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by Bamber Gascoigne

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)


American writer, an eccentric whose Paris home was a salon for the Cubist and experimental artist and writers, among them Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque,  Juan Gris, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. Stein, a brilliant conversationalist, became a legend with her Roman senator haircut and verbal facility. Against all odds, she survived the persecution of sexual minorities and Jews during the German occupation of France in World War II.

"Most of us balk at her soporific rigmaroles, her echolaliac incantations, her half-witted-sounding catalogues on numbers; most of us read her less and less. Yet, remembering especially her early work, we are still always aware of her presence in the background of contemporary literature – and we picture her as the great pyramidal Buddha of Jo Davidson's statue of her, eternally and placidly ruminating the gradual developments of the process of being, registering the vibrations of a psychological country like some august human seismograph whose charts we haven't the training to read." (Edmund Wilson in Axel's Castle, 1931)

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, of educated German-Jewish immigrants. Her father, Daniel Stein, was a traction-company executive, who had become wealthy through his investments in street railroads and real estate. His business took the family for four years to Vienna and Paris, when Stein was a child. In 1879 the family returned to America. With her parents, she made subsequently several cultural trips to Europe. After the death of her mother and father, Stein and two of her siblings lived with her mother's family in Baltimore.

In 1893 Stein entered Harvard Annex (now Radcliffe College) in Cambridge. She studied psychology under William James (1842-1910) and experimented with automatic writing under his direction. James also visited Stein in Paris in 1908. After studies at Johns Hopkins medical school, where she specialized in brain anatomy, Gertrude Stein moved to Paris, without taking the M.D. degree. She lived there from 1903 with her brother Leo, and from 1914 with her life companion, Alice B. Toklas, an accomplished cook for the salon's guests at the 27 Rue de Fleurus flat, near Luxembourg Gardens. Her salon attracted intellectuals and artists to discuss new ideas in art and politics. Visiting Stein was an important, almost an obligatory ritual for nearly every American painter, composer, or writer who came to Paris in the twenties. Some carried letters of introduction, some invited themselves, many were taken there by someone who was a regular guest.

In the atmosphere of creative energy, Stein wanted to produce modern literary version of the new art. In addition, she and her brother started to collect early works by such contemporary painters as Matisse and Picasso, who later described her as his only woman friend. Picasso met her first time at an informal art gallery established by Clovis Sagot, a former clown. He also painted a portrait of Stein in a brownish-gray monochrome. "Masculine, in her voice, in all her walk," described Picasso's lover Fernande Bellevallée her. "Fat, short, massive, beautiful head, strong, with noble features, accentuated regular, intelligent eyes."

Stein's first novel, Q.E.D. (1903), remained unpublished until after her death-perhaps because of its intimate, lesbian nature. As a writer Stein made her debut with Three Lives (1909), clearly influenced by the Jameses, novelist Henry and psychologist William. The book was based on a reworking of a late Flaubert collection of short stories, Trois contes (1877); she translated it into English. 

After differences emerged between the Cubists and the post-Impressionists, Stein sided with the former while her brother Leo championed the latter. Leo, who was left on the shadow of his sister, once bursted: "She's basically stupid and I'm basically intelligent." In her book about Picasso (1938) Stein recalled that in 1909 the artist showed her some photographs of a Spanish village to demonstrate how Cubist in reality they appeared. According to Stein, Picasso's paintings, such as 'Horta de Ebro' and 'Maison sur la colline' were almost exactly like the photographs.

Her modernist literary style Stein lauched with The Making of Americans, a family history and history of whole humanity. It was written between 1906 and 1908 but not published until 1925. Stein tried to translate in it Cubism's abstraction and disruption of perspective into a prose form and present an object or an experience from every angle simultaneously. The effect was reinforced by minimal use of punctuation-"... if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it, what had commas to do with it" (from 'Poetry and Grammar', in Lectures in America, 1935). As a result, her sentences grew longer and longer. Automatic writing, a technique favored by the Dadaists and Surrealists, also inspired her. In the essay Composition as Explanation (1926), which was based on her lectures at Cambridge and Oxford, she connected theories of Cubism to literature.

From the United States Stein's friend Mabel Dodge wrote in 1912 with enthusiasm about the Armory Show, calling it "the most important public event that has ever come off since the signing of the Declaration of Independence". The show opened in February 1913 and presented to the American public modern, revolutionary art from post-Impressionism to Cubism and Matisse. One of its most notorious exhibits was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Dodge's article, which compared Stein's writing to Picasso's Cubism, appeared in the magazine Art and Decoration. Although Stein met Dodge only a few times, their correspondence lasted over 20 years.

The poetry collection Tender Buttons (1914) was a series of still live studies, such as 'A Chair', 'A Box', 'Roastbeef', 'End of Summer' and 'Apple'. Each of these is characterized by unexpected phrases. Her aim was to search ways to name things, "that would not invent names, but mean names without naming them." Thus 'Apple' reads "Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, coloured wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato and no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece please."

When England declared war on Germany, Stein was visiting the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in England, with her lover Toklas. After a brief trip to Majorca in 1915, they returned to Paris, joining the American Fund For French Wounded. She and Toklas received the French government's Medaille de la Reconnaissance Franįaise in 1922. After the war Paris gained fame as a city of "the lost generation", and replaced Vienna as the cultural center of avant-garde art, music and literature. When the owner of 27 rue de Fleurus gave the building to his son as a wedding gift in 1938, Stein and Alice moved to an apartment on rue Christine, two blocks from the Seine.

'Miss Furr and Miss Skeene', originally published in Geography and Plays  (1922), told of two women who live together. Within deliberately limited lexicon, Stein played with the meaning of the word "gay", but its underground meaning became more widely known when Vanity Fair reprinted the story in 1923.

In 1934 Stein travelled to New York. Her opera about Spanish saints, Four Saints in Three Acts, music composed by Virgil Thomson, had a huge success with an all-black cast on Broadway. The opera run for sixty performances. Originally Thomson did not conceive the score with black performers in mind, but after seeing Jimmy Daniels perform at a Harlem club, the matter was settled. The procection was co-ordinated by John Houseman, who later cooperated with Orson Welles. Thomson's second opera, The Mother of Us All (1947), was also based on Stein's text. Stein toured America, taught for several weeks at the University of Chicago, became a lifelong friend of Thornton Wilder, returned to France next year. In 'Poetry and Grammar', originally one of the lectures she gave, Stein published her most famous statement: "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

A kind of right-wing anarchist, Stein hated Roosevelt and the New Deal. When many American writers and artists "went Left", Stein did not take a stand against the Nazi menace in her writings, but suggested to the Nobel committee that the Peace Prize should be given to Adolf Hitler. The proposal was rejected. In the thirties and forties she was a close friend of the collaborationist Bernard Fa˙, the director of the Bibliothčque national. Toklas and Stein were both Jews, but they remained in France during World War II, living under the protection of Fa˙ in various country houses.

Mainly interested in the indivudual, Stein advocated in her war writings renewing American individuality. "America is my country and Paris is my home town and it is as it has come to be," Stein had once said. "After all anybody is as their land and air is. Anybody is as the sky is low or high, the air heavy or clean and anybody is as there is wind or no wind there. It is that which makes them and the arts they make and the work they do and the way they eat and the way they drink and the way they learn and everything" (from 'An American and France,' 1936). In December 1944 Stein returned to Paris. Fa˙, who helped them to survive the occupation, was sentenced after the war to life imprisonment at hard labor. Stein and Toklas campaigned for his release. Fa˙ escaped from a prison hospital to Switzerland. Toklas sold a Picasso print to help him.

We cannot retrace our steps, going forward may be the
same as going backwards. We cannot retrace our steps,
retrace our steps. All my long life, all my long life, we do not
retrace our steps, all my long life, but.
(A silence a long silence)

(from The Mother of Us All, concluding aria)

Stein's best known work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is actually her own autobiography. Her later memoirs were Everybody's Autobiography (1937) and Wars I Have Seen (1945). The last years of her live Stein suffered from cancer. She died on 27 July 1946 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Toklas was at the bedside; she lived on until 1967. Her memoirs, What is Remembered, appeared in 1963. Although Stein's works were highly modernistic and experimental, she also had a strong influence on such popular writer as Ernest Hemingway, who combined her use of repetitive patterns with vernacular speech. Stein loved detective novels, especially the works of Edgar Wallace and Dashiell Hammett, who is mentioned several times in Everybody's Autobiography (1937). She once suggested to Louis Bromfield that they would collaborate on writing a detective story. (Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises: 1923-1934 by Ulla E. Dydo, William Rice, 2003, p. 563) 

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor (1948), Stein first and only attempt in the genre, was both a murder mystery and "a glimpse behind the stage of narration" (The Public Is Invited To Dance: Representation, the Body and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein by Harriet Scott Chessman, 1989, p. 142).  It was written after the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, during a period when she suffered from a writer's block. Stein was fascinated by the conventions of mysteries, which have much in common with experimental and avant-garde literary techniques (disjointed scenes, unpredictability, multiple ways of interpreting the same event, narrative interruptions, the participation of the reader, etc.). There is little or no detecting in the novel, and, moreover, it has no solution to the crime at the end. "After all in the written thing," Stein stated in Narration (1935), "the answer in a let down from the interest and that is so every time that is what spoils most crime stories unless another mystery crops up during the crime and that mystery remains." The story based on real-life events that happened in 1933 in Belley near Stein's country house (the death of Madame Pernollet, the wife of the hotelkeeper) and in her personal life. 

For further reading: Gertrude Stein by E. Sprigge (1957); Charmed Circle by James R. Mellow (1974); Everybody Who Was Anobody by Janet Hobhouse (1975); Language and Time and Gertrude Stein by C.F. Copeland (1975); Lesbian Images by J. Rule (1975); Different Language by M.A. De-Kove (1983); The Structure of Obscurity by R.K. Dubnick (1984); The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World by J.M. Brinnin (1987); Gertrude Stein by B.L. Knapp (1990); Gertrude and Alice by Diane Souhami (1991); Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures, ed. by Renate Stendhal (1994); Gertrude Stein Remembered, ed. by Linda Simon (1994); Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises: 1923-1934 by Ulla E. Dydo, William Rice (2003)Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fa˙, and the Vichy Dilemma by Barbara Will (2011); 'Gertrude Stein's Blood on the Dining-Room Floor: Hybrid Poetics in Modernist/Mass Culture,' in American Hybrid Poetics: Gender, Mass Culture, and Form by Amy Moorman Robbins (2014); Gertrude Stein's Surrealist Years by Ery Shin (2020).  See also: Richard Wright. Note: Stein launched the phrase "There's no there, there," originally applied to suburbanised American cities, but now used to describe the de-centered Internet.

Selected bibliography:

  • Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena, 1909 (from Flaubert's Trois Contes)
  • Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia, 1912
  • Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, Claire Marie, 1914
  • Have They Attacked Mary, He Giggled, 1917
  • A Movie, 1920 (film scenario)
  • Reread Another, 1921
  • Objects Lie on Table, 1922
  • Saints and Singing, 1922
  • Geography and Plays, 1922
  • Am I To Go Or I'll Say So, 1923
  • Capital Capitals, 1923
  • A List, 1923
  • The Making of Americans, 1925
  • Composition as Explanation, 1926
  • Descriptions of Literature, 1926
  • A Bokk Concluding with as a Wife Has a Cow, 1926
  • An Elucidations, 1927
  • A Lyrical Opera Made by Two to Be Sung, 1928
  • A Bouquet, Their Wills, 1928
  • Useful Knowledge, 1928
  • A Village Are You Ready Yet Not Yet, 1928
  • Four Saints in Three Acts, 1929 (with V. Thomson)
  • Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs, 1929 (film scenario)
  • An Acquaintance with Description, 1929
  • At Present, 1930
  • Louis XI and Madame Giraud, 1930
  • Madame Recamier, 1930
  • Parlor, 1930
  • Dix Portraits, 1930
  • Lucy Church, Amiably, 1930
  • Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded. Written on a Poem by Georges Hugnet, 1931
  • The Five Georges, 1931
  • Civilization, 1931
  • How to Write, 1931
  • They Must Be Wedded, to Their Wife, 1931
  • Say It With Flowers, 1931
  • Lynn and the College de France, 1931
  • Operas and Plays, 1932
  • Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein with Two Shorter Stories, 1933
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933
    - Alice B. Toklasin omaelämäkerta (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • Four Saints in Three Acts. An Opera to Be Sung, 1934
  • Portraits and Prayers, 1934
  • Lectures in America, 1935
  • Narration, 1935
  • A Wedding Banquet, 1935
  • The Geographical History of America, 1936
  • Human Nature to the Human Mind, 1936
  • A Wedding Bouquet, 1937
  • Is Dead, 1937
  • Everybody's Autobiography, 1937
  • Picasso, 1938
    - Picasso (suom. Mika Korhonen, 2023)
  • The World... Is Round, 1939
  • Paris, France, 1940
    - Pariisi, Ranska (suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2022)
  • What Are Masterpieces, 1940
  • Ida. A Novel, 1941
    - Ida (suom. Kaarina Ripatti, 1988)
  • Petits počmes pour un livre de lecture, 1944 (translated by Madame la Baronne d'Aiguy)
  • Wars I Have Seen, 1945
  • Brewsie and Willie, 1946
  • The Gertrude Stein First Reader and Three Plays, 1946
  • Selected Writings, 1946 (edited by C. Van Vechten)
  • In Savoy; or, Yes Is for a Very Young Man: A Play of the Resistance in France, 1946
  • The Mother of Us All, 1947 (with Virgil Thomson)
  • Four in America, 1947
  • Two (hitherto unpublished) Poems, 1948
  • Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, 1948
  • Last Operas and Plays, 1949 (edited by Carl Van Vechten)
  • Things as They Are: A Novel in Three Parts, 1950
  • In a Garden, An Opera in One Act, 1951 (music by Meyer Kupferman)
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 1. Two. Gertrude Stein and Her Brother, and Other Early Portraits, 1906-12, 1951
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 2. Mrs. Reynolds and Five Earlier Novelettes, 1952
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 3. Bee Time Vine, and Other Pieces, 1913-1927, 1953
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 4. As Fine as Melanctha, 1914-1930, 1954
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 5. Painted Lace, and Other Pieces, 1914-1937, 1955
  • Absolutely Bob Brown; or, Bobbed Brown: A Previously Unpublished Portrait, 1955
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 6. Stanzas in Meditation, and Other Poems, 1929-1933, 1956
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 7. Alphabets and Birthdays, 1957
  • Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Volume 8. A Novel of Thank You, 1958/1959
  • Selected Writings, 1962 (edited by Carl Van Vechten)
  • Gertrude Stein's America, 1965 (edited by Gilbert A. Harrison)
  • Writings and Lectures 1911-1945, 1967 (edited by Patricia Meyerowitz)
  • Lucretia Borgia: A play, 1968
  • Motor automatism, 1969 (with Leon M. Solomons) 
  • Gertrude Stein on Picasso, 1970 (edited by Edward Burns)
  • Selected Operas and Plays, 1970 (edited by John Malcolm Brinnin)
  • Look at Me Now and Here I Am; Writings and Lectures 1909-45, 1971 (edited by Patricia Meyerowitz)
  • Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings, 1971
  • A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, 1971 (edited by Robert Bartlett Haas)
  • Sherwood Anderson/Gertrude Stein: Correspondence and Personal Essays by Sherwood Anderson , 1972
  • Money, 1973
  • The Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein: Volume I.  Reflection on the Atomic Bomb, 1973 (edited by Robert Bartlett Haas)
  • The Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein: Volume II. How Writing Is Written, 1974 (edited by Robert Bartlett Haas)
  • The Yale Gertrude Stein, 1980
  • The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, 1913–1946, 1986
  • Operas & Plays, 1987 (first published in 1932)
  • Really Reading Gertrude Stein, 1989
  • Lifting Belly, 1989
  • A Stein Reader, 1993 (edited by Ulla E. Dydo)
  • Mirrors of Friendship: The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, 1996 (edited by Edward M. Burns, Ulla E. Dydo, and William Rice)
  • A History of Having a Great Many Times Not Continued to Be Friends: The Correspondence between Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein, 1911-1934, 1996 (edited by Patricia R. Everett)
  • Gertrude Stein: Writings, 1903-1932, 1998 (Library of America)
  • Gertrude Stein: Writings, 1932-1946, 1998 (Library of America)
  • Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1999 (edited by Kay Turner)
  • Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures, 1911-1945, 2004 (edited by Patricia Meyerowitz; introduction by Elizabeth Sprigge)
  • Correspondance / Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, 2005
    - Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein: Correspondence, 2008 (edited by Laurence Madeline; translated by Lorna Scott Fox)
  • The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation, 2010 (edited by Susan Holbrook and Thomas Dilworth)
  • How to Write, 2018 (Dover Edition; with a preface and introduction by Patricia Meyerowitz)
  • Lifting Belly: an Erotic Poem, 2020

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