World Literature

Gertrude Stein

 

BORN: 1874, Pennsylvania

DIED: 1946, France

NATIONALITY: American

GENRE: Poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Three Lives (1909)

Tender Buttons (1914)

Geography and Plays (1922)

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)

The Mother of Us All (1947)

 

 

Gertrude Stein. Stein, Gertrude, 1942, photograph. AP images.

 

Overview

A controversial figure during her lifetime, Stein is now regarded as a major literary modernist and one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Working 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 postimpressionists and cubists in the visual arts. Stein wrote prolifically in many genres, composing novels, poetry, plays, and literary portraits. Her radical approach to these forms was admired and emulated by other writers of her era and has served as a key inspiration for such postmodernist writers as the French New Novelists.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood in California. The youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, Stein spent most of her childhood in Oakland, California. Biographers describe her mother as a weak, ineffectual woman and her father as an irrational tyrant; a few have inferred that this family situation is the origin of Stein’s lifelong aversion to patriarchal cultural values. Lacking a satisfactory relationship with her parents, she grew very close to her brother Leo.

The Influence of William James. When Leo went to Harvard in 1892, Stein enrolled in the all-female Harvard Annex—soon to become Radcliffe College— the following year. Radcliffe, and in particular her favorite professor there, the psychologist William James, proved a decisive influence on her intellectual development. Many of James’s teachings, including his theories of perception and personality types, would inspire her own theories of literary aesthetics.

Decision to Pursue Psychology. With James’s encouragement, Stein decided to become a psychologist and began medical studies at Johns Hopkins University as part of her training. In 1902, however, after several years of study, she grew disaffected with medicine and left the university without completing her degree. In the months that followed, Stein devoted herself to the study of literary classics. Inspired by her reading, particularly the works of Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, she began to write her first novels.

Violating Formal Conventions: The Modernist Movement. In 1903, after travels in Europe and Africa, Stein and Leo settled in Paris, where they began to collect work by the new modernist painters and became personally acquainted with many of them, including Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The Steins’s apartment became a salon where numerous artists and literary figures, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, and Max Jacob, met regularly. Stein particularly enjoyed the company of Picasso, who in 1906 painted a portrait of her that would become one of his best-known works, and she greatly admired his artistic style, as well as that of such other painters as Cezanne and Juan Gris, who experimented in their works with ways of conveying a more profound and truthful vision of reality than that allowed by the naturalistic techniques of the nineteenth century. This revolution in the visual arts encouraged Stein to formulate a literary aesthetic that would, similarly, violate existing formal conventions in order to allow the reader to experience language and ideas in provocative new ways.

A Lifelong Partnership with Alice B. Toklas. Leo, however, who was not as enthusiastic about modernist painting, responded to his sister’s work with scorn, causing her anxiety and self-doubt. Stein found a much more appreciative audience in her friend Alice B. Toklas, a young woman from California who was staying in Paris. In 1909 Stein invited Toklas to live with her, and the women developed a close and affectionate relationship that Stein referred to as a marriage; they remained together for the rest of their lives. Toklas was not only Stein’s devoted friend and lover but a vital part of her literary work, helping her to prepare manuscripts and providing her with much-needed encouragement. Because commercial publishers initially rejected her work, Stein was forced to subsidize the printing of her first books. However, many of her distinguished and influential friends, most notably art patron Mabel Dodge, critic Carl Van Vechten, and poet Edith Sitwell, admired and promoted her writings, and by the outbreak of World War I she was regarded as a central figure in the modernist movement.

Volunteering in World War I. Stein and Toklas were sent to Alsace to help provide relief for civilians during World War I. Prior to the war, Alsace was controlled by the German Empire but in 1918, after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the region reverted to France. So dedicated to the volunteer effort were Stein and Toklas that they sold their last Matisse painting, the once controversial Woman with a Hat, in order to take the assignment. At the end of the war, the French recognized their services with the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Françoise.

Lectures at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1925, after Stein’s unsuccessful attempt to have Hogarth Press publish The Making of Americans, Edith Sitwell, realizing that Stein needed more publicity, arranged for Stein to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge in 1926. By 1930, Stein and Toklas were living a pleasantly domestic life of gardening, preserving, and baking cakes in their summer residence at Bilignin. Basket, the white poodle they had acquired in 1928, had made a dog lover of Stein. ‘‘I am I because my little dog knows me,’’ she would write in 1935: one’s identity was the self that others knew.

Death from Inoperable Cancer. On July 19, 1946, Gertrude Stein collapsed on her way to stay at the country house of a friend. She was immediately rushed to the American Hospital at Neuilly, where she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, but against medical discretion, she ordered the doctors to operate. On July 23 she made her will, then settled in to wait, heavily sedated and in considerable pain, for the operation, scheduled for July 27. She died on the operating table while still under anesthesia. ‘‘What is the answer?’’ she asked Toklas just before her death. Toklas remained silent. ‘‘In that case what is the question?’’ Stein added. Toklas herself died on March 7, 1967, and is buried next to Stein in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Stein's famous contemporaries include:

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): American expatriate writer who prompted Stein to remark upon the ''Lost Generation."

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): Famous Spanish artist responsible for cubism and a good friend of Stein.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946): One of the first to make photography a respectable art form, Stieglitz is also famous for his marriage to artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918): French writer and friend of Stein; one of the founders of the surrealist movement.

William James (1842-1910): Brother of novelist Henry James; famous American philosopher, psychologist, and doctor; mentor to Gertrude Stein.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Stein is noted most for her unusual use of language. In most of her works, she strives to alter a phrase's meaning with alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), assonance (rhyme), or what at first seems like nonsense. Here are some other works that modify and distort language in order to achieve a certain effect on the reader or viewer:

The Cantos (1922), a poem by Ezra Pound. A long poem composed of Chinese characters and chaotic rhythms.

Naked Lunch (1959), a novel by William S. Burroughs. This novel consists of cut-up chapters that can be read in any order and that detail the protagonist's hallucinogenic journey to a place called Interzone.

Eraserhead (1977), a film directed by David Lynch. One of the first cult films, much of the dialogue consists of screaming and incomprehensible dream sequences.

 

Works in Literary Context

In her innovative uses of language Stein has bridged the gap between conventionalism and experimentalism. A writer who strove to revitalize communication and rescue it from hackneyed cliches, she sought an instinctive use and understanding of language. For Stein language was the only tool capable of advancing social harmony and personal integrity and of negotiating the affiliation between thought and word. Stein’s writings were influenced by the work of psychologist William James and Gustave Flaubert, the paintings of Paul Cezanne, and her relationship with her life partner, Alice B. Toklas.

Redefining Rhythm and Rhyme. In his introduction to Gertrude Stein’s Four in America (1947), Thornton Wilder observed:

She knew that she was a difficult and an idiosyncratic author. She pursued her aims, however, with such conviction and intensity that occasionally she forgot that the results could be difficult to others. At such times the achievements she had made in writing, in ‘‘telling what she knew’’ (her most frequent formalization of the aim of writing) had to her the character of self-evident beauty and clarity. A friend, to whom she showed recently completed examples of her poetry, was frequently driven to reply sadly: ‘‘But you forget that I don’t understand examples of your extreme styles.’’ To this she would reply with a mixture of bewilderment, distress, and exasperation: ‘‘But what’s the difficulty? Just read the words on the paper. They’re in English. Just read them. Be simple and you’ll understand these things.’’

Pieces such as the rhythmic and evocative ‘‘Susie Asado’’ (in Geography and Plays), Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, must be read as multiple interlocking and open-ended systems in which each element and system is as important as any other. In ‘‘Susie Asado’’ such systems include the sound patterns of flamenco-dance rhythms, the series of sensual suggestions in phrases such as ‘‘the wets,’’ the pun on ‘‘sweet tea’’ or ‘‘slips slips hers,’’ and the suggestion of a tea ceremony in a garden—‘‘told tray,’’ ‘‘sash,’’ ‘‘rare bit of trees,’’ and the Japanese sound of the name Susie Asado.

Stein’s radical approach to literature was admired and emulated by other writers of her era, including Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson and has served as a key inspiration for such postmodernist writers as the French New Novelists and William H. Gass.

 

Works in Critical Context

Always a writer’s writer, Stein’s influence is still growing. The persistent activity of her artistic vision makes her a major writer of this century, comparable in the magnitude of her perception and achievement to her contemporaries Ezra Pound and James Joyce. During Stein’s lifetime, however, her innovative writing, often the butt of reviewers’ parodies, received little recognition or understanding.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. With The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein proved to her critics that she was capable of writing a relatively conventional, commercially successful work. While most reviewers were charmed by the autobiography’s wit and engaging conversational style, not all were pleased. A group of Stein’s friends from the art world, including Tristan Tzara and Henri Matisse, published ‘‘Testimony against Gertrude Stein,’’ in which they condemned the Autobiography as a shallow, distorted portrayal of their lives and work. ‘‘Miss Stein understood nothing of what went on around her,’’ protested painter Georges Braque. Stein nevertheless followed the popular success of the Autobiography with other memoirs.

Stanzas in Meditation. ‘‘It came to Gertrude Stein,’’ critic Donald Sutherland points out, that ‘‘after all grammar and rhetoric are in themselves actualizations of ideas.’’ In Stanzas in Meditation, he adds, ‘‘Stein solved the problem of keeping ideas in their primary life, that is of making them events in a subjective continuum of writing... about ideas about writing.’’ Sutherland places the poem with Pound’s Cantos and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in the ‘‘tradition of the long, rambling, discursive poem whose interest and energy are primarily in the movement of the poet’s mind writing.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read the poem ‘‘Susie Asado.’’ Can you find evidence of Japanese influence? Provide examples.

2. Why do you think most of Stein’s plays are called ‘‘landscape plays’’?

3. Using your library and/or the Internet, research the cubist and surrealist art movements. What are the main characteristics of each? Do you think Stein’s early work reflects more of a cubist style or a surrealist style? Why?

4. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is essentially Stein’s own autobiography, written from the point of view of her partner. How does she describe herself as a character in her own memoir? Why do you think she chose to write the book from the point of view of Toklas instead of herself?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

De Koven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Haas, Robert Bartlett, and Donald Clifford Gallup, comps. A Catalogue of the Published and Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1941.

Hoffman, Michael. The Development of Abstractionism in the Writings of Gertrude Stein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Luhan, Mabel Dodge. European Experiences. Volume 2 of Intimate Memories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.

Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1951.

Toklas, Alice B. What Is Remembered. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964.

Periodicals

Gass, William H. ‘‘Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language.’’ Accent 18 (Autumn 1958): 233-44.

Perloff, Marjorie. ‘‘Poetry as Word-System: The Art of Gertrude Stein.’’ American Poetry Review 8 (September/October 1979): 33-43.

Williams, William Carlos. ‘‘The Work of Gertrude Stein.’’ Pagany 1 (Winter 1930).