Melanctha by Gertrude Stein, 1909
by Gertrude Stein, 1909
Gertrude Stein had already written Q.E.D. and Fernhurst, novellas about love triangles both lesbian and heterosexual, and an early version of The Making of Americans before she began writing Three Lives in 1909. It was this work, the stories of three lower-class women, that would make her a pioneer of twentieth-century realism. In the first of these stories to be written, "The Good Anna" and "The Gentle Lena," Stein described the lives of German immigrants. The stories are heavy with irony, for, despite the women's goodness and gentleness, both died miserable, their only happiness coming from friendships with other women. The works are marked by a continuous and ever modulating repetition and by the use of common language.
When she began "Melanctha," the last of the three lives, in the winter of 1905-06, she was living in Paris and sitting for the portrait that Pablo Picasso was painting of her. During the more than 80 sittings for the painting, Stein's use of repetition intensified, and her presentation of the mulatto protagonist of the story became both more complicated and more sympathetic than her characterizations of Anna and Lena had been.
Stein's description of Melanctha Herbert is both innovative and risky, for the style of incremental repetition can both attract readers' attention and also drive them away. In the fragmented narrative that Stein uses it is clear that Melanctha explored heterosexual relationships during her adolescence, when she spent much time "wandering" on the docks. She later became intimate with the alcoholic Jane Harden, who at age 23 was sexually adept. Stein says clearly, "It was not from the men that Melanctha learned her wisdom. It was always Jane Harden herself who was making Melanctha begin to understand." The two years of the women's relationship pass quietly, Melanctha spending "long hours with Jane in her room," a description that echoes lovemaking scenes from Q.E.D. Melanctha's later liaison with Rose, which is the story that opens the work, adds to the lesbian strand in the story and suggests Melanctha's double injury when Rose betrays her, first by marrying Sam and then by ending their affair.
After a long account of Melanctha's bisexual history Stein introduces Jeff Campbell, the black doctor who grows to love Melanctha while he tends her dying mother. The story then becomes an extended dialogue between the arbitrarily rational Campbell and the purposefully inarticulate Melanctha, a tour de force of voiced dialogue unlike anything in published literature of the time. During their lengthy interchanges Stein draws Campbell as the rational speaker who wants permanence, exclusivity, and security. His polemical insistence is shown to be absurd, however, when it is contrasted with Melanctha's meaningful silences. She loves through acts, and she gives Campbell what she has to give but does not talk about it. While he accepts her love, he verbalizes all aspects of their relationship and forces her into language that becomes destructive. Whatever Melanctha says, Campbell argues with. By the end of the long dialogue the reader sees that Stein has constructed a classic discourse between reason and emotion. Because the language sounds so much like real people's speech—circular, repetitious, boring—its classic pattern has been entirely overlooked.
Stein's fiction continued what was becoming her life process, melding the knowledge she had acquired from her studies of philosophy and psychology at Radcliffe College and her studies of brain anatomy and medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School with literature and painting. Her main interest was presenting the person. Her fascination with the portrait was a culmination of years of formal study as well as the result of the contemporary artistic excitement over Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse as they worked to change the nature of painting, particularly through their portraits. In "Melanctha" Stein created a double portrait, perhaps the fictional portrait of herself as a deeply divided person. Although the long dialogue between Campbell and Melanctha has been described as typical of conversations Stein and her female lover often had, with Stein represented by Campbell, Stein also portrayed herself in the character of Melanctha. Born of very different and irreconcilable parents and later isolated from her family, the maturing Melanctha, like Stein, tried to escape her feelings of difference and looked to sexual love for self-knowledge. Campbell and Melanctha's impasse mirrors Stein's conflict over emotional loyalties to different aspects of her own self.
One of the ongoing points of interest about "Melanctha" is that it is a very early fiction about a black character written by a white woman who seemingly knew little about black life. Despite the story of Richard Wright later reading the work aloud to black workers, with good response, today's readers must be sensitive to what appears to be racial stereotyping. But in some ways Stein's identification with Melanctha wipes out what seems to be racism in the text. In her notebooks Stein repeated that her own nature was "dirty": "the Rabelaisian, nigger abandonment … daddy side, bitter taste fond of it." Locating herself in the camp of the sensual, Stein used the stereotype of the sexual black woman as a kind of self-portrait. Her aligning Melanctha with "her black brute" of a father instead of with her better-born mother is a means of justifying Stein's own family alliance and her own sexuality, but we still deplore her choice of language.
Critics have cited as important influences on Three Lives the painting of Madame Cezanne hanging above Stein as she wrote, as well as her reading Flaubert's lyric story of the servant Felicite, "Un Coeur Simple." While these influences should be mentioned, the real radicalism in Stein's "Melanctha" was her choice of a lower-class, bisexual, mulatto character as a protagonist and the comparatively unsympathetic style she used to present her. This was fiction without the expected apparatus. How did the reader know what the author felt, and how, therefore, did the reader know how he or she was supposed to feel about the characters? Nonetheless, without the use of conventional narrative clues Stein made clear the unhappiness of both Melanctha and the other two women in Three Lives. The work, privately published in 1909, served as an admonition for women who would accept cultural mandates about what kind of life would make them happy.