The Making of Americans

by Gertrude Stein

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The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress resists literary classification. While some critics regard it as a novel, it may be better characterized as a daybook, containing literary sketches, reflections, and, frequently, a running commentary on the text’s own writing. The Making of Americans is the volume Gertrude Stein claimed had begun modern writing. This piece, some 550,000 words and 925 pages in its unabridged form, represents nearly eight years of work by Stein (1902-1911). Portions of the text, about 150 pages written early in the process, appeared in serial fashion in the Transatlantic, a periodical of the day. Both the text’s bulk and its literary irregularities made Stein’s efforts to publish The Making of Americans in book form an arduous task, which she finally accomplished in 1925. An abridged version, with trimming done by Stein herself, appeared in 1934. It would be many years before the full text of the work would become available in print once more.

Many readers have observed that although Stein’s The Making of Americans appears to pose as a novel, the text also defies many of the conventional expectations that readers bring to novels. It has been cast both as the Great American Novel and as that genre’s most audacious parody. It is for this reason that criticism of the text tends to dwell on Stein’s dispensing with the customs of novel-writing. The text departs from tradition in several important regards. It does not conform to a reader’s anticipation of a focus on events or happenings that generally form a novel’s plot. Where the text does describe action, its movements seldom appear in the order in which they occurred, according to the sequence of linear time. Furthermore, events do not unfold according to familiar dramatic structures in literature, such as a progression through rising, climaxing, and falling action. These occurrences also do not appear to be arranged to establish or imply cause and effect relationships among them.

In addition to rejecting standard storytelling techniques, Stein’s text also complicates novelistic devices for establishing perspective. The Making of Americans does not rely on one continuous speaking voice. It does not frame its contents with a single, governing point of view. Characters remain similarly elusive, rarely receive the kind of development that might be thought typical of fiction, sometimes remain unnamed, and at other times share the names of other figures already established in the text. Patterning of the text around the characters whose names the novel’s component books bear is often as a nominal subject rather than as an explanatory gesture regarding the section’s subject matter. Even the work’s final book, echoing with its name the novel’s subtitle, Being a History of a Family’s Progress, declines to function as a means of establishing textual closure, so there is no explicit restoration of order among the story’s events or resolution of its conflicts. Although critics have been thorough in cataloging Stein’s textual irregularities, they disagree about the implications of this unconventional writing.


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Gertrude Stein’s experimental writings had an effect on the modernists of her day, and she maintained that the high modernists Marcel Proust and James Joyce had copied The Making of Americans . Stein’s disruption of writers’ conventions and readers’ expectations inspired a heightened awareness of language as a cultural practice. Her work spanned virtually every literary form, and, in the spirit of the modernist move toward irreverence, Stein engaged in many acts of genre-blurring, genre-blending, and genre-busting. These innovations call attention to habits of perception and expression, including those...

(This entire section contains 364 words.)

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divisions associated with various forms of inequality.

Many feminist critics contend that language represents and serves the existing social order, chiefly by supporting and contributing to oppression based upon gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religion. Writings for social change, therefore, may need to confront the conservative nature of language as an instrument. Decades before feminism found a name, Stein maintained that a writer’s cultural critiques are best aimed at language itself. Within her unconventional writings, Stein reclaims existing language by creating oppositional strategies to the hierarchy and patriarchy encoded within that language.

Traditional literary criticism suggests that the measure of a writer’s importance or canonicity rests in those she influences. By this rule, Stein’s work has a pervasive and enduring power. In her lifetime, she had a direct impact on such writers as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Carlos Williams. She has come to be recognized as part of a “first generation” of experimental women writers. In this capacity, Stein left her mark on Edith Sitwell, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Anaïs Nin, Barbara Buiest, Anne Waldman, Rochelle Owens, Janes Bowles, H. D., Christine Brooke-Rose, Judith Johnson Sherwin, Laura Chester, Marguerite Young, Kathy Acker, Eva Figes, Marianne Hauser, Ursule Molinaro, Lydia Davis, Maxine Chernoff, Bernadette Mayer, Tina Darragh, Diane Ward, Carla Harryman, Ann Quin, and Rae Armantrout. Stein is also invoked as a precursor for the late twentieth century’s Language poets, including Michael Davidson, Larry Eigner, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Steve McCaffery, Peter Seeton, Jackson MacLow, and Robert Grenier. As one discovers the work of those whom Stein influenced, one may also discover new ways of reading Gertrude Stein.

Places Discussed

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Gossols. Town in the western United States that is home to the Herslands, one of the novel’s two central families. Stein wanted to establish a basic difference between the places where the two families were primarily located, contrasting East and West, coastal city and heartland settlement, old European culture and developing American social values. The Herslands are described as “really western,” since David Hersland as a young man had gone far into new country. A sense of community is conveyed by Stein’s description of the people from Gossols picking roses from the Hersland’s hedge to make sweet-scented jars.

The Hersland family is substantially more prosperous than most of their neighbors, whom Stein repeatedly refers to as a “poor queer kind of people.” The Herslands are shown in contact with a multicultural population quite different from the social class that their family fortune makes available. The interchange and friction between the first-generation immigrants of Gossols and the social strata toward which David Hersland inclines provides part of the tension that energizes and unsettles the members of the Hersland family.

Hersland house

Hersland house. Gossols home of the Herslands. The house is a relic from the days when Gossols was beginning. Built of wood, it is of medium size, standing on rising ground, surrounded by grass that becomes dry in summer. A vegetable garden, fruit trees, and hay fields provide sustenance. One of Stein’s infrequent descriptive passages evokes the essence of the Herslands’ life with a lyric effusion that celebrates the pleasures of eating radishes with soil still sticking to them, of planting seeds, and of running fully into a strong wind.


Bridgepoint. Atlantic coastal town that represents the old Eastern establishment that controlled the social and cultural norms of the United States through the nineteenth century. Stein’s second primary family, the Dehnings, is an exemplar of this, as its members have been born and reared in Bridgepoint; they all also have both city and country homes.

Dehning houses

Dehning houses. The Dehnings’ country house is a large and commodious house, with spacious lawns, great meadows, and open marshes leading down to salt water, where the Dehnings ride horses, sail, and fish. Their city house itself is an emblem of their prosperity, although a “nervous restlessness of luxury” runs through it. Stein likens the house to a “splendid canvas” painted over but full of empty space. The house’s decor is redolent of an older time, of confidence and affluence, with a parlor filled with ornate marbles on onyx stands. These and other details of acquisition link American life with an older European refinement. Stein summarizes this aspect of the Dehning family by saying of Julia Dehning that “Eastern living was natural to her being,” and that when she is in Gossols, she is “cut off from Eastern living.”

Farnham College

Farnham College. Liberal arts college for women somewhere in the western United States at which Martha Hersland’s husband, Philip Redfern, teaches. Born in a small southwestern town, Redfern is a representative of rural America, and Farnham College is depicted as a “democratic community,” a reflection of Stein’s experiences at Radcliffe and at Johns Hopkins.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Jayne L. Walker’s “History as Repetition: The Making of Americans” articulates Stein’s departures from traditions of historical as well as literary narrative, particularly the notion prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries according to which the historian’s function is to render the story of generations as a tale of human improvement.

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. This well-researched volume is the most thorough available on Stein’s body of work. Bridgman offers one of the most extended textual analyses available of The Making of Americans.

Dearborn, Mary. Pocahontas’s Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. In “The Making of Americans as an Ethnic Text,” Dearborn performs a thematic reading of the Stein text, concentrating on its representations of the interlocking experiences of ethnicity and gender.

Doane, Janice L. “Beginning and Beginning Again: The Discomposing Composition of The Making of Americans.” In Silence and Narrative: The Early Novels of Gertrude Stein. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Details how Stein’s novel records her first serious struggle with artistic composition, authorship, origins, and identity. Significant biographical material.

Frieling, Kenneth. “The Becoming of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.” In The Twenties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1975. Asserts that Stein overcomes the vision of America as a wasteland in The Making of Americans through a unifying consciousness that engulfs her characters’ lives in the stream of a continuous present tense.

Hoffman, Michael, comp. Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein. G. K. Hall, 1986. Leon Katz’s essay in this collection connects the text to philosopher Otto Weininger’s theories of psychological differences between male and female characteristics. Stein read Weininger’s controversial book Sex and Character (1906) two years after its release.

Hoffman, Michael. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Hoffman’s treatment gives a compact if impatient reading of the Stein text. His chapter focuses on The Making of Americans in terms of its rejection of novelistic convention, particularly its rebellion against linear narrative, character development, and dramatic structures of plot and causation.

Katz, Leon. “Weininger and The Making of Americans.” In Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, edited by Michael J. Hoffman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Describes the development of Stein’s understanding of personality types as influenced by psychologist Otto Weininger’s systematization of human nature in Sex and Character (1903).

Kellner, Bruce, ed. A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content with the Example. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. In addition to characterizing its general shape, Kellner’s entry on The Making of Americans supplies some useful information concerning the text’s history and its adaptation to play and opera libretto forms by scholar Leon Katz in 1973.

Knapp, Bettina. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum, 1990. References to The Making of Americans characterize the text as a tapestry of its author’s theories of psychology, aesthetics, economics, and sexuality. Knapp also terms it an “anti-novel” in its tendency to dispense with novelistic conventions.

Stein, Gertrude. “Fernhurst, Q.E.D.,” and Other Early Writings. New York: Live-right, 1971. Donald Gallup’s appendix to this anthology, “The Making of The Making of Americans,” contributes a detailed and intelligent distillation of the publication history and early reception of Stein’s text.

Stein, Gertrude. Lectures in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. This reprint of Stein’s essays (“lectures”) includes a helpful section on the writer’s approach to her most monumental writing. In “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans,” she is unusually forthcoming about her impulses in creating the text as she did.

Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1951. A good general introduction to Stein’s work, despite its overly admiring tone. Acknowledges Stein’s debt to artistic and scientific models in The Making of Americans.

Walker, Jayne L. “History as Repetition: The Making of Americans.” In The Making of a Modernist: Gertrude Stein from “Three Lives” to “Tender Buttons.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. Demonstrates how Stein’s rejection of linear plot in The Making of Americans reinforces her commitment to repetition as the source of historical knowledge. Traces how her desire for complete understanding reveals the pitfalls of totalizing systems.


Critical Essays