Gertrude Stein

American writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was a powerful literary force in the period around World War I. Although the ultimate value of her writing was a matter of debate, in its time it profoundly affected the work of a generation of American writers.

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, the youngest of five children of affluent German-Jewish-American parents. As a child, she lived in Vienna and Paris but grew up mainly in Oakland and San Francisco, California. Her early formal education was spotty, but she was an avid reader and had a strong interest in art. With only a year of high school, she managed to be admitted in 1893 to Radcliffe College, where she specialized in psychology and became a favorite of William James. He discovered her great capacity for automatic writing, in which the conscious mind is suspended and the unconscious directly evoked. The exaltation of the primitive mind at the expense of the sophisticated mind was to become an important principle in Stein's esthetic theory and is manifest in most of her writing.

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The Expatriate

Stein did not take a degree at Radcliffe or at Johns Hopkins, where she studied medicine for 4 years. In 1903 she went to Paris and took up residence on the Left Bank with her brother Leo. In 1907 she met Alice B. Toklas, a wealthy young San Franciscan who became her lifelong companion and secretary, running the household, typing manuscripts, and screening visitors. France became their permanent home.

In her early Paris years Stein established herself as a champion of the painting avant-garde. With her inherited wealth she patronized young artists and knew virtually all of the important painters, including Pablo Picasso, who did a famous portrait of her, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, André Derain, and Georges Braque. Her brother Leo became a famous art critic, but their relationship, which had been extremely close, became permanently estranged in 1912 because of a disagreement over his marriage.

Stein's first two books, Three Lives (1909) and Tender Buttons (1915), stirred considerable interest among a limited but sophisticated audience, and her home became an informal salon visited by many creative people, including American composer Virgil Thomson, British writers Ford Madox Ford, Lytton Strachey, and Edith Sitwell, and American writers Ezra Pound, Elliot Paul, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. It was to Hemingway that Stein characterized the disenchanted expatriate veterans as a "lost generation."

A woman with deep black eyes and a supremely self-assured manner, Stein was frequently intimidating, impatient with disagreement, and prone to alienate associates. The stylistic innovations and peculiarities of her writing appealed primarily to a small coterie, but her prestige as a taste maker was lifelong.

Stein's 1934 visit to the United States for the opening of her opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson, culminated in an enormously successful university lecture tour. During the German occupation of France, both Stein and Toklas lived briefly in Culoz, returning to Paris in 1944. Stein's reactions to World War II were recorded in Paris, France (1940) and Wars I Have Seen (1945), and her interest in the soldiers was reflected in the idiomatic conversations of Brewsie and Willie (1946), which was published a week before her death, on July 27, 1946, in Neuilly.

Her Writings

Stein's first book, Three Lives, her most realistic work, foreshadowed her more abstract writings and evinced a number of influences: neoprimitivist painting, Flaubert's Trois contes, and automatic writing. "Melanctha," the best of the three novelettes that constituted the book, was an especially tender treatment of an impulsive, flirtatious African-American woman whose relations with men were recorded in a colloquial, deliberately repetitious style intended to capture the immediacy of consciousness; indeed, incremental repetition is the crucial element of Stein's style, which was perhaps most accurately called "subjective realism."

Stein wanted to give literature the plastic freedom that painting has, and Tender Buttons was a striking attempt at verbal "portraits" in the manner of the cubist painters. The denotative value of words was almost entirely abandoned; instead, words were used in a connotative, associative, and surrealistic way.

The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress (1925) gave character analysis within a family chronicle, although it was chiefly concerned with the servants and only marginally with the family members. In the 1930s and 1940s she concentrated on memoirs, esthetic theory, plays, and art criticism. How to Write (1931) and The Geographical History of America: The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (1936) explained the theoretical basis of her literary practice.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written as if by Toklas, was an autobiography of Stein. Unexpectedly intelligible and charming, it became a best seller. Critic F. W. Dupee called it "one of the best memoirs in American literature." A sequel, Everybody's Autobiography (1937), described Stein's visit to America, and Portraits and Prayers (1934) was a collection of verbal pictures of her Paris circle.

Stein's libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) was a study of the attraction of opposites—the ascetic and the compassionate. Similar to her nondramatic work in its surrealism and plotlessness, shored up by music and spectacle, it was better received than most of her writings. Picasso (1939) was an erratic, witty, sometimes illuminating study of the development of the great painter's art. Her three wartime books and In Savoy; or Yes Is for a Very Young Man: A Play of the Resistance in France (1946) showed unexpected social concern.

After Stein's death, there were numerous publications of the works she left behind. Some of the more notable are The Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Steinand Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. These works were released in 1974 and 1977 respectively. In 1996 Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts was remade into an avant-garde opera.

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Further Reading on Gertrude Stein

Stein remains a controversial figure. The closest to a definitive study was Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970). The most adulatory study was William G. Rogers, When This You See, Remember Me: Gertrude Stein in Person (1948); and the most damaging books were by her brother, Leo Stein, Appreciations: Painting, Poetry and Prose (1947), and by Benjamin L. Reid, Art by Subtraction: A Dissenting Opinion on Gertrude Stein (1958). The best studies were in Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle (1931); Donald Sutherland's sympathetic and judicious critical work, Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work (1951); John Malcolm Brinnin's biography, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World (1959); Allegra Stewart, Gertrude Stein and the Present (1967); and Norman Weinstein's scholarly Gertrude Stein and the Literature of the Modern Consciousness (1970). Stein was discussed in George Wickes, Americans in Paris (1969). Information regarding the new opera based on Stein's work can be read about in Time (March 11, 1996).