Stein, Gertrude (Poetry Criticism)
Gertrude Stein 1874–1946
American novelist, poet, essayist, biographer, and playwright. See also Gertrude Stein Short Story Criticism and Gertrude Stein Drama Criticism.
Stein is regarded as a major figure of literary Modernism and is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Rejecting the conventions of early nineteenth-century literature, she developed an abstract manner of expression that was a counterpart in language to the work of the Post-Impressionists and Cubists in the visual arts. Stein wrote prolifically in many genres, composing novels, poetry, plays, biographies, and opera libretti.
The youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish-American family, Stein spent most of her childhood in Oakland, California. In 1893 she enrolled in the all-female Harvard Annex, which later became Radcliffe College. There she attended classes taught by the psychologist William James, who influenced her intellectual development. Intending to become a psychologist, she began medical studies at Johns Hopkins University, but left without completing her degree.
Stein then devoted herself to her writing, starting work on her first novels. However, commercial publishers initially rejected her work, and Stein was forced to subsidize the printing of her first books. In 1903 she and her brother Leo settled in Paris. Their apartment became the gathering place of artists and writers, most notably Pablo Picasso, whose work Stein greatly admired. He and other Cubist painters broke their subjects down to essential geometric forms, then reassembled those forms in ways that offered the viewer startling new perceptions. This revolution in the visual arts encouraged Stein to formulate a literary aesthetic that would similarly violate existing formal conventions in order to allow the reader to experience language and ideas in provocative new ways. In 1909 Stein began living with Alice B. Toklas, a young woman from California, with whom she developed a close relationship that Stein referred to as a marriage. Toklas played a vital part in Stein's literary work, helping her to prepare manuscripts, providing her with much-needed encouragement, and serving as a subject for Stein's poetry. They remained together for the rest of Stein's life. During World War I, Stein won commendation for her volunteer work as a medical supply driver. After the war, Stein became the friend and mentor of a number of American writers gathered in Paris during the 1920s, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson. At this time, Stein was as well known for her
many friendships with talented artists and writers and with wealthy and famous persons as for her literary work. Urged by a publisher to write her memoirs, she produced The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which became a best-seller and made her an international celebrity. Forced to remain in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Stein and Toklas, both Jewish, were protected from anti-Semitic persecution by friends and local officials. Stein continued to write prolifically and maintained a very active social life until her death from cancer in 1946.
Although she is regarded as an experimentalist, the works for which Stein is best known are written in more conventional forms: Three Lives (1909), The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Everybody's Autobiography (1937), and Wars I Have Seen (1945). These works span the three chronological phases into which Stein's literary career is often divided: The first includes her early novels; the second is marked by the 925-page-long The Making of Americans (1925); the third offers the popular Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) and other personal memoirs, some of social and political import such as Brewsie and Willie (1946), a set of dialogues pertaining to the atomic bomb and World War II.
Throughout all these periods, she wrote poetry. Tender Buttons (1914) was the only volume to appear during her life. This book, a presentation of prose poems arranged in three sections, Objects, Food, and Rooms, has been decoded as a set of romantic praises to Toklas. The poems make playful use of words and purposefully reject the restrictions of form that Stein associated with the poetry of a "patriarchal" tradition. Her other poems were published posthumously in the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein. Among the most critically examined of these are "Patriarchal Poetry" and "Lifting Belly" from Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces 1913-1927, "With a Wife" from Painted Lace and Other Pieces 1914-1937, "A Birthday Book" from Alphabets and Birthdays (1924), and "Stanzas in Meditation," a lengthy introspec tive work, included in Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems (written between 1929-1933). Critics have found in many of these poems expressions of her relationship with Toklas, using private symbols to obscure their homoerotic theme.
Stein's work has not lent itself to the thematic textual explications that have dominated critical approaches in the twentieth century. Commentary abounds with marginalizing terms such as "hermetic," "difficult," "experimental," and "inaccessible." Rather than interpret her poetry, critics often simply labeled Stein as a renegade contributing to the innovations of modern poetry through her eccentric style. Reactions to Stein's poetry were frequently characterized by derision and suggestions that the poems were mere nonsense. After Stein's prose received critical acclaim and popular acceptance through her publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), attempts were made by critics to explain Tender Buttons, the only book of Stein's poetry accessible to the public at that time. B.F. Skinner created controversy by asserting that Tender Buttons is an experiment in "automatic writing," a topic Stein studied during medical school. Stein responded: "Artists do not experiment." A more direct approach to understanding her style was taken by some critics after the publication of Stein's essay "Poetry and Grammar" in Lectures in America (1935), reading her poems in light of her stated theories. In the 1950s, Yale University Press's publication of eight volumes of previously unpublished poems by Stein created a renewed academic interest in decoding her works. Allegra Stewart's studies of Stein, beginning in the late fifties, use Jungian analysis to suggest that Stein's creativity is a form of religious meditation. During the 1960s and 1970s, critical approaches focusing on the structure of the poems frequently compared Stein's fragmented style to that of Cubist paintings. At the same time, the women's movement produced a new interest in Stein's poetry. Feminist critics, notably Marianne DeKoven, examined the works in relation to those of Stein's contemporaries as statements of rebellion against a male-dominated tradition. Since the 1970s, a number of critics, starting with Richard Bridgman, have focused on erotic readings of Stein's work, using biographical information to detect a symbolism that they claim veils Stein's expressions of lesbian love. In the 1980s and 1990s, the emergence of semiotics resulted in criticism that attempted to come to terms with the great diversity, play, resonance, and perception in Stein's work.
Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms 1914
Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded: Written on a Poem by Georges Hugnet 1931
Two (Hitherto Unpublished) Poems 1948
Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces 1913-1927, Vol. 3 of Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein 1953
As Fine as Melanctha 1914-1930, Vol. 4 of Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein 1954
Painted Lace and Other Pieces 1914-1937, Vol. 5 of Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein 1955
Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems, Vol. 6 of Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein 1956
Alphabets and Birthdays (poetry and essays), Vol. 7 of Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein 1957
Lifting Belly (also included in Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces) 1989
Other Major Works
Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena (novellas) 1909
Geography and Plays (drama and prose) 1922
The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress (novel) 1925; also published as The Making of Americans: The Hersland Family [abridged edition] 1934
Composition as Explanation (essay) 1926...
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SOURCE: "Preface: The Turning Point," in Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems by Gertrude Stein, Yale University Press, 1956, pp. v-xxiv.
[In the following excerpt from his introduction to Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems, Sutherland discusses the evolution of Stein's poetics.]
The works in [Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems] were written between 1929 and 1933, one of the most dramatic periods in Gertrude Stein's long life with literary form. The period was in a way the climax of her heroic experimentation with the essentials of writing; it tired her, and after it came her popular, broader and easier, more charming and personal works, but while the period lasted she carried writing as high and as far in her direction as she could, to a point that is still, over twenty years later, a crucial one for writing in general. Her summit of innovation, this last reach of her dialectic, is not easy of approach, the atmosphere is rare, but even the approaches are exhilarating and it is not difficult at least to map out the region and the way she came, much of it being our own ground at present.
In the preceding period, from 1911 to 1928, she had written about things and people in space—on the analogy of painting or the theatre. She had done so naturally, as that period was great in painting and lively in the theatre, and nearly everybody's writing was controlled by...
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SOURCE: "The State of Change," in Saturday Review, Vol. 39, No. 51, December 22, 1956, pp. 21-29.
[In the following review, Fowlie praises Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems, noting the power of Stein's poetic rhythms.]
The poetry published in Gertrude Stein's volume Stanzas in Meditation was written between 1929 and 1933. It is now presented as the sixth volume in the Yale edition of her unpublished writings. Donald Sutherland, biographer of the writer and one of the editors of this edition, describes in his preface the moment in Miss Stein's career when these poems were composed. For several years before 1929 she had written extensively on painting. Then her preoccupation began to center on ideas of a political and philosophical nature. She was well aware of the weakness of poetry which is simply about ideas and of the need to make ideas coexistent with poetry, intrinsic to poetry. (In fact, she once said, in her familiar aphoristic style, that there are no ideas in masterpieces.)
"Stanzas in Meditation" is a long poem filling more than one-half of the present volume. It is a meditation on the ideas which rise up in the poet's mind during the process of writing, or on the ideas which involuntarily form in her mind when she considers the writing or the art of someone else. For the most part this meditation is infinitely difficult to follow. Miss Stein usually...
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SOURCE: "The Impossible," in Poetry, Vol. XC, No. 4, July, 1957, pp. 250-54.
[In the following review of Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems, Ashbery describes the difficult, ambitious nature of Stein's experiments with language.]
[Stanzas in Meditation] will probably please readers who are satisfied only by literary extremes, but who have not previously taken to Miss Stein because of a kind of lack of seriousness in her work, characterized by lapses into dull, facile rhyme; by the over-employment of rhythms suggesting a child's incantation against grownups; and by monotony. There is certainly plenty of monotony in the 150-page title poem which forms the first half of this volume, but it is the fertile kind, which generates excitement as water monotonously flowing over a dam generates electrical power. These austere "stanzas" are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as "where," "which," "these," "of," "not," "have," "about," and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about. The result is like certain monochrome de Kooning paintings in which isolated strokes of color take on a deliciousness they never could have had out of context, or a piece of music by Webern in which a single note on the celesta suddenly irrigates a whole desert of dry, scratchy...
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SOURCE: "The Comedy of Literature: Gertrude Stein," in In Praise of Comedy: A Study in Its Theory and Practice, Horizon Press, 1970, pp. 236-41.
[In the following excerpt, Feibleman describes Tender Buttons and Geography and Plays as comically meaningless works, of interest only for the connotative value of their nonsensical words.]
The Stein which is represented by [Tender Buttons and Geography and Plays] is essentially the comedian. That Gertrude Stein would probably not agree with this estimation is nothing to the point. When we consider artistic accomplishments, we can ignore the intentions of the artist, which may have been in direct contradiction with what was actually accomplished. In all likelihood, Miss Stein began her career as an iconoclast, like so many of her "lost generation." She wrote with her tongue in her cheek and an ambition to épater le bourgeois. But whether such was her intention or no, we may assert that it is what her books reveal, and thus it is all we need be occupied with considering. Fortunately or unfortunately for the artist, works of art once delivered to the public are public property, and there are many who are more equipped to assign them their proper place than the artist himself. Thus we are justified in calling Miss Stein a comedian provided only that we can show wherein the comedy lies….
One joke and one alone...
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SOURCE: "Spreading the Difference: One Way to Read Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 57-75.
[In the following essay, Hadas provides a biographical interpretation of Tender Buttons which includes explanations of Stein's feelings for her brother, Leo Stein, their mutual interest in the psychological theories of William James, and Stein's relationship with Alice B. Toklas.]
Whether she is known as the "Mother Goose of Montparnasse," the "mama of dada," the affectionate mother country called "Gert" by G.I.s in Paris, or "Baby," as her companion Alice called her in private, makes little difference to our reading of Gertrude Stein's work. Yet the phenomena of Gertrude Stein's versatile selves—none and all and more than the above—and her perception of the differences between herself and the selves of others do. In Tender Buttons these differences are as important as the identifications. At least this is one way to read it, and the one I intend here, although of course there is no one way to read it that can fathom a final difference. The spaces are exceptionally wide between the lines and separate minds here, but there is where differences can begin the work (and play) of bringing them together.
Most readers, at first, do not know what to make of Tender Buttons at all—a joke perhaps. One...
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SOURCE: "The Gaiety of Gertrude Stein," in Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 160-99.
[In the following excerpt, Schmitz explains some of Stein's puns and identifies humorous references to Alice B. Toklas in Tender Buttons.]
The speculative play of Gertrude Stein's humor first appears in the carefully wrong discourse of Tender Buttons, Here is a carafe, "nothing strange," definiendum, and there is a glass, definiens. Definition is the work of knowledge. It is the first lesson in Aristotle's primer on analytic thinking, the Categories, and Gertrude Stein uses it as her mise-en-scene. A carafe is a kind of glass. So Western Thought designates the World of Things, establishes Things in the World, species into genus, and constitutes the proper text. But something happens in Gertrude Stein's definition, the spectacle of an effacement, the spectacle of a metaphor, a split in the statement of the object, and all this changes her text, changes the lesson. That, which ought to place the carafe categorically before us, do its simple work of reference in the sentence, instead demonstrates its own importance. It makes a statement about statement, turns the simple object into a complex trope, the blind glass through which we see darkly, and holds these discursive antinomies (identity, difference) in bemused...
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SOURCE: "Gertrude Stein: The Pattern Moves, the Woman Behind Shakes It," in Women's Studies, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 and 2, 1986, pp. 33-47.
[In the following essay, Mizejewski contrasts Stein's perceptions of self in Tender Buttons with examples of how feminist writers of her era treated the theme of female self-perception.]
Since Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons was published in 1914, its colorful chunks of language and imagery have been shaken in the kaleidoscopes of a dozen critical modes to produce a myriad of readings, designs, and explanations. The multitude of critical approaches attests to its brilliance and obscurity at once: readers presented with this wild, semi-verbless appraisal of objects, food, and rooms are justifiably intimidated but also challenged to find the "key" to a work in which "A Piece of Coffee" is "More of a double. A place in no new table," and in which "Red Roses" are "Cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot" [Tender Buttons].
Tender Buttons has been described as a series of prose poems, although no traditional genre can do justice to its departures from all traditions, genres, and syntax. Divided into three sections, Objects, Food, and Rooms, it uses things, occasions, or phrases as the starting points of "descriptions" that do not describe or "definitions" that do not define. Under...
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SOURCE: "Breaking the Rigid Form of the Noun: Stein, Pound, Whitman, and Modernist Poetry," in Critical Essays on American Modernism, edited by Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, G. K. Hall and Company, 1992, pp. 225-34.
[In the following excerpt, DeKoven examines Stein's use of nouns in Tender Buttons in the context of Modernist poetry.]
Poetry, for Gertrude Stein, is painfully erotic. She defines it in "Poetry and Grammar" by means of a series of verbs addressed sexually to what she is pleased to call "the noun": "Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun…. Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns. … I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun ["Poetry and Grammar," in Lectures in America]. "The noun" becomes on the next page "the name of anybody one loves." Poetry therefore is "really loving the name of anything," which is a generalization to the level of literary genre of the private erotic act of "calling out the name of anybody one loves." Stein repeats that account of movement from private erotic act to generic definition of poetry in a comic and ambivalent parable that narrates a literary primal scene. She and her brother, presumably Leo, found "as children will the love poems of their...
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SOURCE: "Gertrude Stein's Self-Advertisement," in Raritan, Vol. XII, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 71-87.
[In the following essay, Schultz discusses Stein's ruminations on her writing career in "Stanzas in Meditation" and her autobiographical prose works.]
I often think how celebrated I am.
It is difficult not to think how celebrated I am.
And if I think how celebrated I am
They know who know that I am new
That is I knew I know how celebrated I am
And after all it astonishes even me.
All this is to be for me.
Gertrude Stein defies the attempts we make at describing her career historically; the antihistorical historian par excellence, Stein wrote two autobiographies in 1932 alone. The first purports to be history, albeit the history of another's life; The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is one of Stein's most ostensibly accessible works. The second, "Stanzas in Meditation," records the process of telling rather than offering us the tale itself. But the very accessibility of the Toklas autobiography tends to obscure its central sleight of hand, as well as its left hook at literary tradition, for Stein not only writes as her own muse—Alice B. Toklas—but she has Toklas perform a service quite different from that of the traditional muse. Conventionally, the muse has been at once the...
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SOURCE: "Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 233-59.
[In the following excerpt, Dickie presents an overview of Stein's role in the early years of experimentation in Modernist poetry.]
Early recognition of Stein's importance rested largely on her prose, which formed the bulk of her published work: Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1914), Geography and Plays (1922), The Making of Americans (1925). Although she was writing poetry during this period (and Tender Buttons is itself a prose poem), most of her poetry was not published until after her death, in Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces (1913-1927) (1953), Painted Lace and Other Pieces (1914-1937) (1955), and Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems (1929-1933) (1956).
However, this distinction of genre is not entirely accurate, and even here Stein is more experimental than this commentary has allowed. Her work is not easily separated into genres; she worked to overthrow the conventions of genre, to mix prose and poetry, and to question the idea of a continuous work. What is printed in the form of prose, Tender Buttons, for example, may have none of the narrative, grammatical, or syntactical continuity that typifies prose. Furthermore, the continuity of a long prose...
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SOURCE: "The Poetics of Event: Stein, the Avant-Garde, and the Aesthetic Turn of Philosophy," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 12, No. 3, Winter, 1993, pp. 125-48.
[In the following excerpt, Ziarek discusses "Patriarchal Poetry" as an avant-garde work of rebellion against traditional poetic styles.]
Apart from explicit references to pleasure and liking, Stein's writing generates a sense of enjoyment specifically through its patterns of repetition and its continuous undermining and putting in play of grammatical and logical rules. In Stein's texts, anxiety arises in the face of the impossibility of imposing the strictures of understanding and interpretation upon them. When allowed to unfold in their own idiosyncratic way, Stein's works can be more readily described, as many critics have remarked, through playfulness, irony, pleasure, perhaps even jouissance, which would make those texts closer to écriture féminine and its feminist concerns. For even though Stein subverts literary and linguistic conventions in order nearly to bring to words the unwritten or blank space from which language unfolds, its "chora," to use another one of Kristeva's terms [from Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language,] her texts clearly derive often ironic, almost perverse, "pleasure" from the linguistic play and freedom that they induce.
Indeed, for Stein, bringing the poetic forward, onto the...
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SOURCE: "Stein is Nice," in Parnassus, Vol. XX, Nos. 1 & 2, 1995, pp. 297-319.
[In the following excerpt, Koestenbaum describes Stein's poetry as having appealing qualities of indefiniteness and as producing a liberating effect through its lack of focus and disregard of generic restrictions.]
Reading Gertrude Stein takes enormous patience. The skeptical reader might wonder: What if Stein is not worth this level of attentiveness? What if her writing doesn't reward close scrutiny?
Ask of your own life the same hard question: What if you stare fervently into your own mind and discover nothing there?
Stein insists that we enlarge our capacities—even if the enterprise turns out to be bankrupt. Reading Stein, we imagine a literature, a cognition, that demands inordinate latitude and longitude; we hypothesize a literature as vast and self-sufficient as she imagined hers to be. Whether or not Stein achieved it, by reading her we are postulating the existence of such a spacious poetics; we are bringing such a poetics into being, even if it only exists in the form of the ambitions we attribute to Stein, the fealty that she requires of us, the expectations that she arouses and then excuses. Reading Stein is a process of having desire excited and then forgiven: She says, you wanted a literature as huge and undetermined as the one I am...
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SOURCE: "Gertrude Stein and Tender Buttons" in The Patient Particulars: American Modernism and the Technique of Originality, Bucknell University Press, 1995, pp. 80-116.
[In the following excerpt, Knight applies theories of artistic perception to Stein's poetic style in Tender Buttons, emphasizing Stein's desire to create subjective impressions of the world rather than to produce concrete descriptions as in more traditional poetry.]
Like [Claude] Monet, [Stein] sets out to do the impossible: to see the things of this world with such concentration, such intensity, that she would block out everything that is not the object of attention, all backdrop, all relations, everything that is not included in the thing-itself. Her titles—"A Shawl," "A Table," "A Book,"—are often the only clues regarding the representational nature of her pieces. Still they, along with everything else we know about Stein's artistic intentions, are clues enough to warrant our relating the Stein of Tender Buttons and the early portraits with the Monet of the last canvases. If, as Shattuck argues, Monet never really broke through into the world of full-fledged abstraction, an abstraction that is nonrepresentational even while it is figurative, … one may also say much the same about Stein—that her work remains, more or less, grounded in an aesthetics of representation. This is not to deny the almost opaque...
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White, Ray Lewis. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, 282 p.
An annotated bibliography of writings on Stein.
Wilson, Robert A. Gertrude Stein: A Bibliography. New York: Phoenix Bookshop, 1974, 227 p.
Descriptive bibliography includes translations, recordings, and biographical materials.
Gallup, Donald, ed. The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953, 417 p.
Reprints letters from William James, Leo Stein, Picasso, Mabel Dodge, Carl Van Vechten, Hemingway, and many others in an attempt "to indicate some of the influences which made Gertrude Stein into the woman and the writer she became."
Hobhouse, Janet. Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975, 244 p.
Biography featuring many photographs and reproductions of art works associated with Stein.
Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. New York: Praeger, 1974, 528 p.
Biography focusing on Stein as a literary...
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