To write about Stein as an author is difficult. So intriguing are her personality and her life that the tendency among many biographers is to allow such considerations to overwhelm the fact that, although she was not fully recognized in her time, Stein was among the most intelligent experimental authors of the twentieth century.

Stein’s background in psychology was strong, and her four years in medical school, although they did not result in her receiving a medical degree, exposed her to a broad spectrum of experiences that informed her writing for the rest of her life. Particularly notable in this regard are the portraits of three women—the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena—in her controversial and, for its time, shocking novel Three Lives. This book pushed grammatical structure to its extremes and also captured with incredible accuracy the exact speech patterns of common people. Anna and Lena were both German immigrants who worked as domestics; Melanctha Her-bert, however, was a young African-American woman, also a domestic, who was one of the first African-American protagonists in American literature to be presented seriously by a white writer.

Stein’s writing style is sufficiently unusual that a first reading of her work is not easy. Greenfeld shows, however, that readers who come to an appreciation of her daring in attempting to capture the precise cadences of everyday speech often become Stein idolaters....

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