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.