The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 3, No 1 (1999)

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Personal Reflections

A Preface is a Preface is a Preface is a Preface...
to a Preface of The Unreluctant Years.

by Sue Easun

I fear by now I have gained a reputation as a Most Reluctant Writer. It is now more than a year since I began my exploration of The Unreluctant Years, and we haven't even passed through Chapter One. Neither, I warn you upfront, shall we make it this time, for I have found prefaces to reap (and, consequently, much to glean before I sleep).

My title is obviously yet another tired retread of Gertrude Stein's famous "rose is a rose..." quotation. Yet in retrospect I am far from sorry I chose to be pedantic. In the course of my research—for you should know by now my chief online joy is chasing down ephemera—I learned a great many new things: about Stein, about her roses, about myself. For starters, I had no idea the line is actually four roses long. I also did not know that it is part of a poem "Sacred Emily" (1913) and not, as I had supposed, an oft repeated 27 Rue de Fleurus quip. And I was particularly delighted to discover that Stein too could be a Reluctant Writer. The following is taken from her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

"It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and also going to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James' course. She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. Dear Professor James, she wrote at the top of her paper. I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day, and left.The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself. And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in his course."

(By the way, should you decide to write something for The Looking Glass, be forewarned that our Fearsome Editor hasn't a Jamesian bone in her body! "Nice day" or no, you'd better make your deadline.)

Most crucial to the crafting of this piece, however, is what I learned about the dangers that can arise when treating a so-called "quip" too flippantly.

It began, simply enough, with a mild obsession over Stein's fourth rose. Now that I know it's there, I can't let it go. What possible purpose could that fourth rose serve? What does it represent: the last but by no means definitive iteration of a concept, Bachian counterpoint set in prose? the ultimate incarnation of rose-ness, the verbal equivalent of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting? perhaps something more ethereal, evocative of a fourth dimension, beyond words, music and painting, theoretically as well as physically invisible to all but the most gifted seers? And, the original source of my obsession, why four, when three makes for a catchier, less cumbersome phrase?!

Obsessions can serve a purpose, if held firmly in hand, although they do make it difficult to complete a task. It is all very well to follow the example of one Humpty Dumpty, and proclaim the fourth rose to mean "just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." But then he never purported to write a column devoted to self-examination. And for sure he never cared whether his quips, his analogies, his spurious logic carried sufficient meaning to ensure repeated visits to his wall.

It has not escaped my notice that the question I am asking—the name of the rose—has been asked at least once before. No, I am not about to begin drawing parallels between Umberto Eco and Ms. Stein; one can do only so much name-dropping before losing all credibility as an original thinker. However, Signor Eco's concluding line in The Name of the Rose:

"the former rose remains only as a name; all that is left for us are simple names." [1]

is sufficiently cryptic as to reveal a degree of critical kinship. His "former rose" (stat rosa) is not of the same bush as Stein's first three—about which, you will notice, I'm not obsessing—yet they share a common root. At the risk of developing yet another obsession over the implied existence of a "latter rose," I will quote from his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, in which he confides:

"the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning".

Consider the above in terms of Stein's roses—of which an infinitesimal number is assumed, though only four are mentioned. Individually, each is laden with meaning; ensemble, they are near bereft. Am I alone in being unnerved by such a notion? No doubt Mr. Dumpty would nod approvingly, since he need speak, or write, only to please himself. And I can appreciate that, for when words flow in my direction of choice, no one could possibly enjoy them as much as I do. Implicit in such enjoyment, however, is the assumption that those who fail to appreciate my bouquet of roses must certainly be horticulturally challenged (or, conversely, that my bouquet increases its worth in proportion to the appreciation it receives).

Questions of worth are, no surprise, Smith's questions as well. Which leads us to the fourth preface of my title: that being, the promise rosethe certainty roserosethe inevitability roseroseroseof more to come roseroseroserosebefore we can begin...

Next issue: Vandergrift's introduction to The Unreluctant Years


Notes 1. ... or, in the original Latin, " Stat rosa pristina nomine. Nomina nuda temenus."

Bibliographic Information

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. London: Secker and Warburg, 1983.

Smith, Lillian H. The Unreluctant Years; A Critical Analysis of Children's Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 1991, c1953. ISBN 0838905579

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1933.

Stein, Gertrude. "Sacred Emily." In Geography and Plays. Boston: Four Seas Co., 1922.

Volume 3, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, 1999

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"Personal reflecyions" © Sue Easun, 1999.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680