait Of Picasso”), and listen to the album multiple times until the wall cracks and you are granted entrance into the works, you can pick up something like THE GEOGRAPHICAL HISTORY OF AMERICA, or many of the works in these eight volumes, and finally “hear” them as they were meant to be sounded out. Speaking of THE GEOGRAPHICAL HISTORY, I once bought a used copy of that for $2 at a Houston bookstore, maybe ten years ago, which I noticed had some markings in it, but I did not look at it too closely. I wanted an extra copy to give to a friend (I recently gave an extra copy of the Sun and Moon edition of STANZAS IN MEDITATION, which I found at a Half-Price Books in San Marcos, Texas, for $3, to my friend and KSE colleague, Austin percussionist and musical shaman Lisa Cameron, and I’m sure that that has found an appreciative home), and I was happy to find one so cheap. That copy had guide-punctuation penciled into it through the entire book! And it was correctly done. Clearly, whoever did this had heard the Stein recordings, truly “got” Stein’s unique sense of rhythm and her consistent syntax patterns and pauses, and annotated them into the text. The funny thing to me is that anyone who could do that, and do it properly, would not have needed such annotations. I don’t. Was this person doing it for a friend to read the book? I’ll never know, though on some level it makes the book difficult for me to read because I know how to maneuver around within Stein’s language, and I don’t need signposts to guide me on the path. Stepping around these signs is something of a hassle, and I need to get a fresh, non-annotated copy of that work, a favorite of my teenage years in Colorado from the Vintage Books paperback. However, I am very happy that someone actually took the time to go through such a chore. I’d assume GS would be touched by that.

Stein has functioned as a head-cleaner for me in the world of writing in a similar manner to what John Cage (whom I once had the privilege of speaking with for about 20 minutes, one-on-one) is to music/sound and what Andy Warhol is to visual art and the image. Those three blew my mind at an early age and caused me to re-build my aesthetic from the ground up….the way they built their aesthetic from the ground up, nothing taken for granted, nothing blindly accepted, working according to their own clock, their own barometer. Other people may have others who did that for them—-William S. Burroughs, Bill Dixon, Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Milligan, Cy Twombly, who knows—-but the work of these three are the legs that hold up my own chair, such as it is. And I am eternally grateful, but the last thing any of them would want is to turn them into museum pieces—-they would have wanted to hand off the baton to the upcoming generations to continue the search, to continue the exploration, to do the work, to create the pieces, and to allow the aesthetic to bleed through into one’s experience of every moment of every day. It’s no surprise that each remained incredibly prolific until their deaths and that each left a wealth of work which was unseen (in the case of Warhol) or un-performed (in the case of Cage) at the time of their deaths. The posthumously disseminated works of Stein, Warhol, and Cage are further gifts to the future, and  not just gifts, but keys, keys that open up new rooms and the doors into new realms of both the arts and consciousness.

yale stein

THE YALE GERTRUDE STEIN (which you can still find a used copy of for under $5), which was a kind of “best-of” from the eight Yale UP press volumes discussed above

washington irving spain

statue of WASHINGTON IRVING in Granada, Spain

The other multi-volume set I spent a lot of time with during my years at OSU was THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WASHINGTON IRVING, a 30-volume scholarly edition, presenting all of Irving’s published works (with exhaustive documentation of their differing published forms), along with individual works from periodicals of the day which were never collected in books, along with unpublished pieces he was never able to place, along with journals and notebooks, along with correspondence, and an exhaustive 800-page bibliography as the 30th and final volume in the set. Irving is not read that much today, alas. Oh, everyone knows about Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, but even there, some of the well-known pieces are wrenched from the narrative frames in which they were originally presented, hurting an appreciation of Irving’s masterful and pioneering work with narrative persona and point of view. I’m reminded of the “edited” version of Sergio Leone’s film ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, where the film was re-cut (without the director present, of course) into chronological order, in the studio’s hopes that it would then play “like a crime film” and sell more tickets–thankfully, that version was tossed into the dustbin after a brief run in the hinterlands (this was also done with the CONFIDENTAL REPORT-version of Orson Welles’s MR. ARKADIN, which you can see on the 3-DVD Criterion set devoted to that much-underrated and haunting film, a film with no definitive version).


EDMON LOW LIBRARY, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma

I try to avoid the word FIRST unless I have definitive proof, since there is likely to be some lesser-known character who did something before a better-known person, so I’ll instead say that Irving was AMONG THE FIRST “professional authors” in North America—-the person who writes for a living, the person who looks for marketable concepts for books and offers them to publishers, the person with a recognizable style and a distinctive aesthetic and a “spin” on things that readers enjoy, someone who figures that if people enjoy their works, those same people will enjoy them taking on new subjects or getting the author’s unique spin on something of interest to the author. Say what you will about him, the late Norman Mailer was that kind of writer until the day he died, and he was proud of it. Why the books on Picasso and Marilyn Monroe? That’s why. Even something like THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, for me one of the great American literary works of the second half of the 20th Century, was initially gotten into as a project by Mailer (with Lawrence Schiller) because of its marketability. Books like that paid for ANCIENT EVENINGS.

Irving also survived on magazine writing, getting agreements from various magazines to let him write about whatever he wanted, which would be of interest to readers because 1) they enjoyed Irving’s distinctive style and spin on things and 2) because they figured that if a subject was interesting to Irving, interesting enough for him to write about it, then he’d be enthusiastic enough about the subject to make it interesting for them, the way you are usually happy to hear a knowledgeable and entertaining person opine on a subject of interest to the speaker–you’d be entertained, you’d be enlightened, and your cultural references would be broadened.

washington irving

cover design of the multi-volume COMPLETE WORKS OF WASHINGTON IRVING

Irving (1783-1859, and yes, he was named after George Washington, and he paid back that debt by writing a long and entertaining popular biography of the first president) was heavily influenced by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), both in terms of tone and of the use of narrative persona. Irving’s narrator-characters Jonathan Oldstyle and Geoffrey Crayon are inspired by the narrator of Goldsmith’s CITIZEN OF THE WORLD (an old favorite of mine, which I would read in that same OSU Library). I learned a lot about the concept of speaking through a persona in one’s prose articles and columns from Irving and Goldsmith (I also saw how this worked from my reading of Lester Bangs in CREEM), and to this day I am using the Irving technique in, for instance, my columns at BTC, where I have a clear, fictionalized persona. Each venue where my writing appears gets a somewhat different persona (here at the KSE blog, for instance), suited to that readership. Thank you, Washington Irving (and Oliver Goldsmith).



Many modern readers in the post-Hemingway world tend to view Irving as having a somewhat verbose style, but they need to remember that back then reading books (and periodicals) was a daily activity that combined both leisure and education (and by extension, vicarious travel), and in the age before electricity, reading late by candlelight was something to do for hours at a time. Washington Irving was a friend, and his company was sought with each new publication.

Irving’s book-length non-fiction works (I’m actually reading his biography of Goldsmith presently) often relied on paraphrase of existing sources, and a good amount of his fiction was based on his own translations of European folklore, re-tooled with American details and characters and place names, but the works became his own through the Irving touch. I happened to pull out a book of Warhol’s “versions” of paintings by Munch this week, and I was reminded of Irving’s use of his “sources” for the Goldsmith bio. Irving did not hide that his was a “popular biography” and did not hide his sources. No one would question that the Munch adaptations were Warholian in every way except for the root source-image–I suppose the same can be said for Irving’s biographies. Irving’s style is instantly recognizable. Much like audiences of the 1950’s and 1960’s would feel comfortable every time they saw James Stewart on the movie screen–he was not going to be radically different from what he was in the previous film, but he could adapt to anything and still bring his unique and charming persona to the project at hand. Irving had that kind of appeal to readers.

He also did full-length works based on his own experiences, presented in a kind of documentary way. The TOUR ON THE PRAIRIES, some of which took place right down the road from where I lived in Oklahoma (there are even two Irving-named exits on the road to Tulsa from Stillwater), covered a western expedition that Irving was on, and he was commissioned by John Jacob Astor to compose a book about Astor’s ambitious Fort Astoria community in what is now Oregon. Irving took some flak about taking a commission to write such a book–imagine the outcry if a literary author took a commission from Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates to write about, say, an Amazon or Microsoft building project today–but Irving felt that it was a significant project (history has shown him to be correct on that) and that he would of course be his own man in what he wrote, which he was. Most Americans would never have travelled out to the real Astoria in the far Northwest, so Irving again provided a vicarious travel experience. There are many other great qualities to Washington Irving and his work, and I hope to write about additional specific works in future posts as I reread these volumes with a fresh eye.

What prompted this post is that I have recently been acquiring inexpensive used copies of some of the works I used to read in that period in Oklahoma. I’d already had the original 1950’s Yale editions of Stein’s STANZAS IN MEDITATION and AS FINE AS MELANCTHA, but I’ve recently acquired BEE TIME VINE and PAINTED LACE and been reading them closely on a daily basis. I had two of the Irving volumes since the 90’s, but recently I’ve acquired five more of them. I have a half-finished draft for this blog of my comments on the 1850’s collection of Irving miscellany WOLFERT’S ROOST, and as stated earlier, I’m also reading the Goldsmith biography.

It’s satisfying to come full circle and revisit these works after 30+ years. These lesser-known works by both writers are infinitely interesting and satisfying, and in reading them, I can see my own use of their techniques over the decades. One can find good quality copies of individual volumes of each set used for reasonable prices….for Irving, in the $5-$8 range….for Stein, in the $15-$20 range. All are well-manufactured hardcover editions made for libraries, and thus made to last. The writing in them, of course, will always last.


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