Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 705 words.)