| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Gertrude Stein—novelist, poet, essayist and
playwright—produced some 571 works during a career that spanned forty-three
years. During her lifetime, this quintessentially American writer chose to live
in Paris and write from the perspective of a different continent about
things American and the American vision of things European. Her interests
included art, aesthetics, language, philosophy, history, economics, and human nature.
She and her lifelong companion Alice B. Toklas drove for the American Fund for
French Wounded during World War I and lived quietly sequestered in the French
countryside during the German occupation of France during World War II. As
Stein said in 1936, “America is my country and Paris is my home town and it is
as it has come to be.”
had a gift for doing the uncommon in a commonplace way. Born into a
German-Jewish immigrant family in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, at the height of the
Victorian era, she lived in Gemunden and Vienna, Austria; Passy, France;
Baltimore, Maryland; Oakland and San Francisco, California; Cambridge,
Massachusetts; and London, England, before settling in Paris in 1903. The
youngest of five children, Stein experienced a comparatively unfettered
childhood heavily colored by the companionship of her brother Leo, himself
later a critic and writer. In the 1890s she studied philosophy and psychology
at Harvard University with William James, George Herbert Palmer, George
Santayana, and Hugo Munsterberg, and then went on to medical school at Johns
Hopkins University. Within a semester of finishing her M.D. degree, she left
the United States to take up residence in Paris so that she might live and
write in the comparative freedom afforded to her as an expatriate.
Gertrude and Leo Stein shared the living and work space at 27 rue de Fleurus,
conducting their salon and building their fine collection of Cézanne, Matisse,
and Picasso paintings. But Leo had no respect for his sister’s work and in time
was replaced by Alice B. Toklas, an expatriate Californian who shared Stein’s
interests and supported her ambitions, and became her lifelong lover and
partner. Stein’s social and literary networks were as wide and cosmopolitan as
the city itself. In the early years she worked, talked, and played with such
artists and poets as Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Natalie Barney, and
Renée Vivien who shared her interests in unconventional literature and art. Stein continued
her interest in philosophy, visiting Alfred North Whitehead on the eve of World
War I, and in the fifteen years before World War II writing her own best
critical theory and a major philosophical meditation. Her unconventional,
experimental work during the early years of the twentieth century brought her
to the attention of writers as diverse as Jean Cocteau and Sherwood Anderson,
both of whom testified to the liberating impact of Tender Buttons (1912) on
their own vision.
the 1920s she mentored Ernest Hemingway, and over the years entertained and
communicated with a number of young writers, artists, and composers. Talented
young Americans and artists coming from the United States to Paris carried
letters of introduction and over the years she entertained such persons as
Nella Larsen and Paul Robeson. She corresponded with Richard Wright and later
encouraged him to live in France. Her Paris circle included Sylvia Beach,
Margaret Anderson, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes, and H.D. In the mid-1930s after
the unprecedented popular success of her readable The Autobiography of Alice B.
Toklas (1932), Stein returned with Toklas to the United States for a triumphant
coast-to-coast tour. In 1946, at the height of her literary powers and
recognition, Stein died quietly of cancer in Paris with Toklas at her side.
success, critical recognition, and popular acclaim did not come easily to
Stein, who was as uncompromising in pursuit of her artistic goals as she was in
securing her domestic comfort and maintaining her personal integrity. Though
formally trained in philosophy and medicine, she was widely read in literature,
particularly English prose narrative. Her first major work, The Making of
Americans (1903, 1906–11), is a historical record of a German-Jewish immigrant
family establishing itself in the new land. Three Lives (1905–06) bears the
mark of both Anglo-American naturalism and the psychological probing of Henry
James. But already the abstract way in which she defined character and her use
of very complex prose rhythms to portray character suggested that experimental
breakthroughs were to follow.
(1908–12) marks the transition of her prose from Three Lives to Tender Buttons.
In the latter, a brilliant prose/poetry meditation on objects, food, and rooms,
Stein established once and for all her philosophical interest in the ordinary,
her delight in words as an artistic medium, and her willingness to experiment
with generic conventions. Her lifelong effort was to show how the human mind
perceives, orders, and reflects on the interwoven world of animate and
the 1920s Stein continued to write poetry, portraits, plays, landscapes,
novels, and operas—collapsing the aesthetic categories usually reserved for
either the visual or the verbal arts. Four Saints in Three Acts (1927) explores
religion, gender, art, meditation, ritual, and language in a way typical of her
mature middle style. Patriarchal Poetry, a long poem written the same year,
makes it clear that Stein was fully aware of what it meant to be a woman writing
in a literary tradition defined by masculine interests, experiences, and
values. During the 1930s Stein wrote in the autobiographies some of her most
accessible prose, all the while continuing in the novella and drama to explore
the complexity of experience, form, and language. The Geographical History of
America (1935) states boldly her belief that she—a woman—is doing the major
literary thinking of the era. She doubtless felt the need to say this, for her
work continued to bewilder common reader and critic alike, much of it remaining
unpublished during her lifetime. The attention given to Stein’s experiments in
form and language during her lifetime long obscured her major contribution to
our understanding of domesticity, female culture, myths about women, the social
world in which women function, and what it meant in the twentieth century to
intentionally create art that is not patriarchal.
University of Denver
Queens College, City University of New York
In the Heath Anthology
from The Mother of Us All
from The Making of Americans
[n.b., 1903, 1906-11]
from The Geographical History of America
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Electronic Poetry Center
A photograph and links (including some audio files).
Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
Search for Stein under "Texts" for links to biography, online works, audio readings, and more.
A gathering place for all Stein-related work (theater and writing).
The Poetry of Gertrude Stein
From the Lesbian Poetry page.
Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940, 1986
Ellen E. Berry, Curved Thought and Textual Wandering: Gertrude Stein's Postmodernism, 1992
Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces, 1970
John Malcolm Brinnin, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World, 1959
Charles Caramello, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and the Biographical Act, 1996
Randa Dubnick, The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein , Language, and Cubism, 1984
Michael J. Hoffman, The Development of Abstractionism in the Writings of Gertrude Stein, 1965
James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, 1974
Allegra Stewart, Gertrude Stein and the Present, 1967
Donald Sutherland, Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work, 1951
Barbara Will, Gertrude Stein Moderism and the Problem of Genius, 2000