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Matt Sandler directs the MA program in American studies at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. His work has appeared in Callaloo, African American Review, Comparative Literature, Journal of American Studies, and elsewhere. He is completing a book about African American poetry and the Romantic movement.
This paper poses the work of Gertrude Stein as a challenge to contemporary scholarship centered on theories of failure. Demonstrating that Stein’s notion of failure as a precondition for success derived from nineteenth-century selfhelp books, I follow her work with this paradox from her early writing about ethnic women, through her more recondite grammatical experiments, to her public emergence at the outset of the Depression. And I argue that Stein’s move from literary experiments rooted in the question of identity to her conservative rhetoric about white masculinity in the 1930s should serve as a warning to critics invested in failure as a figure of opposition.