Gertrude Stein was an American writer, poet, feminist, playwright,
and catalyst in the development of modern art and literature,
who spent most of her life in France.
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a suburb later annexed by Pittsburgh,
her Jewish-German family moved to Vienna and then Paris when she
was three. After returning almost two years later, she was educated
in California, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1897. She
spent the summer of 1897 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts studying
embryology at the Marine Biological Laboratory. This was followed
by two years at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
1902 she moved to France during the height of artistic creativity
gathering in Montparnasse. From 1903 to 1912 she lived in Paris
with her brother Leo, who became an admired art critic. Stein
met her life-long partner, Alice B. Toklas, in 1907; Alice moved
in with Leo and Gertrude in 1909. During most of her life, Gertrude
lived off a stipend from her father's estate, as did all of her
siblings, which her brother Michael very capably stewarded and
invested. After the success of her memoir "The Autobiography
of Alice B. Toklas" in the mid 1930s, Stein became rich in
her own right.
and her brother compiled one of the first collections of Cubist
and modern art. She owned early works of Pablo Picasso (who became
a friend and painted her portrait), Henri Matisse, André
Derain, Braque, and other young painters. Picasso also painted
her nephew Allan Stein.
Britain declared war on Germany in World War I, Stein and Toklas
were visiting Alfred North Whitehead in England. They returned
to France and, after Stein had been taught to drive by her friend
William Edwards Cook, they volunteered to drive supplies to French
hospitals; they were later honored by the French government for
this work. Stein and Toklas became close friends with writer Natalie
Barney, and Stein became friends with wealthy writer and magazine
the 1920s her salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, with walls covered by
avant-garde paintings, attracted many of the great artists and
writers including Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood
Anderson. She coined the term "Lost Generation" for
some of these expatriate American writers. During this time she
became friends (and some have speculated that they were occasional
lovers) with writer Mina Loy, and the two would remain lifelong
charming, eloquent, and cheerful, she had a large circle of friends
and tirelessly promoted herself. Her judgments in literature and
art were highly influential. She was Ernest Hemingway's mentor,
and upon the birth of his son he asked her to be the godmother
of his child. In the summer of 1931, Stein advised the young composer
and writer Paul Bowles to go to Tangier, where she and Alice had
vacationed, and he remained in that place which inspired his best
work for the rest of his life.
Hemingway describes how Alice was Gertrude's 'wife' in that Stein
rarely addressed his wife, and he treated Alice the same, leaving
the two "wives" to chat. Alice was 4'11" tall,
and Gertrude was 5'1" (Grahn 1989).
Gertrude Stein has been described as a conservative; she regarded
the jobless as lazy, opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New
Deal. She advocated the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil
War. Judy Grahn (1989), in what is arguably an aggrandizement
of Stein, describes her as "a 19th Century Republican; in
her manners and manner of speech she was Victorian; socially was
more liberal than not, with developed individualism coupled with
democratic values based in pragmatism; thus at the opening of
the German occupation of France she favored collaborative Vichy
government, but by the end she did not, having witnessed firsthand
the hardship it brought to the peasants."
War II and after
With the outbreak of World War II, Stein and Toklas moved to a
country home that they had rented for many years previously in
Bilignin, Ain, in the Rhône-Alpes region. Referred to only
as "Americans" by their neighbors, the Jewish Gertrude
and Alice escaped persecution probably because of their friendship
to Bernard Faÿ, a collaborator with the Vichy regime and
connections to the Gestapo. When Bernard Faÿ was sentenced
to hard labor for life after the war, Gertrude and Alice campaigned
for his release. Several years later, Alice would contribute money
to Faÿ's escape from prison.
the war, Gertrude's status in Paris grew when she was visited
by many young American soldiers. She died at the age of 72 from
stomach cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine on July 29, 1946, and was
interred there in the Père Lachaise cemetery. In one account
by Toklas, when Stein was being wheeled into the operating room
for surgery on her stomach, she asked Toklas, "What is the
answer?" When Toklas did not answer, Stein said, "In
that case, what is the question?"
named writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten as her literary
executor, and he helped to usher into print works of hers which
remained unpublished at the time of her death. A monument to Stein
stands on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, New York.
After moving to Paris in 1903 she started to write in earnest:
novels, plays, stories, libretti and poems. Increasingly, she
developed her own highly idiosyncratic, playful, sometimes repetitive
and sometimes humorous style. Typical quotes are
is a rose is a rose is a rose."
of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same
question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes
change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference
is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable."
stream-of-consciousness experiments, rhythmical word-paintings
or "portraits", were designed to evoke "the excitingness
of pure being" and can be seen as an answer to Cubism in
literature. Many of the experimental works such as Tender Buttons
have since been interpreted by critics as a feminist reworking
of patriarchal language. These works were loved by the avant-garde,
but mainstream success initially remained elusive.
Grahn lists the following principles behind Stein's work:
4. Grounding the Continuous present
she and her brother Leo collected cubist painters, the biggest
visual or painterly influence on Stein's work is that of Cezanne,
specifically in her idea of equality, what Judy Grahn calls commonality,
distinguishing from universality or equality: "the whole
field of the canvas is important." Rather than a figure/ground
relationship, "Stein in her work with words used the entire
text as a field in which every element mattered as much as any
other." It is a subjective relationship that includes more
than one viewpoint, to quote Stein: "The important thing
is that you must have deep down as the deepest thing in you a
sense of equality."
ascribes much of the repetition of Stein's work to her search
for descriptions of the "bottom nature" of her characters,
such as in The Making of Americans where even the narrator's essence
is described through the repetition of narrative phrases such
as "As I was saying" and "There will be now a history
of her." Grahn: "Using the idea of everything belonging
to a whole field and mattering equally, as well as each being
having an essence of its own, she inevitably wrote patterns rather
than linear sequences."
means value in the sense of overall lightness or darkness of a
painting. Stein used many Anglo-Saxon words and few Latin-based
words: blood instead of sanguine. She also avoided words with
"too much association". "One consequence of developing
value and essence as the basis of her work, rather than social
themes, dramatic imagery or linear plots, is that she developed
a remarkable objective voice. To an uncanny degree at times, social
judgement is absent in her author's voice, as the reader is left
the power to decide how to think and feel about the writing."
Grahn continues, "Anxiety, fear and anger are not played
upon, and this alone sets her apart from most modern authors.
Her work is harmonic and integrative, not alienated; at the same
time it is grounded useful, not wistful and fantastic."
predominantly used the present tense, "ing", creating
a continuous present in her work, which Grahn argues is a consequence
of the previous principles, especially commonality and centeredness.
Grahn describes play as the granting of autonomy and agency to
the readers or audience, "rather than the emotional manipulation
that is a characteristic of linear writing, Stein uses play."
In addition Stein's work is funny, and multilayered, allowing
a variety of interpretations and engagements. Lastly Grahn argues
that one must "insterstand...engage with the work, to mix
with it in an active engagement, rather than 'figuring it out.'
Figure it in."
Stein influenced authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Richard
Wright, as hinted above, her work has often been misunderstood.
Composer Constant Lambert (1936) naively compares Stravinsky's
choice of, "the drabbest and least significant phrases,"
in L'Histoire du Soldat to Gertrude Stein's in "Helen Furr
and Georgine Skeene" (1922), specifically: "Everday
they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday,"
of which he contends that the, "effect would be equally appreciated
by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever," apparently
entirely missing the pun frequently employed by Stein.
Stein wrote in long hand, typically about half an hour per day.
Alice B. Toklas would collect the pages, type them up and deal
with the publishing and was generally supportive while Leo Stein
publicly criticized his sister's work. Indeed, Toklas founded
the publisher "Plain Editions" to distribute Stein's
work. Today, most manuscripts are kept in the Beinecke Library
at Yale University.
1932, using an accessible style to accommodate the ordinary reading
public, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; the book
would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was
really her own autobiography. She described herself as extremely
confident, one might even say arrogant, always convinced that
she was a genius. She was disdainful of mundane tasks and Alice
Toklas managed everyday affairs.
style of the autobiography was quite similar to that of The Alice
B. Toklas Cookbook, which was actually written by Alice and contains
several unusual recipes such as one for Hashish Fudge (also called
Alice B. Toklas brownies), submitted by Brion Gysin.
of Stein's writings have been set by composers, including Virgil
Thomson's operas Four Saints in Three Acts, The Mother of Us All,
and James Tenney's skillful if short setting of Rose is a rose
is a rose is a rose as a canon dedicated to Philip Corner, beginning
with "a" on an upbeat and continuing so that each repetition
shuffles the words, eg. "a/rose is a rose/is a rose is/a
rose is a/rose."