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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Gertrude Stein

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.”

Stein 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.

Initially 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.

In 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.

Financial 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.

“Ada” (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 inanimate phenomena.

Through 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.

Cynthia Secor
University of Denver

Hugh English
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]
Susie Asado  
from The Geographical History of America (1932)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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