Gertrude Stein

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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

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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.


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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 language as commonly understood and practiced through the structures and preoccupations of genre, through the patterns and assumptions of syntax, and finally even through the basic referential quality of words. Repetition—of sounds and words themselves—became the hallmark of Stein’s writing....

(This entire section contains 506 words.)

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Some temporaries thought her experimental language to be foolish and childlike, but others hailed her efforts as truly pioneering literary breakthroughs. Most of the key terms in the criticism of modern literature have been applied to Stein at one time or another—abstractionist, cubist, minimalist, and so on. Indeed, most historians of the period agree that her work and her personality must be acknowledged before any serious discussion of any of these movements can proceed. However her work is defined, regardless of whether one likes or dislikes it, it has made a significant impact on the development of modern literature.

In addition to its variety and inventiveness, the sheer bulk of Stein’s canon should not be overlooked as an accomplishment. Richard Bridgman’s Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970) lists nearly six hundred titles in the Stein bibliography, some very short pieces but others significantly longer. She was prolific, flexible, and varied—at her best in the unclassifiable writings that mingle verse, prose, and drama into a unique species of art that bears the imprint of Gertrude Stein alone.

Stein had the misfortune of living through two world wars. During the first she obtained a Ford van, which she drove for the American Fund for French Wounded. In 1922, she was awarded the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française for wartime activities.

Other literary forms

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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.


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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 the development of modernism. As a student of William James and as a friend of Alfred Alfred North Whitehead and Pablo Picasso, Stein lived at the center of the philosophical and artistic revolutions of the twentieth century. She was the natural emblem for modernism, and in her person, career, and legend, many of its salient issues converged.

In the light of more recent developments in the novel and in literary theory, it has also been argued that Stein was the first postmodernist, the first writer to claim openly that the instance of language is itself as important as the reality to which it refers. Among major writers, Ernest Hemingway was most obviously influenced by his association with her, but her genius was freely acknowledged by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thornton Wilder. William Saroyan explained her influence most directly when he asserted that no American writer could keep from coming under it, a sentiment reluctantly echoed by Edmund Wilson in Axel’s Castle (1931), even before Stein’s great popular success in the mid-1930’s.

Other literary forms

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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.


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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, making writing a supreme experience unto itself. For the first fifteen years of her artistic life, she worked at her craft with stubborn persistence while carrying on an active social life among the Parisian avant-garde. She became influential as a person of definite taste and idiosyncratic manners rather than as an artist in her own right. Her parlor became legend, and writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson profited from her ideas. In the 1920’s, she was the matron of the American expatriates, and her work, by then known to most writers, was either ferociously derided or enthusiastically applauded.

It was the poetry of Tender Buttons that first brought Gertrude Stein to the attention of the public. After 1926, however, her novels, critical essays, and prose portraits increasingly circulated. She secured a place in American letters with the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which was also a commercial success. She did not receive any official recognition during her lifetime, except as a curiosity in the world of letters.

Literary criticism has traditionally simply skirted the “problem” of Gertrude Stein, limiting itself to broad generalizations. There exists a group of Stein devotees responsible for preserving the texts; this group includes Robert Bartlett Haas, Carl Van Vechten, Donald Gallup, and Leon Katz. Stein’s work has been illuminated by two indispensable scholar-critics, Richard Bridgman and Donald Sutherland; and there are useful interpretive suggestions in studies by Rosalind Miller, Allegra Stewart, Norman Weinstein, and Michael J. Hoffman. Stein’s major impact has been on writers of later generations, especially in the late 1950’s, through the 1960’s, and up to the present time; the poetry of Aram Saroyan, Robert Kelly, Clark Coolidge, Jerome Rothenberg, and Lewis Welch is especially indebted to Stein. New insights into this revolutionary writer in the wake of global revisions of the notion of writing and critical thinking have been offered in short pieces by S. C. Neuman, William H. Gass, and Neil Schmitz. Today, a place of eminence is accorded to Stein’s fairy tales and children’s stories, the theoretical writings, the major works The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925, 1934), the shorter works Three Lives (1909) and Ida, a Novel (1941), and finally Tender Buttons, considered by many to be a masterpiece of twentieth century literature.


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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.

Brinnin, John Malcom. The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. Aside from its significant biographical value, this study contains provocative comments on Stein’s writing, twentieth century painting, and modern intellectual and artistic movements. Includes a useful bibliography.

Curnutt, Kirk, ed. The Critical Response to Gertrude Stein. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. While including quintessential pieces on Stein by Carl Van Vechten, William Carlos Williams, and Katherine Anne Porter, this guide to her critical reception also includes previously obscure estimations from contemporaries such as H. L. Mencken, Mina Loy, and Conrad Aiken.

DeKoven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. DeKoven’s feminist study focuses on Stein’s experimental work published after Three Lives and before The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She argues that this period of Stein’s writing is important not so much because of its influence on other writers but because of its attempt to redefine patriarchal language and provide alternatives to conventional modes of signification.

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.

Hoffman, Michael J. Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of reviews and essays, most of which appeared during and immediately after Stein’s long career in letters. Diverse literary criticisms, such as new criticism, structuralism, feminism, and deconstruction are represented. Among the contributors are Lisa Ruddick, Marianne DeKoven, Wendy Steiner, Catharine R. Stimpson, Donald Sutherland, and Allegra Stewart. Also included are Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, B. F. Skinner, Katherine Anne Porter, Edmund Wilson, and W. H. Auden.

Hoffman, Michael J. The Development of Abstractionism in the Writings of Gertrude Stein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965. Hoffman traces the progressive development of abstractionism in Stein’s early writing (1903-1913), focusing on the varieties of abstractionism manifesting themselves in each work. In his subsequent study, published more than a decade later, Hoffman again focuses on the abstract, refining his earlier definition of Stein’s abstractionism as a “leaving-out” of stylistic and thematic elements normally appearing in the major works of American and European literature. This second study, covering the period from 1902-1946, stresses the ways in which Stein progressively abstracted from her writing most of the traditional elements of fictional prose narrative.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. A Gertrude Stein Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Kellner supplies a helpful introduction on how to read Stein. The volume includes a study of Stein and literary tradition, her manuscripts, and her various styles, and biographical sketches of her friends and enemies. Provides an annotated bibliography of criticism.

Knapp, Bettina. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum, 1990. A general introduction to Stein’s life and art. Discusses her stylistic breakthrough in the stories in Three Lives, focusing on repetition and the use of the continuous present. Devotes a long chapter to Tender Buttons as one of Stein’s most innovative and esoteric works; discusses the nonreferential nature of language in the fragments.

Mitrano, G. F. Gertrude Stein: Woman Without Qualities. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. A study of Stein’s writing and a look at why it is relevant today.

Murphy, Margueritte S. A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Devotes a chapter to Tender Buttons; argues that Stein borrowed her genre from painting; discusses the experimental nature of Stein’s prose poems in the collections.

Neuman, Shirley, and Ira B. Nadel, eds. Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. A collection of essays on Stein from a variety of theoretical perspectives that attempt to “reread” her work in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Includes essays on Stein and the modernist canon, her relationship to American art and to Henry James, and her experimental collection of prose fragments, Tender Buttons.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Stein, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.

Ruddick, Lisa. Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. Examines the cultural and psychosocial contexts of “Melanctha,” The Making of Americans, G.M.P. (Stein’s abbreviated title for the work she also called Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein), and Tender Buttons—works that Ruddick argues have a creative momentum rarely achieved in Stein’s later experimental works because all four are serial acts of self-definition. Ruddick’s study combines poststructuralism with a humanist understanding of the artistic process; she sees Tender Buttons as Stein’s work of genius because it orients the reader ethically rather than disorienting the reader in the play of language.

Simon, Linda. Gertrude Stein Remembered. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Consists of short memoirs of the modernist writer by her colleagues and contemporaries. Selections include pieces by Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Sylvia Beach, Sherwood Anderson, Cecil Beaton, and Eric Sevareid, who offer intimate and often informal views of Stein.

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.

Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1951. The first substantial critical book on Stein’s writing, this work treats Stein’s radical writings as an illustration of her own modernist philosophy and aesthetics. The book also justifies the modern movement in writing and painting. Includes a useful appendix, which catalogs Stein’s writing according to stylistic periods.

Will, Barbara. Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. A chronological study of Stein’s development of her concept of “genius” with much historical context.


Critical Essays