Article abstract: A literary innovator, Gertrude Stein captured the dialogue of common people and significantly influenced the writing of post-World War I authors.
Born into an affluent family that traded in imported fabrics, Gertrude Stein was the last child of Daniel and Amelia Stein, who vowed to have five children. Gertrude recommended being the youngest child in the family, contending that it saved one considerable bother.
Daniel Stein, having quarreled with his brother and business partner Solomon, took his family to Vienna in 1875, remaining abroad until Gertrude was five. She grew up fluent in French and German as well as English.
In 1880, the Steins moved to Oakland, California, where Gertrude grew up. In 1888, Amelia Stein died, followed by Daniel in 1891. Gertrude’s brother Michael became her legal guardian. Her brother Leo, then nineteen, transferred from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard. Gertrude followed as soon as she could, entering Radcliffe College (then known as “Harvard Annex”) in 1893 as a special student because she failed the entrance examination.
At Radcliffe, Gertrude studied philosophy and psychology with Harvard professor William James, becoming his star student. She received the bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1898. Returning to Baltimore, where much of her family lived, Stein began a medical degree at The Johns Hopkins University in 1897, continuing her studies until 1901, whereupon, although she had succeeded during her first three years as a medical student, she lost interest, failed courses, and left school a few months short of receiving the M.D.
Gertrude Stein’s life took its most significant turn in 1903, when she went to Paris. There she fell in with the sisters Etta and Claribell Cone, textile heiresses who were involved in the art world. Leo came to Paris where he and Gertrude, comfortable from their inheritance, took an apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Gertrude lived there until 1937, when the owner reclaimed the apartment for a relative.
On September 8, 1907, Gertrude Stein met Alice Babette Toklas, newly arrived in Paris from San Francisco. From that day until Stein’s death almost forty years later, the two were inseparable. Alice managed Gertrude’s life, keeping house, shopping, cooking, and guarding Gertrude’s privacy so zealously that no one could see Gertrude before passing muster with Toklas.
When interesting people arrived for the weekly salons at 27 rue de Fleurus, Toklas shepherded away the women, whom Gertrude called totally uninteresting, so that Stein could engage their men—including such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Jo Davidson, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson—in animated conversation. Stein, who enjoyed husbands, found wives boring. When she toured America in 1934-1935, she stipulated that she would speak to no strictly female audiences.
Although Leo and Gertrude Stein were not enormously rich, Paris in the early twentieth century offered inexpensive living in a sophisticated European capital. The Steins lived from trust distribution to trust distribution, but after meeting their fixed expenses, they had enough left over to haunt the shops of art dealers and buy paintings that eventually were worth millions: works by Picasso, Matisse, Gris, and others who emerged as the most significant painters of the period.
Gertrude formed close friendships with the artists whose work she collected. Reflecting on the philosophy that underlay much Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, Stein began to transform elements of that aesthetic into a literary theory that determined the course her writing took.
Misunderstood by literary audiences that expected authors to tell their tales directly, presenting largely observable surface realities, Gertrude Stein moved in her own direction. By doing so, she led the way for more than a generation of later writers.
Stein’s was a singularly original mind, given to abstraction. Her undergraduate work in psychology and her subsequent training in medicine helped Stein become attuned to nuances in human behavior—especially in the ways that people use language—that few people perceived.
Just as the artists she admired distorted reality to achieve artistic ends, so did Stein begin to work with language in untried ways. Whereas most people are concerned with words as purveyors of meaning, Stein considered words also as sounds and shapes. That she became concerned with essences is evident in her line from “Sacred Emily” in Tender Buttons (1914), “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Hardly a horticultural description of a rose or a visual depiction of the color rose or an insight into a person named Rose, Stein’s sentence forces conscientious readers to nudge into their consciousness all that they know about the word “rose.” Stein plants a seed that she invites readers to cultivate.
(The entire section is 2103 words.)