Gertrude Stein's Silly — And Stilted — 'To Do'

To Do; A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
By Gertrude Stein
Hardcover, 128 pages
Yale University Press
List Price: $25
Read An Excerpt

Literary wags love to point out the blunders of short-sighted editors of yore who, failing to recognize genius, took a pass on such later-acknowledged masterpieces as James Joyce's Ulysses, Dr. Seuss' And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. What we hear less about are the initially — and perhaps deservedly — rejected manuscripts that later ride into print on the coattails of their author's renown. Gertrude Stein's To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays falls squarely into this group.

Stein wrote To Do in 1940 after the success of her first children's book, The World is Round (1938). Following a year of rejections, it found a willing publisher in 1942, but the project was tabled during the war. In 1957, Yale University Press published a text-only version in its seventh volume of Stein's unpublished writings. Now, more than 70 years after Stein wrote it, it has taken To Do off its to-do list by producing the first illustrated edition.

Thanks in large part to Giselle Potter's whimsical and wondrous illustrations, but also to Yale's exquisite book design, To Do is a beautiful volume to behold. But even with the boost of Porter's fabulous zebra-striped landscape for the letter Z and typewriters strolling along an allee of cauliflowers on the H page, To Do is more intriguing literary artifact than delightful read. As Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale's Beinecke Library, notes in his illuminating introduction, "children are not the core audience for this book." He cites as hurdles the text's "challenging linguistic exercises" and "recurrent sense of menace" — though in fact the stories are no grimmer than Grimm and no gorier than Gorey. Young acknowledges that adult readers, too, may find the abstract text demanding. He suggests reading the book aloud, and, "If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don't."

To complain that Stein — the woman best known for her pronouncement that "a rose is a rose is a rose" — is repetitive is akin to griping that the pope is Catholic. That said, one quickly understands why the long-winded To Do had difficulty finding a publisher. Although there is wit and whimsy and an absurdist sensibility that's a precursor to Maira Kalman's work, it's buried in dense pages of run-on prose. For each letter of the alphabet, Stein calls up four names — often based on real-life friends — for which she spins circular tales filled with internal rhymes about mutable birthdays and fortunes: "This is the sad story of Leslie-Lily./Lily who always found everything hilly./Leslie's little Lily's last birthday."

There are riches: passages about war, about writer's block, about multiple births and about a self-immolating giant rabbit. There's even a passage that expresses our impatience: "And Mr. House said nothing more, because he was not a bore and he would have been of course he would have been if he had said anything more./More More More./Shut oh shut the door."

My advice: Sample a few pages at a time — no more — or read it from cover to cover and snore.

Excerpt: 'To Do: A Book Of Alphabets And Birthdays'

To Do; A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
By Gertrude Stein
Hardcover, 128 pages
Yale University Press
List Price: $25

Alphabets and names make games and everybody has a name and all the same they have in a way to have a birthday.

The thing to do is to think of names.

Names will do.

Mildew.

And you have to think of alphabets too, without an alphabet well without names where are you, and birthdays are very favorable too, otherwise who are you.

Everything begins with A.

What did you say. I said everything begins with A and I was right and hold me tight and be all right.

Everything begins with A.

A. Annie, Arthur, Active, Albert.

Annie is a girl Arthur is a boy Active is a horse. Albert is a man with a glass.

Active.

Active is the name of a horse.

Everybody has forgotten what horses are.

What horses are.

What are horses.

To Do Illustration by Giselle Porter
Giselle Potter/

Horses are animals were animals with a mane and a tail ears hoofs a head and teeth and shoes if they are put upon them.

If they are put upon them and then the horses lose them and if any one finds them and keeps them, he has lots of good luck. But now everybody has forgotten what horses are and what horse-shoes are and what horse-shoe nails are everybody has forgotten what horses are, but anyway one day, Active is the name of a horse, a nice horse.

He had a birthday he was born on that day so everybody knew just how old he was, he was born on the thirty-first of May on that day, and then he began to say he was not born on that day he was he began to say he was born on the thirty-first of June, and that was none too soon. He liked to be born later every day. Well anyway, there he was and Active was his name, it was his name now but it had not always been, it had once been Kiki, not that he ever kicked not he and he used then to pull a milk-wagon. Then the war came, Kiki was twenty, twenty is awful old for a horse but Kiki had always had plenty, so even at twenty he was young and tender and pretty slender.

So the soldiers came along and they thought he was young and strong and they took him along and everybody was crying and the milk was drying, but they did take Kiki along and he was he was old but he was young and strong.

Then nobody knew where he was, and he was no he was not gone away nor did he stay but he was at the front where there was shooting and he was pulling a little cannon along, and they did not know his name but he was so young and strong they called him Active and he always came right along he and his little cannon. And somebody wrote to him and he answered I have a very nice man, and they sent the very nice man chocolate and everything so he would give Active some, and he did and everybody liked everything even the little cannon that Active was pulling. That is the way it was. And so Active went right along and some one said to him if you make believe you are not well they will send you home. Can I take my little cannon said Active I like it better than a milkwagon, I like being Active better than Kiki who was never kicking. I guess I will stay where I am, Active was answering.

And so it went on, and one day there was no more fighting everything was calm, Active was quiet and warm and everybody was going home. And Active was sent home to the milk-wagon, and the milk-wagon was changed to an automobile and they did not need Active for that, they could only use him for ploughing, and they called him Kiki again but Active was his name and he said he would lose his mane if they took away his new name. Well they all cried like anything, they just all cried and cried and then Active forgot everything and he said ploughing was not so bad, and he could always be glad, and anyway, what was the use of saying anything since everybody did what they pleased with him.

So he said he thought an automobile, just one day he said he thought he would be an automobile not a new one an old one and he was one, he was an automobile and an automobile never has a name and it never has a mane and it has rubber shoes not an iron one and finding rubber shoes does not mean anything like finding iron horse-shoes did and that was the end of everything.

Then there is B. Well Annie did get mixed up with B. but naturally enough if you see that B follows A and A comes before .

"B" illustration, from To Do
Giselle Potter/

B is for Bertha and Bertie and Ben and Brave and a birthday for each one.

B is for Bertha the one who was the mother of some children. There were three of them.

Bertie was cross-eyed because somebody when he was a baby always stroked his nose with their finger.

The second was Ben who never said when because saying it made him feel funny and the third was named Brave and Brave was always white with delight.

And so each one had to have one one birthday, nobody not any one can say they just each one did not have to have a birthday, even their mother Bertha had to have one.

B for Bertha and Bertie and Ben and Brave and a birthday for each one.

Brave who was always white with delight went fishing at night. He always fished at night and that was all right because he had been born in the day and Brave was a funny boy because he was not born on his birthday. Any day could be his birthday because he was not born on his birthday. And so he could fish by night and be white with delight.

That was all right.

He was a funny boy.

To be born all right and not to be born on his birthday.

He was a funny boy.

He had two dirty dogs little yellow ones with lots of hair but no care.

They were called Never Sleeps and his brother Was Asleep.

Never Sleeps and Was Asleep always went fishing with Brave at night. Never Sleeps barked all night and Was Asleep was asleep.

Brave was a rich boy. One day, it might have been his birthday because he was not born on his birthday and any day might be his birthday well one day he met the letter A which was a little girl named Annie. Annie was very pretty, anybody could say that of Annie any day and so as Annie was born on her birthday her birthday was the seventeenth of February Brave liked to look at her and so today not Annie's birthday but a day he stopped to say well Annie where are you going today. So then he went on he said you know he said I am rich and strong and you do not need to come along but I am going to give you all my money because you are just as sweet as honey. So he did, he gave her all his money and she took it away and then it was no longer day because night had come, and Brave who was always white with delight went fishing in a river that was flowing and going with all its might. Brave always fished with a light.

Nobody should because that dazzles the fish and they cannot see where for the glare so it is not fair. But Brave did he fished at night with a light. And tonight, yes tonight, he was drowned at night, drowned dead at night, and Never Sleeps barked all night and Was Asleep was asleep and Annie had all his money and she spent it on honey, and Brave was never any more white with delight. And the fish could rest every night.

This is what happens when you are not born on your birthday, that is what everybody does say this is what happens when you are not born on your birthday.

Then there is C for Charlie.

Charlie is a boy whose father made chocolate candies.

They all had birthdays.

January.

Oh yes he said and he cried. If I could have a birthday when I tried.

Excerpted from To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein. Copyright 2011 by Gertrude Stein. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays

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