The Making of Americans

by Gertrude Stein

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The Making of Americans explores typologies of human character. This characterological interest may have carried over from Stein’s college laboratory research in psychology. What accounts for the gap between person and persona? What types of people could be said to populate the United States? Is there such a thing as a national character? How do people’s personalities shape their interactions and relationships? How do the structures of the traditional family help create character? How do people encounter difference? These are the questions underlying Stein’s text, charging her writing with an energy that comes not from the fulfillment of the novel’s generic form but from efforts to dislodge harmful literary and cultural assumptions.

Although various elements in The Making of Americans correspond closely (on many points) to events in Stein’s and her family’s history, the novel does more than chronicle the author’s family history, for it also tells the more general story of “old people in a new world.” Issues of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and religion all play a part. Stein not only represents the experience of the transplanted business-class family, as suggested by her own origin, but also depicts the lives of the working class and of service professionals. Therefore, although the lived perspective of the author is that of one accustomed to privilege, Stein makes an effort to include the lives of seamstresses, governesses, servants, and their families. As a result, The Making of Americans is rich with the social relations of class.

In some ways, it seems only natural that Stein’s Martha Hersland, the character most closely corresponding to Gertrude Stein in this somewhat autobiographical fiction, should see issues of ethnicity in terms of her family’s servants. Like her character, Stein probably got her first exposure to class and ethnic differences through servants in the Steins’ employ (including her Czechoslovakian tutor and Hungarian governess). With the character of Martha Hersland, Stein points out that a child reared in an upper-class home often knows the household staff better than she knows her relations. The children in such a home may spend most of their time and receive most of their care from servants whose background is likely to be different from the children’s. Stein’s attempts to depict a cross-section of society lead the author to sketch out (and, in her notebooks, literally diagram) men and women in an effort to render each character complete, regardless of social standing.

Within her effort to write what she calls “a history of every one,” Stein begins to offer explanations for the human differences she observes. Given its focus on immigrant life, The Making of Americans has to do with issues of ethnicity as well as those of class, and, as the novel’s subtitle indicates, the process of cultural assimilation. The Making of Americans also shows Stein’s sensitivity to the ways in which issues of class and ethnicity interlock. While Stein retains ethnicity and class as central categories in her analysis of human character, she demonstrates how inseparable from such an examination of ethnicity and class is the matter of religious belief. Stein warns that when an individual seeks to impose beliefs and prescribe actions, religion becomes the pretext for oppression, in which the faithful seek to control others. Stein also argues that to believe in anything too much is to see that belief become dogma.

As Stein begins to highlight power asymmetries within the family and the society, she also offers a critique of the gender roles implied by patriarchy. For example, women in The Making of Americans come to recognize that their husbands act as masters to wives in much the same way that they act toward servants—as if they owned them. As the novel proceeds, Stein valorizes women with the capacity to engage critically with belief, to empower themselves by resisting dogma, and to wage a struggle against all forms of oppression.

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Critical Evaluation