Quarter After Eight is an annual literary journal devoted to the exploration of experimental writing in all its permutations. We celebrate work that directly challenges the conventions of language, style, voice, or idea in literary form. This blog is a place to engage in conversations about the work we publish, as well as the work that inspires us.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Truth and Fiction in Gertrude Stein's War Narratives

Quarter After Eight is sponsoring (along with the Ohio University Department of English) a conference, "Defining the New: Experiments and Innovations in English Studies" October 22-23 and we're sharing a taste of what's to come. Here's a snippet from Jessica Alexander's essay, "No History Is Proof Against Everything," which explores how writers invent their pasts:
"Gore Vidal opens his memoir Palimpsest, by drawing a distinction between autobiography and memoir.  According to Vidal, “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts, double checked”(3).  Vidal’s definition distinguishes between the past that one constructs through memories, and the past that one constructs through external verification; the past that one experiences and the past that one must learn; a difference that Getrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen challenges.

Wars I Have Seen shares characteristics common to war narratives, memoirs, autobiographies, and fiction.  Stein’s subversion of the traditional standards of each genre assesses the definitive boundaries between them and illustrates their limitations. Constructing an historical narrative that is neither detached, nor analytical, and relying on memories, fictions, and anecdotes to illustrate the historical moment, Stein calls into question traditional historical sources, and the assumed objectivity of historicists.  

As if anticipating Vidal’s remarks Stein begins Wars I Have Seen with “I do not know whether to put in the things I do not remember as well as the things I do remember.” (3).   Underscoring the association between memory and memoir and challenging Vidal’s dichotomy, Stein’s self-conscious assertion simultaneously suggests that her text is a memoir, while calling its status as such into question.  Similarly, the closest most critics come to classifying Wars I Have Seen, is in their assumption that it requires a lengthy argument to prove its disqualification from a particular genre.   The struggle to situate the narrative within a genre, such as history, autobiography or memoir, arises not so much from the texts failure to embody the characteristics of those genres, but rather, as illustrated in the above example, from its failure to remain within the bounds prescribed to each genre.  Stein’s transgressions, far from illustrating an ignorance of the injunctions of each narrative mode, indicate an acute awareness of the principles circumscribing history, memoir and fiction.  Her refusal to remain within the limitations of each calls the nature of their distinctions into question.    

In Messages from History Stein claims that “No history is proof against everything”(25).  Like many of Stein’s constructions, there is more than one way to read the line.  “No history” can be read either as the absence of history, as in “no shirt, no shoes, no service”, or as an expression of the limitations of each discrete historical narrative.  Both readings assume that history has the power to distinguish between fact and fiction.  The latter interpretation, which illustrates the limitations of each historical narrative, suggests that we interpret history as a means of negating memories.  A history of World War II can disprove a memory of World War II, but it cannot disprove being born in Baltimore, or the taste of Vienna beer. A particular historical narrative may call a particular memory into question, and may disprove the validity of that memory, but no single historical narrative can disprove everything, and there are component features of events that dates and facts fail to account for..." 
You can hear the rest of this essay at "Defining the New: Experiments and Innovations in English Studies," which will be free and open to the public. You can find more information about the conference at www.english.ohiou.edu/conference/.



  1. in the tall reeds stands a wrenOctober 6, 2010 at 9:38 PM

    We live in a dirty and dangerous world...There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.

  2. A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.