The Making of Americans

by Gertrude Stein

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The Dehning and Hersland families’ American history begins with their immigrant grandparents’ separate journeys to America. Both families settle in Bridgepoint. Years later, the two families come together when Julia Dehning, who is connected with the old world because she is named for her grandmother, wants to marry Alfred Hersland. Her father cautions her not to encourage Alfred’s advances. Although Julia quietly feels a vague dread about Alfred’s plans for her father’s money, she resists Henry Dehning’s hesitation and he slowly begins to accept their wedding plans. Finally, Julia and Alfred are married after a year’s engagement.

A long time before the Dehnings came to know the Hersland family, David Hersland’s grandparents sell all of their possessions and travel to America to strike it rich. David’s grandfather does not want to leave his home. As the family departs for America, David’s grandfather keeps returning to take a last look at his old home. Still, he knows that he must begin again in the New World.

David’s father makes a similar trip a generation later when he moves his family, including his well-to-do wife, Fanny, from Bridgeport to Gossols. Fanny Hissen has been raised by her religious father and dreary mother to feel important in Bridgepoint society. In Bridgepoint, David’s sister, Martha, arranges her brother’s marriage, and the family moves west to Gossols. The Hersland house in Gossols sits on ten acres in the country, away from the other rich people in town. Although the children feel divided between city living and country living, they identify with the poor country people living around them more than with their own parents. After the Hersland family becomes established in Gossols, Fanny Hersland, cut off from Bridgepoint society and ignored by her husband and her children, loses all of her feeling of importance at being rich.

At this time, Madeleine Wyman, the Hersland family governess, has little to do with the children. Instead, she listens to Fanny’s stories of her early life in Bridgepoint. This attention makes Mrs. Hersland feel important. When Madeleine is pressured by her family to marry a rich man, Mrs. Hersland attempts to persuade her to stay with the family. Fanny commissions her best dressmakers to make a dress for the governess. Madeleine finally marries the rich man, and she realizes why Fanny’s early life had made her feel important.

Martha Hersland, the eldest child, leads a particularly uninteresting life until she witnesses a man beating a woman with an umbrella in a city street. This incident prompts her to leave Gossols to pursue her college education. At college, Martha meets the young intellectual Phillip Redfern, a student of philosophy, who becomes her close friend. They marry three years later. The women’s college at Farnham invites Phillip to chair the philosophy department. The Redferns accept; however, Phillip and Martha are not a happy couple. In their marriage, Phillip’s elaborate chivalry clashes with his wife’s crude intelligence. In spite of compelling evidence, Martha cannot admit her husband’s marital infidelities or understand why their marriage has failed. They leave Farnham around the time of Alfred and Julia’s wedding, and never live together again. Martha believes that she is unworthy of Phillip’s love, but she studies and travels to prepare herself for the time when they might be together again. After Phillip’s death, Martha returns to Gossols to stay with her father.

Alfred Hersland’s happy childhood is marred only by his confusion about being the eldest son, but the middle child. Alfred thinks he is superior to Martha because she is female. Many times he tries to get her into trouble. He spends...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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his days playing in the orchard with the poor people who live nearby, until he is old enough to go to Bridgepoint for college. There, he meets his Hissen relatives, and with the characteristic Hersland impatience, he develops the urge to marry many years before he knows Julia Dehning.

Like Phillip and Martha’s marriage, Alfred and Julia’s marriage is unsuccessful. When Alfred faces trouble in his business, Julia’s father, Henry, gives him a large loan, even though he knows Alfred to be dishonest. Julia’s dread regarding her husband grows, and eventually Alfred and Julia come to love other people. Alfred marries Minnie Mason, an acquaintance of his younger brother, and Julia falls in love with a sick man named William Beckling. She never marries him.

The youngest Hersland son, David, is obsessed with his own mortality, and he dies before he reaches middle age. When, like his siblings before him, he had arrived in Bridgepoint for his college education, David was introduced to Alfred’s friends. He was a remarkably clear thinker and began to advise Julia about his brother. David was the child who offered the most hope for the progress of his family.

The Hersland and Dehning families, like all families, contain a range of human nature, which reflects all possibilities and potentialities. Family living continues to exist, because all individuals possess something of their ancestors. Thus, the dead family members continue to exist in the living ones.