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.