There Is No There There

Gertrude Stein? Herb Caen? Ben J. Wattenberg? William Gibson? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent literary figure attempted to return home after a long absence and found that the location was unfamiliar because the home had been demolished. Fond memories of youth were no longer attached to a physical location. The feeling of disconnection inspired a popular saying:

There is no there there.

Nowadays, the meaning of this phrase has shifted. The statement typically refers to something which is diffuse, unsubstantial, or unimportant. It has also been used to explicate virtual reality. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Reply from Quote Investigator: Author and art connoisseur Gertrude Stein employed an idiosyncratic writing style. Her infrequently punctuated stream of consciousness was sometimes difficult to parse. Her 1937 book “Everybody’s Autobiography” included a passage about traveling to the locale of her childhood:[1] 1971 (1937 Copyright), Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, Chapter 4: America, Quote Page 289, Cooper Square Publishers Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

. . . we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

Stein described the feelings of estrangement produced by the visit to her former neighborhood:[2] 1971 (1937 Copyright), Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, Chapter 4: America, Quote Page 291, Cooper Square Publishers Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and over-grown the houses were certainly some of them those that had been and there were not bigger buildings and they were neglected and, lots of grass and bushes growing yes it might have been the Thirteenth Avenue when I had been.

Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not any longer existing, what was the use, if I had been I then my little dog would know me but if I had not been I then that place would not be the place that I could see, I did not like the feeling . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Is No There There

References

References
1 1971 (1937 Copyright), Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, Chapter 4: America, Quote Page 289, Cooper Square Publishers Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)
2 1971 (1937 Copyright), Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, Chapter 4: America, Quote Page 291, Cooper Square Publishers Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)