Gertrude Stein is regarded as one of the most remarkable writers of the twentieth century. Reacting against the naturalistic conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, she developed an abstract manner of expression that was a counterpart in language to the work of the Post-Impressionists and Cubists in the visual arts. Her radical approach was admired and emulated by other authors of her era, including Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson, and served as a key inspiration for many modernist writers.
A Nomadic Childhood
Born on a snowy February day in 1874, Stein was the youngest of Daniel and Amelia Stein's five children. The year after Stein's birth, her father packed up his family and moved to Vienna, Austria. Three years later the Steins were living in Paris, where Gertrude and her sister Bertha went to boarding school. In 1879 the family returned to America, and, after a short stay with relatives in Baltimore, they finally settled in California. The Steins were set apart from their neighbors by the fact that they were the only Jewish family and one of only a few wealthy families in the area.
Daniel Stein was an odd, eccentric man. He was authoritarian, moody, aggressive, and evidently unpredictable. He would one day be content with their situation, the next make drastic changes--whether in schooling, medical care, or dwelling place. Consequently his children began to dislike and often fear him. His wife was, by all accounts, withdrawn and ineffectual, and of her premature death in 1888, Stein later remarked: "We had already had the habit of doing without her." After their mother's death, life for Gertrude and her siblings became very unpleasant. Their father now became an unpredictable tyrant. Stein began to suffer from panic attacks, fearing she would break down or go mad, and eventually dropped out of high school. Her brother Leo, two years her senior, was her favorite sibling, and during this period the two became even closer; Leo would remain her mentor and close companion throughout much of her youth.
Daniel Stein died in 1891, when Gertrude was 17. Her oldest brother Michael took over as head of the household and became Gertrude's legal guardian. A year after their father's death Gertrude and her sister Bertha returned to Baltimore to live with an aunt.
Education: Academic and Sentimental
In order to be near Leo, who was then at Harvard, Stein in 1892 applied for admission to the Harvard Annex, a women's college which later became Radcliffe. Although she had not completed high school, she was accepted as a special student. At the university, Stein studied philosophy, metaphysics, English, and psychology, graduating in 1898 magna cum laude. One of her psychology professors, the noted scholar William James, became a major influence in Stein's ideas about art and literature. Under James's tutelage Stein began experimenting with a process called automatic writing, in which the conscious mind is suppressed while the unconscious mind takes control of the creative process. During this time Stein decided that she would like to become a psychologist, hoping to specialize in nervous diseases of women, and she subsequently enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore in order to acquire the requisite medical background. After two years of academic success at Johns Hopkins, Stein began to have great difficulty with her coursework, and she eventually left without obtaining a degree.
Recent biographers have suggested that the failure of her love affair with a young feminist named May Bookstaver may have played a role in Stein's academic problems. During her medical studies, Stein had once again moved in with Leo, and together they became immersed in the Baltimore cultural milieu. In particular, they attended the salons of two wealthy sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone. (After Stein moved to Europe, she and Etta Cone engaged in a romantic affair.) There Stein met Mabel Haynes, who was at the time having an affair with Bookstaver. Stein and Bookstaver subsequently became romantically involved, and the affair--and keeping it secret from Haynes--was incredibly complicated. Bookstaver ultimately chose to stay with Haynes, and Stein was devastated. She eventually documented her emotional turmoil in the novel Q.E.D--her only work to deal with explicitly lesbian themes, and the book she would not allow to be published in her lifetime.
At Home in Paris
In 1903, Stein once again moved in with Leo, who had established a residence in Paris. The Steins immersed themselves in the Parisian art world and collected art--including the works of the many avant-garde painters of the era: Picasso, Matisse, Gris, and Cezanne. Soon they began their famous Saturday salons which were frequented by friends, family, and art collectors as well as artists, musicians, and writers--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Lytton Strachey among them.
At 27 rue de Fleurus, in the home that would become a part of literary history, Gertrude, at 30, found her calling. Writing would be her life. By 1907, Alice B. Toklas--coincidentally another young Jewish woman from San Francisco--would enter Stein's life and make it complete. Shortly after the two women met, Toklas became part of the Stein household. Eventually she replaced Leo as Gertrude's companion; Stein referred to the relationship as a marriage, and Toklas was very much the involved wife. She learned to type so she could transcribe Stein's work. She cooked Stein's meals and saw to it that she was undisturbed when she was writing. Together the two became the most renowned lesbian couple of the twentieth century. Their home became the cultural meeting place for Americans in Paris, as well as the site of frequent visits by artists and scholars from around the world. Stein talked painting with Picasso, who painted her portait, and argued philospohy with Bertrand Russell. Indeed, in the list of notable figures of the twentieth century, there are few who can be said never to have met or visited Stein.
A Poem Is Not a Poem
"Very few of Gertrude Stein's titles can be adequately classified into any traditional literary forms," says the biography in Great American Writers. "Her philosophy of composition was so idiosyncratic, her prose style so seemingly nonrational, that her writing bears little resemblance to whatever genre it purports to represent." Following example of Cubist painters, Stein sought to break the traditional story into its component pieces--that is, unrelated words--and then reassemble those words in a way that would more accurately reflect human experience. Stein had learned from James that human beings experience life not as a narrative with past, present, and future neatly divided, but as a flow of sensations, a sequence of present moments. In her mature works, Stein tried to capture this flow of awareness by reiterating ideas in slightly different forms:
Happening and have it as happening and having it happen as happening and having to have it happen as happening, and my wife has a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now and having a cow as now and having a cow and having a cow now, my wife has a cow and now. My wife has a cow.
Stein employed this technique to varying degrees throughout her works. Her early writings, including Q.E.D. and Three Lives, a collection of three novella-length stories patterned after Gustave Flaubert's Three Tales, are somewhat more traditional in style, although they do exhibit to some extent the lack of plot development that characterized her mature works. Later works, most notably the 925-page Making of Americans, more fully develop this technique. Near the end of her career, Stein returned to a more conventional style of writing, producing the widely read Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Everybody's Autobiography, and Wars I Have Seen.
Critical response to Stein's work was at first extremely negative, with critics and the public both denouncing her works as unreadable. Gradually, however, a number of notable scholars began to explore the signicance of her aesthetic experiments, and by the 1930s critics were beginning to express admiration for her innovative approach. Stein also published a number of volumes of poetry, essays describing her aesthetic theories, and two operas.
Following the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was published in 1933 and made Stein a celebrity in the United States and Europe, Stein was invited to make a lecture tour of the United States. Finally, she was given the opportunity to explain her writing style to readers and scholars. The tour was hugely successful; Stein was warmly received and the list of people she met with whom includes Eleanor Roosevelt, George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, and Dashiell Hammett.
After the lecture tour, Stein and Toklas returned to their Paris apartment. However, in 1939 they sought to escape from increasing political tensions by relocating permanently to their country home. During World War Two, both faced great danger of Nazi persecution, as Jews, lesbians, and intellectuals were among those most despised by Hitler and his minions. They were spared only by the protection influential friends. During the first World War, Stein and Toklas had actively supported French and American troops by delivering medical supplies in a truck they had purchased. Now they showed their support for the Allies by befriending American soliders. In 1946 Stein published a book of dialogues based on conversations with servicemen, Brewsie and Willie.
In March of 1946 Stein completed the libretto of her second opera, The Mother of Us All, which celebrates the life of the feminist reformer Susan B. Anthony. Stein did not live to see the opera performed. She collapsed in July of that year, and was diagnosed with inoperable abdominal cancer. She died on 27 July 1946 and was buried, still surrounded by great literary figures, in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Despite the literary success of her later years, Stein has never been regarded as a great author. Her autobiographical writings are valued for their lively portrait of the Paris cultural scene of the 1920s and 1930s and their witty assessments of notable figures, but the majority of her works are not widely read. However, critics acknowledge that her sophisticated aesthetic theories and experiments with language were a primary influence in the development of Modernist literature. In addition, she is widely respected for her personal courage and candor; challenging assumptions and defying tradition in a variety of ways, she provided an example of progressive thinking and behavior that continues to serve as an inspiration.
February 28, 2005: Stein's opera libretto Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights was adapted for a play by the Wooster Group. House/Lights by Elizabeth LeCompte premiered at St. Ann's in New York. Source: New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com, February 28, 2005.
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- McGill, Frank N., ed. Great Women Writers. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1994.
- McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.
- Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. New York: Avon Books, 1974.
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- Shapiro, Ann R. Jewish American Writers. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Souhami, Diane. Gertrude and Alice. New York: Pandora Press, 1991.