Authors: Gertrude Stein

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Expatriate American novelist, dramatist, poet, and nonfiction writer

February 3, 1874

Allegheny (now in Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania

July 27, 1946

Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

Biography

Gertrude Stein, who studied psychology under William James (1842–1910) at Harvard University and went to medical school at the Johns Hopkins University, became one of the United States’ most celebrated expatriates. Abandoning her medical studies just months short of graduation, Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and, except for occasional brief visits, never returned to the United States.

Although Stein was born in Pennsylvania, she spent her childhood in Vienna, Paris, Oakland, and San Francisco. Until her teens, she was more comfortable speaking French and German than English. Her parents—Daniel Stein, a businessman who became vice president of the Omnibus Cable Company in San Francisco, and Amelia Keyser Stein—were both dead before Gertrude Stein went east in 1893. Stein left Oakland, California, where the family had lived, to enter Harvard’s annex, later Radcliffe College. Stein’s oldest brother, Michael, set up trust funds that assured Gertrude and her siblings life incomes sufficient to sustain them. Gertrude’s closest family connection was with her brother Leo, two years her junior, whom she joined in Paris, where he lived, in 1903.

Gertrude Stein

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(Library of Congress)

Stein was always interested in the essence of how people communicate. At Harvard, she had conducted experiments in automatic writing, and she was struck by the poetry and repetitiveness of what her subjects produced. In France, she came under the spell of novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), whom she translated, and of the impressionist artist Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). From Cézanne, she imbibed the notion that everything in an artistic composition is as important as every other thing in the composition. Working with words, she began to transpose this idea into her writing, first in Three Lives, then in the rambling novel The Making of Americans. Such emerging cubists as Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Henri Matisse (1869–1954), and Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)—frequent callers at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Gertrude lived from 1903 until 1938— gave Stein the idea of applying to writing principles with which the cubists were experimenting in art.

Just as cubists used paint and form as their building blocks, so did Stein consciously strive to strip writing—which she approached as the universal poetry—to its essences: words, surfaces, rhythms, repetitions, and finally, entities. The last of these, her most significant literary achievement, is exemplified by her oft-quoted but little understood utterance that “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. . . ,” a categorical statement of her concept of absolute quintessence, which harks back to the interest in discovering universals with which William James had challenged her at Harvard. Stein, like the pre-Socratic philosophers, embarked on a quest for essences, seeking to discover them in words, the building blocks of thought.

Sitting for Picasso some ninety times in 1906 while he was painting her portrait, Stein talked extensively about cubism, with which Picasso was then experimenting, and about her notions that words have equal value and that people think continuously in seemingly chaotic and repetitive ways. She was beginning to formulate standards and methods of verbal portraiture that would defy current literary conventions and would result in such stylistically controversial works as Three Lives and “Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia,” as well as to such subsequent works as Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein; Picasso; and Mrs. Reynolds and Five Earlier Novelettes, 1931-1942.

From 1907 until her death, Gertrude Stein lived with her friend and lover Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967). Stein’s close relationship with her brother Leo deteriorated and came to an end around 1914, near the start of her literary career, which Leo disparaged. Stimulated by the composers, artists, and writers with whom she was regularly surrounded, Stein wrote profusely in every possible creative medium. During her lifetime, few academicians took Stein’s work seriously.

Stein died of cancer in Neuilly, France, on July 27, 1946. Much of her writing was published posthumously, as was her correspondence with several leading figures, including Pablo Picasso and Thornton Wilder. In Circles, a musical adaptation of Stein's A Circular Play by Al Carmines, won the 1968 Obie Award for best musical.

Stein was writing at the beginning of an age when literary theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Harold Bloom, Norman Holland, Helen Vendler, Jane Tompkins, Fredric Jameson, Jacques Lacan, and others would begin to examine writing in the light of sophisticated theoretical constructs derived from psychology, linguistics, and rhetoric. Clearly Stein was a monumental pioneer in language whose contributions to the understanding of literature have not yet been wholly appreciated.

Author Works Long Fiction: Three Lives, 1909 The Making of Americans, 1925 Lucy Church Amiably, 1930 A Long Gay Book, 1932 Ida, a Novel, 1941 Brewsie and Willie, 1946 Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, 1948 Things as They Are, 1950 (originally known as Q. E. D.) Mrs. Reynolds and Five Earlier Novelettes, 1931-1942, 1952 A Novel of Thank You, 1958 Drama: Geography and Plays, pb. 1922 Operas and Plays, pb. 1932 Four Saints in Three Acts, pr., pb. 1934 (libretto) In Savoy: Or, Yes Is for a Very Young Man (A Play of the Resistance in France), pr., pb. 1946 The Mother of Us All, pr. 1947 (libretto) Last Operas and Plays, pb. 1949 In a Garden: An Opera in One Act, pb. 1951 Lucretia Borgia, pb. 1968 Selected Operas and Plays, pb. 1970 Poetry: Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, 1914 Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded, 1931 Two (Hitherto Unpublished) Poems, 1948 Bee Time Vine, and Other Pieces, 1913-1927, 1953 Stanzas in Meditation, and Other Poems, 1929-1933, 1956 Nonfiction: Composition as Explanation, 1926 How to Write, 1931 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933 Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein, with Two Shorter Stories, 1933 Portraits and Prayers, 1934 Lectures in America, 1935 Narration: Four Lectures, 1935 The Geographical History of America, 1936 Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937 Picasso, 1938 Paris, France, 1940 What Are Masterpieces?, 1940 Wars I Have Seen, 1945 Four in America, 1947 Reflections on the Atomic Bomb, 1973 How Writing Is Written, 1974 The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, 1996 (Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo, editors) Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1999 (Kay Turner, editor) Correspondance, 2005 (Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein: Correspondence, 2008; Laurence Madeline, editor) The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation, 2010 (Susan Holbrook and Thomas Dilworth, editors) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The World Is Round, 1939 To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, 2011 (Giselle Potter, illustrator) Miscellaneous: The Gertrude Stein First Reader and Three Plays, 1946 The Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein, 1951–58 (8 volumes; Carl Van Vechten, editor) Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, 1962 Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures, 1911-1945, 2004 (Patricia Meyerowitz, editor) Bibliography Bowers, Jane Palatini. Gertrude Stein. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A succinct, feminist-oriented introduction to Stein, with separate chapters on the short fiction, novels, and plays. Includes notes and bibliography. Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. The first detailed, chronological study of all Stein’s work. Bridgman’s approach is primarily psychobiological; he locates Stein’s experimentalism in pathology rather than intention, seeing guilty evasiveness about lesbian sexuality as the crucial impetus for her avant-garde writing. Brinnin, John Malcom. The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. Aside from its significant biographical value, this study contains provocative comments on Stein’s writing, twentieth century painting, and modern intellectual and artistic movements. Includes a useful bibliography. Curnutt, Kirk, ed. The Critical Response to Gertrude Stein. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. While including quintessential pieces on Stein by Carl Van Vechten, William Carlos Williams, and Katherine Anne Porter, this guide to her critical reception also includes previously obscure estimations from contemporaries such as H. L. Mencken, Mina Loy, and Conrad Aiken. DeKoven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. DeKoven’s feminist study focuses on Stein’s experimental work published after Three Lives and before The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She argues that this period of Stein’s writing is important not so much because of its influence on other writers but because of its attempt to redefine patriarchal language and provide alternatives to conventional modes of signification. Dydo, Ulla E., with William Rice. Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923-1934. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2003. Dydo, a renowned Stein scholar provides a comprehensive analysis of the letters, manuscripts, and notebooks Stein generated over a twenty year period. Hoffman, Michael J. Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of reviews and essays, most of which appeared during and immediately after Stein’s long career in letters. Diverse literary criticisms, such as new criticism, structuralism, feminism, and deconstruction are represented. Among the contributors are Lisa Ruddick, Marianne DeKoven, Wendy Steiner, Catharine R. Stimpson, Donald Sutherland, and Allegra Stewart. Also included are Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, B. F. Skinner, Katherine Anne Porter, Edmund Wilson, and W. H. Auden. Hoffman, Michael J. The Development of Abstractionism in the Writings of Gertrude Stein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965. Hoffman traces the progressive development of abstractionism in Stein’s early writing (1903-1913), focusing on the varieties of abstractionism manifesting themselves in each work. In his subsequent study, published more than a decade later, Hoffman again focuses on the abstract, refining his earlier definition of Stein’s abstractionism as a “leaving-out” of stylistic and thematic elements normally appearing in the major works of American and European literature. This second study, covering the period from 1902-1946, stresses the ways in which Stein progressively abstracted from her writing most of the traditional elements of fictional prose narrative. Kellner, Bruce, ed. A Gertrude Stein Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Kellner supplies a helpful introduction on how to read Stein. The volume includes a study of Stein and literary tradition, her manuscripts, and her various styles, and biographical sketches of her friends and enemies. Provides an annotated bibliography of criticism. Knapp, Bettina. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum, 1990. A general introduction to Stein’s life and art. Discusses her stylistic breakthrough in the stories in Three Lives, focusing on repetition and the use of the continuous present. Devotes a long chapter to Tender Buttons as one of Stein’s most innovative and esoteric works; discusses the nonreferential nature of language in the fragments. Mitrano, G. F. Gertrude Stein: Woman Without Qualities. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. A study of Stein’s writing and a look at why it is relevant today. Murphy, Margueritte S. A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Devotes a chapter to Tender Buttons; argues that Stein borrowed her genre from painting; discusses the experimental nature of Stein’s prose poems in the collections. Neuman, Shirley, and Ira B. Nadel, eds. Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. A collection of essays on Stein from a variety of theoretical perspectives that attempt to “reread” her work in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Includes essays on Stein and the modernist canon, her relationship to American art and to Henry James, and her experimental collection of prose fragments, Tender Buttons. Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Stein, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art. Ruddick, Lisa. Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. Examines the cultural and psychosocial contexts of “Melanctha,” The Making of Americans, G.M.P. (Stein’s abbreviated title for the work she also called Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein), and Tender Buttons—works that Ruddick argues have a creative momentum rarely achieved in Stein’s later experimental works because all four are serial acts of self-definition. Ruddick’s study combines poststructuralism with a humanist understanding of the artistic process; she sees Tender Buttons as Stein’s work of genius because it orients the reader ethically rather than disorienting the reader in the play of language. Simon, Linda. Gertrude Stein Remembered. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Consists of short memoirs of the modernist writer by her colleagues and contemporaries. Selections include pieces by Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Sylvia Beach, Sherwood Anderson, Cecil Beaton, and Eric Sevareid, who offer intimate and often informal views of Stein. Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. London: Pandora, 1991. The most frank account of Gertrude Stein’s long-standing lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, this book shows how strong Alice was and how she dominated many aspects of her forty-year partnership with Stein. Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1951. The first substantial critical book on Stein’s writing, this work treats Stein’s radical writings as an illustration of her own modernist philosophy and aesthetics. The book also justifies the modern movement in writing and painting. Includes a useful appendix, which catalogs Stein’s writing according to stylistic periods. Will, Barbara. Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. A chronological study of Stein’s development of her concept of “genius” with much historical context.

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