Gertrude Stein Biography
Gertrude Stein was the inimitable writer at the forefront of literary modernism in the early 20th century. Although she was an American, ideological and artistic differences with her home country compelled the author to move to France. Further solidifying Stein as an iconoclast was her nearly lifelong relationship with her companion and secretary, Alice B. Toklas. Stylistically, Stein wrote in a stream-of-consciousness manner, a method that attempts to present thoughts as they occur in an uncensored fashion. Poet Judy Grahn has identified six principles at play in one combination or another in Stein’s work: commonality, essence, the “continuous present,” value, play, and transformation. Stein’s most famous and successful work is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein tried to exactly represent the thoughts and feelings of her companion.
Facts and Trivia
- Many famous authors of the twentieth century revered Stein as one of the most original and thought-provoking writers in history. Among her admirers and friends were Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Thornton Wilder.
- What is so unique about Stein’s stream-of-consciousness writing style? Here is an example from her book The Making of Americans: “Americans are very friendly and very suspicious, that is what Americans are and that is what always upsets the foreigner, who deals with them, they are so friendly how can they be so suspicious they are so suspicious how can they be so friendly but they just are.”
- During World War I, Stein and Toklas learned how to drive and risked their own lives delivering medical supplies to French hospitals.
- In 1934, Stein raised a ruckus when someone misinterpreted her sarcastic comments in the New York Times about Hitler: “I say that Hitler ought to have the (Nobel) peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany....By suppressing Jews...he was ending struggle in Germany.”
- Stein often had a wry sense of humor. For example, she once said, “I do want to get rich, but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.”
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...
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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.
Stein’s first book, Three Lives (1909), is generally called a novel, although one must stretch the definition to call it one. This book contains sketches of three women, each a domestic servant. The first and third sketches, “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” are considerably shorter than the central sketch, “Melanctha,” a name meaning “black earth.” The good Anna is a German woman, bossy but with a kind heart. Lena is as submissive as Anna is domineering, but both women have two things in common: They work hard to survive, and they talk not as previous literary figures have spoken but as people of their social class actually talk. Their dialogue is filled with endless repetitions and non sequiturs, peppered with drivel—irrelevant details, middle-class moral judgments.
If readers object to this sort of dialogue (and most readers, on first exposure to Three Lives, find the dialogue bewildering), they should listen carefully to a typical conversation among working people riding home on a crowded bus or subway train after a day’s work. Stein, who, as a medical student, did field work among Baltimore’s working people, was attuned to their way of speaking. In Three Lives, she captures the everyday speech of common people with a verisimilitude that most authors of the day would have replaced with more conventional, literary dialogue.
Three Lives, using a stream-of-consciousness approach, broke new literary ground not only because it used three ordinary women as the protagonists of their respective stories but also because it devoted the longest of the three segments to a black protagonist, Melanctha Herbert, whom Stein presents not specifically as a black but as an ordinary working woman. Elements of Melanctha’s black culture resonate in the story, but this segment is more than story of a working woman than that of a black woman—and “Melanctha” is the centerpiece of Stein’s book.
Gertrude Stein’s books seldom sold well. Some were printed at the author’s expense. Publishers who accepted them usually ended up with mountains of copies that had not sold. Tender Buttons, a unique book of poetry employing collage and imposing the tenets of Cubism and Expressionism upon literature, and Geography and Plays (1922), a collection of short pieces, an almost surrealistic venture into the possibilities of language, followed Three Lives. Stein had also written a huge novel, The Making of Americans (1925), which traced three generations of a German American family not unlike her own.
No one wanted to publish this unwieldy book, which is still generally considered one of the most unreadable novels in the English language, although it is historically significant for its inventions in language and structure. In 1924, Ernest Hemingway, by now a close friend of Stein, persuaded Ford Madox Ford to serialize some of The Making of Americans in his transatlantic review, which ceased publication before Stein could be paid for her work. Finally, after years of trying, Stein got Robert McAlmon to publish her long manuscript in Paris.
Ten more of Stein’s books were published before she experienced commercial success with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which remains her most accessible book. It is fascinating for its glimpses into post-World War I Paris, culturally vibrant, filled with exciting American expatriates whom Stein labeled members of the “lost generation.” Stein, who had always encouraged Alice to write her autobiography, finally did it for her in a book that is whimsical, factual, and delightful.
After three decades abroad, Gertrude Stein returned with Alice B. Toklas to the United States to lecture. They stayed from October, 1934, until May, 1935. Following The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude published eleven more books. Gertrude and Alice sat out the Nazi occupation of France in the countryside where they usually spent their summers. The Nazis apparently overlooked Gertrude’s Jewish heritage.
Gertrude developed cancer after the armistice. When her condition worsened, she was hospitalized in Paris, where she died in 1946, Toklas at her side. Alice remained in Paris, dying there on March 7, 1967, two months before her ninetieth birthday.
Some would say that Gertrude Stein had more impact as a personality than as a writer. Certainly, her force of personality drew people to her and, eventually, drove most of the same people away from her. It is the reflection of Stein’s dynamic personality in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that accounted for the initial success of that book and that accounts for its continued acceptance.
Like most highly original artists, Stein did not feel bound by what had gone before her. It is doubtful that she was well read in the classics, although she had a considerable understanding of modern literature, perhaps more through knowing its creators than through reading it systematically.
From 1903 on, Stein imbibed a way of life in Paris that stimulated all of her aesthetic sensibilities. She made a unique contribution in appropriating from the graphic arts ideas she could translate into her own form of artistic expression, writing. She also moved beyond writing when, with Virgil Thomson, she collaborated in setting her words to music, in producing with Thomson the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).
Stein was forever attuned to nuances. Her field work in Baltimore exposed her to artistic possibilities in ordinary speech. Her understanding of the human brain provided her with insights into characters such as Melanctha Herbert, one of her most sensitively drawn protagonists.
Above all else, Gertrude Stein was her own person—brilliant, talented, prickly, self-assured, opinionated, and devoted to language in all its unique possibilities. Stein’s advice to young writers, had she deigned to offer it, would probably have been “Live, live, live”; she would have followed this advice, however, with the admonition “Write, write, write!”
Bloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Views series, this work contains fifteen essays on Stein, a chronology, and a bibliography. A balanced selection. A good starting point for beginners.
Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Bridgman offers one of the fullest analyses of the overall structure and style of Stein’s writing. The book is carefully conceived and clearly presented.
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.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. Hemingway gives his side of the story about his relationship with Gertrude Stein and about its fracture. His view is biased but interesting.
Hobhouse, Janet. Everyone Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. This book gives a good rundown of the significant people who frequented 27 rue de Fleurus and both Stein and Toklas’ opinions of them. Well illustrated.
Hoffman, Frederick J. Gertrude Stein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. This brief overview provides basic, salient details biographical and critical.
Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. New York: Praeger, 1974. This book, rich with illustrations, captures the vibrant spirit of the exciting circle of painters, sculptors, writers, and fascinating passersby that came within the Stein-Toklas social orbit before and after World War I.
Miller, Rosalind S. Gertrude Stein: Form and Intelligibility. New York: Exposition Press, 1949. Miller presents the first sustained assessment of Gertrude Stein’s conscious artistry in lucid detail. This book remains important despite its age.
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 marriage to Stein.
Sprigge, Elizabeth. Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Work. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Like Mellow’s book, this well-written biography is replete with excellent illustrations. It and Mellow’s biography remain among the most valuable resources for Stein scholars and enthusiasts.