Gertrude Stein Analysis

Discussion Topics

What did Gertrude Stein expect to accomplish by writing not her own autobiography but The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?

Which of Stein’s prose experiments seem most successful?

What techniques are involved in Stein’s word portraits?

What is Stein’s justification for the repetitious phrasing found in many of her writings?

Probably no one ever learned to write by reading Stein’s How to Write. If this book does not show people how to write, what can it do for them?

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111206444-Stein.jpg Gertrude Stein. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

It is difficult to classify Gertrude Stein’s writings, because she radically upset the conventions of literary genres and because she worked in many different forms. Traditional generic labels simply do not describe individual works. Even when Stein names the genre in a work’s title (Ida, a Novel, 1941, for example), the conventional form marks only how far Stein has digressed from the norm. Works such as Ida, a Novel and Mrs. Reynolds and Five Earlier Novelettes are Stein’s version of the novel, while The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) and Operas and Plays (1932), among other works, encourage comparison with other genres. Stein became famous in the United States with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and her success encouraged her to experiment further with the genre (Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937). Even when writing “autobiography,” however, Stein did not adhere to conventional restrictions, using multiple viewpoints in the composite work. Similarly, although Stein wrote many plays, some of which have been performed, they do not follow dramatic conventions, for frequently they lack plot and character. Stein also wrote meditations and other quasi-philosophical and theoretical musings, and in numerous essays she attempted to explain her theories of composition and her notions of art. In addition, she experimented in verse and developed a special genre which she called portraits. Regardless of the form, however, the style is unmistakably Stein’s and serves as a signature to all her works.


Gertrude Stein’s greatest achievement was her wily and strong independence, which revealed itself as much in her lifestyle as in her work. She was a creative person with a strong personality, a gift for conversation, and a good ear, and her home became a center for the avant-garde circle of artists in Paris during the early 1900’s. Perhaps this salon would not be so famous were it not for the fact that those associated with it were later accepted as the outstanding figures of the modern art world. In time, artists as different as Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Virgil Thomson, Guillaume Apollinaire, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso became associated with Stein and were drawn into the discussions and activities that took place in her home. Among contemporaries she was recognized as a fascinating individual, a woman of strong opinions and definite views, a lively intelligence and vibrant mind; among the cultural historians who came later, she was acknowledged to be a person of enormous creative influence and empowering force.

Stein’s achievements were not limited to her role as a cultural catalyst, however, for she was a pioneering writer in her own right. Working from a sense that the present moment of consciousness is supreme, Stein increasingly radicalized her writing to focus on the here and now, on the mystery of consciousness, and ultimately on the enigma of language and words. This drive led Stein increasingly away from the conventions of...

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Other literary forms

Any attempt to separate Gertrude Stein’s novels from her other kinds of writing must be highly arbitrary. Stein thought the novel to be a failed literary form in the twentieth century, claiming that no real novels had been written after Marcel Proust, even including her own novelistic efforts in this assessment. For this and other reasons, it might be claimed that few, if any, of Stein’s works are novels in any traditional sense. In fact, very few of Stein’s more than six hundred titles in more than forty books can be adequately classified into any traditional literary forms. Her philosophy of composition was so idiosyncratic, her prose style so seemingly nonrational, that her writing bears little resemblance to whatever genre it purports to represent.

Depending on one’s definition of the novel, Stein wrote anywhere between six and twelve novels, ranging in length from less than one hundred to 925 pages. The problem is that none of Stein’s novels has a plot in any conventional sense, that few have conventionally developed and sustained characters, and that several seem almost exclusively autobiographical, more diaries and daybooks than anything else.

It is not any easier to categorize Stein’s other pieces of writing, most of which are radically sui generis. If references to literary forms are made very loosely, Stein’s work can be divided into novels, autobiographies, portraits, poems, lectures, operas, plays, and explanations. Other than her novels, her best-known works are The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933); Tender Buttons (1914); Four Saints in Three Acts (pr., pb. 1934); Lectures in America (1935); Everybody’s Autobiography (1937); and Portraits and Prayers, 1934.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Whether towering or crouching, Gertrude Stein is ubiquitous in contemporary literature. A child of the nineteenth century who staunchly adhered to many of its values halfway through the twentieth, she nevertheless dedicated her creative life to the destruction of nineteenth century concepts of artistic order and purpose. In her own words, she set out to do nothing less than to kill a century, to lay the old ways of literary convention to rest. She later boasted that “the most serious thinking about the nature of literature in the twentieth century has been done by a woman,” and her claim has great merit.

During the course of her career, Stein finally managed to convince almost everyone that there was indeed some point, if not profundity, in her aggressively enigmatic style. The ridicule and parody that frustrated so much of her early work had turned to grudging tolerance or outright lionizing by 1934, when Stein made her triumphant American lecture tour; for the last fifteen or so years of her life, she was published even if her editor had not the vaguest idea of what she was doing (as Bennett Cerf later admitted he had not). On the most concrete level, Stein’s distinctive prose style is remarkably significant even when its philosophical dimensions are ignored. William H. Gass has observed, Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has.”

More important was Stein’s influence on other leaders in...

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Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Most of Gertrude Stein’s works did not appear until much later than the dates of their completion. Much of her writing, including novelettes, shorter poems, plays, prayers, novels, and several portraits, appeared posthumously in the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein, in eight volumes edited by Carl Van Vechten. A few of her plays have been set to music, the operas have been performed, and the later children’s books have been illustrated by various artists.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Gertrude Stein did not win tangible recognition for her literary achievements, though she did earn the Medal of French Recognition from the French government for services during World War II. Nevertheless, her contribution to art, and specifically to writing, is as great as that of Ezra Pound or James Joyce. It is, however, diametrically opposed to that of these figures in style, content, and underlying philosophy of literature. She advanced mimetic representation to its ultimate, doing away progressively with memory, narration, plot, the strictures of formalized language, and the distinction among styles and genres. Her view of life was founded on a sense of the living present that shunned all theorizing about meaning and purpose,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bowers, Jane Palatini. Gertrude Stein. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A succinct, feminist-oriented introduction to Stein, with separate chapters on the short fiction, novels, and plays. Includes notes and bibliography.

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. The first detailed, chronological study of all Stein’s work. Bridgman’s approach is primarily psychobiological; he locates Stein’s experimentalism in pathology rather than intention, seeing guilty evasiveness about lesbian sexuality as the crucial impetus for her avant-garde writing.


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