Stein, Gertrude (Short Story Criticism)
Gertrude Stein 1874–-1946
American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, autobiographer, and dramatist. See also Gertrude Stein Poetry Criticism and Gertrude Stein Drama Criticism.
A controversial figure during her lifetime, Stein is now regarded as a major literary modernist and one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Working against the naturalistic conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, 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. While Three Lives was Stein's first published work of fiction, it displays many of the characters of her later works and was in its time revolutionary in form and subject matter.
The youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish-American family, Stein spent most of her childhood in Oakland, California. Biographers describe her mother as a weak, ineffectual woman and her father as an irrational tyrant; some have inferred that this family situation was the origin of Stein's lifelong aversion to patriarchal cultural values. Lacking a satisfactory relationship with her parents, Stein grew very close to her brother Leo. When Leo went to Harvard in 1892, Stein enrolled in the all-female Harvard Annex—soon to become Radcliffe—the following year. Radcliffe, and in particular her favorite professor there, the psychologist and philosopher William James, proved a decisive influence on her intellectual development. With James's encouragement, Stein decided to become a psychologist, and she began medical studies at Johns Hopkins University as part of her training. But in 1902, after several years of study, she grew disaffected with medicine and left the university without completing her degree. In the months that followed, Stein devoted herself to the study of literary classics. Inspired by her reading, particularly the works of Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, she began to write her first novels. In 1903, after travels in Europe and Africa, she and Leo settled in Paris, where they began to collect works by the new Modernist painters and became personally acquainted with many of them, including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The Steins' apartment became a salon where numerous artists and literary figures met regularly, and Stein absorbed many of their revolutionary ideas to formulate her own literary aesthetic that would violate existing formal conventions in order to allow the reader to experience language and ideas in provocative new ways. Leo, however, who was not enthusiastic about Cubist painting, responded to his sister's work with scorn, causing her anxiety and self-doubt. Stein found a much more appreciative audience in her friend Alice Toklas, a young woman from California who was staying in Paris. In 1909 Stein invited Toklas to live with her, and the women developed a close and affectionate relationship that Stein referred to as a marriage; they remained together for the rest of their lives. While Stein's work at this time was initially rejected by commercial publishers, many of her influential and distinguished friends admired and promoted her writings, and by the outbreak of World War I she was regarded as a central figure in the modernist movement. Stein remained in Paris for most of the war, winning commendation for her volunteer work as a medical supply driver. After the war, she became the friend and mentor of a number of young writers from the United States, most notably Ernest Hemingway, with whom she enjoyed a mutually beneficial professional relationship as well as a friendship. In the 1920s Stein was as well known for her many friendships with talented, wealthy, and famous people as for her innovative literary work. Stein at first feared that personal notoriety might spoil her as an artist, but she instead used the publicity to her advantage, especially in a series of lectures she delivered at American universities in 1934. During World War II, Stein and Toklas remained in Nazi-occupied France. As Jews, they were at risk of being deported to concentration camps, but they were protected from the Nazis by collaborationist friends. Stein maintained an active social and literary life until her death of cancer in 1946.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Because of its taboo subject matter, Stein's first novella, Q.E.D. (1950), was not published until after her death. Consequently, Three Lives is generally considered her first major work. Consisting of three long stories, each describing events in the lives of three women, the book is unified by Stein's use of the literary portrait form. Drawing heavily on William James's theory of psychological types, Stein did not attempt to construct individual characters with unique personalities; rather, her three heroines—“The Good Anna,” “The Gentle Lena,” and “Melanctha”—fit into James's categories, and the bulk of the creativity in the stories is centered on Stein's concentration on form and language that emulates the visual experimentation of the modernists and cubists. Nonetheless, the stories are considered some of Stein's most accessible works. In both “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” which concern two German-American servants, Stein explored traditional notions about women's roles in society. “Melanctha” is the most-studied of the three stories, as well as the most controversial. Thought to be a reworking of the autobiographical story of a disappointing lesbian affair recounted in Q.E.D., “Melanctha” casts the story as a heterosexual relationship between an African-American couple.
Little critical commentary exists on “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” although both stories are considered interesting as evidence of Stein's developing literary genius. “Melanctha,” however, has received much attention because of its focus on the love affair of a black couple—one of the first such portraits written by a white female writer. Revolutionary in its day, “Melanctha” came under fire as contemporary readers began to consider its characterizations to be racial stereotypes. More recently, Stein has been vindicated by some critics who recognize that Stein was a product of her time rather than a deliberate purveyor of racist cliché. Additionally, the story is believed to succeed on other levels, notably as a literary example of Jamesian psychological portraiture.
Three Lives 1909
Q.E.D. (novella) 1950
The Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. 8 Vols. (novellas, poetry, and novels) 1951–58
Mrs. Reynolds, and Five Earlier Novelettes 1952
Tender Buttons (poetry) 1914
Geography and Plays (dramas and prose) 1922
The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress (novel) 1925
Composition as Explanation (essays) 1926
How to Write (prose) 1931
Lucy Church Amiably (prose) 1931
Operas and Plays (dramas) 1932
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (biography) 1933
Four Saints in Three Acts (drama) 1934
Lectures in America (lectures) 1935
Narration: Four Lectures (lectures) 1935
The Geographical History of America; or, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (prose) 1936
Everybody's Autobiography (autobiography) 1937
Ida (novel) 1941
Wars I Have Seen (prose) 1945
Brewsie and Willie (novel) 1946
Four in America (prose) 1947
Last Operas and Plays (prose, dramas,...
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SOURCE: A review of Three Lives, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 90, January 20, 1910, p. 65.
[In the following review, the critic finds Three Lives difficult but rewarding and notes that Stein shows great promise as a writer.]
These stories [in Three Lives] of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena have a quite extraordinary vitality conveyed in a most eccentric and difficult form. The half-articulated phrases follow unrelentingly the blind mental and temperamental gropings of three humble souls wittingly or unwittingly at odds with life. Whoever can adjust himself to the repetitions, false starts, and general circularity of the manner will find himself very near real people. Too near, possibly. The present writer had an uncomfortable sense of being immured with a girl wife, a spinster, and a woman who is neither, between imprisoning walls which echoed exactly all thoughts and feelings. These stories utterly lack construction and focus, but give that sense of urgent life which one gets more commonly in Russian literature than elsewhere. How the Good Anna spent herself barrenly for everybody in reach, the Gentle Lena for the notion of motherhood, while the mulattress Melanctha perished partly of her own excess of temperament, but more from contact with a life-diminishing prig and emotionally inert surroundings, readers who are willing to pay a stiff entrance fee in patient...
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SOURCE: “The Primitive in Gertrude Stein's ‘Melanctha,’” in New Mexico Quarterly Review, Vol. 20, 1950, pp. 358–65.
[In the following essay, Braddy contends that “Melanctha” demonstrates aesthetic primitivism in its narrative form as well as in Melanctha's characterization.]
Three Lives narrates the histories of three women in humble stations of life—these under the titles of “The Good Anna,” “Melanctha,” and “The Gentle Lena.” In each of these narratives Gertrude Stein employs repetition as a principal element in her style; but it is in the middle story, “Melanctha,” that the various forms of reduplication in words and sounds are most effectively utilized. For this reason, and also because the heroine Melanctha Herbert is negroid, I have chosen to examine this particular novelette as a revealing illustration of Stein's employment of primitive syntactical devices of narration in the development of a character who is not wholly civilized. Melanctha is not, on the other hand, a primitive aborigine, nor does the story exemplify primitivism—a belief that health and happiness are easiest approached by recreating the conditions of simplified early societies. My use of the word primitive in this article, as a literary method, concerns mainly those technical devices which characterize all art in its beginning stages. The fact that Melanctha has known fewer of the fruits...
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SOURCE: “Continuity of Romantic Irony: Stein's Homage to Laforgue in Three Lives,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, June, 1975, pp. 147–58.
[In the following essay, Wood considers Three Lives as a conscious literary homage to the French Romantic ironist Jules Laforgue.]
The epigraph at the beginning of Gertrude Stein's first published book may be considered archetypical of the utterances of Jules Laforgue, the short-lived, post-Baudelairean poet whom Warren Ramsey has called “the greatest of French Romantic ironists”1: “Donc je suis un malheureux, et ce n'est ni ma faute, ni celle de la vie” (“I'm unhappy of course, and it's neither my fault nor life's”).2 The major hallmarks of the mature Laforguean style and attitude are clearly present here: the peculiar combination of pessimism and light-heartedness; the intentionally ineloquent, conversational style; and the ironic joining of the “dissenting voices of instinct and judgment” (Ramsey, p. 238). But Stein seems to be indulging in a little of her own irony here, for Laforgue never wrote these lines.3 As she was to do with many other individuals, Stein seems here to have studied and distilled Laforgue's thought and style into a statement peculiarly adapted to her own artistic purposes. The inventive manipulation involved in Stein's re-creation of Laforgue here, as well...
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SOURCE: “The Beginnings,” in Gertrude Stein, Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp. 24–37.
[In the following essay, Hoffman presents an overview of Three Lives and considers its role as one of Stein's first published works.]
Settled in Montparnasse at 27, rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo became quickly acquainted with the emerging Modernist art and inevitably with many painters who lived in the artists' quarter. During this time, Stein continued the quiet work in her notebooks; and, in the spring of 1905, she began her next book, Three Lives, on which she proceeded steadily until she completed it the following February.1 During this time, the “fauves” were first exhibited at the Autumn Salon, and Stein posed for the now famous portrait by Picasso that hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she claims to have begun Three Lives by attempting a translation of Gustave Flaubert's Trois Contes while sitting beneath Cézanne's portrait of his wife,2 a painting she and Leo purchased in December 1904. A search among her papers at Yale uncovered no trace of the translation—and Stein rarely threw anything away. But there is certainly no question that she was strongly influenced by both Cézanne and Flaubert: by the former, because of his sense that reality consisted primarily of underlying...
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SOURCE: “Gertrude Stein and Cubist Narrative,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 543–55.
[In the following essay, Rose considers Three Lives as a “verbal portrait” in the style of cubist narrative.]
“… If it were possible that a movement were lively enough it would exist so completely that it would not be necessary to see it moving against anything to know that it is moving,” writes Gertrude Stein in “Portraits and Repetition” (1935). “That is what we mean by life and in my way I have tried to make portraits of this thing.”1 She is discussing here her own verbal portraits of the 1920's. But she could just as well be discussing the internal movement of shifting styles in her Three Lives (1908) or the successive juxtapositions of referential ground in Lucy Church Amiably (1931) or the rapid summaries in Ida (1941)—or, for that matter, her lifelong friend Picasso's Cubist portraits, for example, “Portrait of Vollard” (1910).
Unless we adopt Wylie Sypher's definition of Cubism in Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature (1960) and find it in any art form studying its own processes without recourse to representational reality (a definition that allows Sypher to claim Joyce, Huxley, Gide, and Pirandello), we may question whether “Cubist” or “cubistic” are viable terms in...
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SOURCE: “Stein's ‘Melanctha’: An Education in Pathos,” in The Ethics of Intensity in American Fiction, University of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 143–62.
[In the following essay, Hilfer argues that “Melanctha” is a radical empiricist work in the vein of the philosophy of William James, in which “mood is a phenomenological reality.”]
1. STEIN AS RADICAL EMPIRICIST
There is a passage in “Melanctha,” the great middle story of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, that captures a long moment of silent tension between its two central characters: “They sat there then a long time by the fire, very silent and not loving, and never looking to each other for it. Melanctha was moving and twitching herself and very nervous with it. Jeff was heavy and sullen and dark and very serious in it.”1 The “it” that they react to in such different ways has the same antecedent as in Henry James's late fiction, the complex of relations between two complex characters. The passage concentrates not on Melanctha's feelings toward Jeff or Jeff's toward Melanctha but on a tertium quid, the mood created by their momentary antagonism. The objectification of mood is an explicit principle in “Melanctha”: “It was not the power of Melanctha's words that held him, for, for them, he had his answer, it was the power of the mood that filled Melanctha, and for that he had no...
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SOURCE: “‘Melanctha’ and the Psychology of William James,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1982–83, pp. 545–56.
[In the following essay, Ruddick discusses the “buried psychological allegory” in “Melanctha” that owes much to the psychological studies of William James.]
Since the fifties, Gertrude Stein's critics have been alert to the possibility that her work owes something to the psychology of William James.1 Stein hinted at a debt; James, her college professor and a mentor of sorts, was one of “the strongest scientific influences that I had.”2 But it has been difficult to establish a concrete point of likeness between Stein's handling of personality and James's mental theory. The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to a buried psychological allegory in “Melanctha” that imports its figures from James.
“Melanctha” is a version of Q.E.D., Stein's early novel sometimes known by its posthumous title, Things As They Are. Q.E.D. is a minimally disguised account of Stein's affair with May Bookstaver, a member of her circle in Baltimore.3 The story has some interest but suffers from an inert and abstract prose. Stein did not publish it, but thought it worthy of reworking.
If much of Q.E.D. reappears in “Melanctha,” however, something in the treatment has...
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SOURCE: “Three Lives: The Realism of the Composition,” in The Making of a Modernist: Gertrude Stein from “Three Lives” to “Tender Buttons,” The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984, pp. 19–41.
[In the following essay, Walker explores the role of modernist painting in Stein's composition of Three Lives.]
In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Stein recalled that she wrote Three Lives while “looking and looking” at Cézanne's Portrait of Mme Cézanne (ABT, 34). Before she began these stories in 1905, she had written three narratives: Q.E.D., a semiautobiographical account of a lesbian triangle; Fernhurst; and five chapters of a family chronicle, which later served as the beginning of The Making of Americans. Compared to Three Lives and the texts that followed, these are conventional narratives, except for the theme of lesbianism that appears in Q.E.D. Three Lives, and especially the story “Melanctha,” which recasts Q.E.D. in a different social and racial milieu and a new idiom, reveals how radically Stein transformed her style in response to her initial confrontation with modernist painting.
Flaubert's “Un Coeur simple” was the literary point of departure for her first attempt to create a mode of realism analogous to Cézanne's in her own medium. In 1905 she began translating...
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SOURCE: “Altered Patterns and New Endings: Reflections of Change in Stein's Three Lives and H. D.'s Palimpsest,” in Frontiers, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1987, pp. 54–59.
[In the following essay, Dunn studies Three Lives and H. D.'s Palimpsest for evidence of their authors breaking through literary gender barriers.]
In her recent book concerning narrative strategies of twentieth-century women authors, Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues that these writers have had to “write beyond the ending” of the romance plot inherited from the nineteenth century. “Once upon a time,” says DuPlessis, “the end, the rightful end, of women in novels was social—successful courtship, marriage—or judgmental of her sexual and social failure—death.” While “ending” is thus a term that she uses to mean the outcome of narrative, DuPlessis goes on to explain that she uses it in addition as “a metaphor for conventional narrative” and for the “social, sexual, and ideological affirmations” inherent therein.1 In broad terms, then, DuPlessis is talking about the reflection in literature of “socially acceptable” patterns of women's experience and also about the need felt by twentieth-century women authors to break those patterns in their own fiction. Even though DuPlessis does not mention them specifically in her discussion, Gertrude Stein's Three Lives and H. D.'s...
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SOURCE: “Each One as She May: Melanctha, Tonka, Nadja,” in Modernity and the Text: Revisions of German Modernism, edited by Andreas Huyssen and David Bathrick, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 95–107.
[In the following essay, Ryan considers “Melanctha” as avant-garde text.]
Despite the proliferation of discussion immediately following the appearance of Peter Bürger's theories of the avant-garde in 1974, our understanding of this phenomenon does not appear to have moved forward substantially in the last several years, precisely the time frame during which one might have expected a second phase in critical avant-garde theory. One problem arises no doubt as a result of the rapid transition from ideological criticism to deconstructionist and reader-oriented criticism. The newer methods, whose ideological implications are less overtly manifest, have been unable to engage effectively with the controversies unearthed by the techniques they supplant.
It is my hope to present a more differentiated picture of the avant-garde than that offered by Peter Bürger and his early critics—one that would take more explicit account of the relation between ideology and form. I shall fill out this picture by way of three moments in the avant-garde, two of which may be seen as a vanguard in the sense that they attempt to usher in a new epoch that has still not yet begun: the end of the age of...
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SOURCE: “Wrestling Your Ally: Stein, Racism, and Feminist Critical Practice,” in Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. 181–98.
[In the following essay, Saldivar-Hull examines critical commentary on Three Lives and deems the text groundbreaking in its treatment of race, class, and gender.]
And this movement that began with a moving evocation of truth, begins to appear fraudulent from the outside, begins to mirror all that it says it opposed, for now it, too, is an oppressor of certain truths, and speakers, and begins, like the old oppressors, to hide from itself.
—Susan Griffin, “The Way of All Ideology”
It is crucial that women participate in the open questioning of the exclusionary project of canonization, in literary theory as well as in literature. Through the pioneering efforts of such feminist scholars as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, Paul Lauter, and Jane Tompkins, we could begin to imagine what a truly reconstructed canon would offer. In the spirit of sisterhood we believed that as feminist scholars we were allies, united in our mutual liberation project. As allies we would join forces and assert our authority, concentrate on re-discovering, re-reading women's...
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SOURCE: “‘Melanctha’: The Costs of Mind-Wandering,” in Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 12–54.
[In the following essay, Ruddick determines “Melanctha” to be Stein's conscious break with nineteenth-century literary standards.]
Gertrude Stein thought of herself as having spent her life escaping from the nineteenth century into which she had been born. This [essay] is about the ambivalent beginnings of that escape. With the story “Melanctha,” Stein made her first leap into modernist modes of representation; she herself described the story (immodestly but plausibly) as “the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature.”1 Yet the text looks backward at the same time.
“Melanctha” carries on a private conversation with William James, Stein's college mentor and the central figure in the early drama of her self-definition as a modernist. Along one of its axes, Stein's story reads as a tribute to James's psychological theories—theories that despite their well-known continuities with modernist aesthetics are nineteenth-century in their ethics. Yet at the margins of the story, other material shows Stein already beginning to define herself against James.
The love plot of “Melanctha” borrows heavily from James's psychology; indeed, Stein's...
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SOURCE: “Darker and Lower Down: The Eruption of Modernism in ‘Melanctha’ and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’” in Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 67–84.
[In the following essay, DeKoven addresses the modernist meaning of race and class in “Melanctha” and Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”]
Neither Irigaray nor Theweleit considers race, a category of otherness crucial to the formation of modernist narrative. As Jameson has made clear, Conrad occupies a privileged position in the history of that formation; quite possibly because he does consider the issue of race. Plato's cave is dark; the masculine subject moves from the dark maternal cave into the brilliant white sunshine of the father's truth. Dark race and low class (the cave, like the womb, is under, lower; the sun is above, higher), together with the maternal itself, erupt in a troubled conjuncture at the birth of modernist narrative.
The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 1897, and “Melanctha,” 1906, partly achieve modernist narrative: they undermine realism, though without yet establishing the modernist configuration of sous-rature.1 In both texts, race, class, and childbirth figure together in the disruption of traditional narrative form. Nineteenth-century narrative forms persist, however, as structuring frames,...
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