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Stein, Gertrude

STEIN, GERTRUDE

STEIN, GERTRUDE (1874–1946), U.S. author, critic, and patron of modern art and literature. Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, into a wealthy German Jewish family, Gertrude Stein spent her childhood in Vienna and Paris and was fluent as a child in various languages including German and French. In 1879, the family moved to Oakland, California. Stein studied psychology at Radcliffe College under William James and started but never completed a medical course at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. In 1902, she joined her brother Leo in Europe. Eventually she and Leo settled in Paris, where Stein immersed herself in the bohemian life of the literary and artistic avant-garde. Stein studied the art of the new painters and collected the as yet unknown works of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. Picasso's portrait of her is one of his best-known early works. Her apartment, at 27 rue de Fleurus, which she first shared with Leo and later with her lifetime companion, Alice B. Toklas, was covered from floor to ceiling with paintings by the "new moderns." Stein also began to write, attempting to accomplish a linguistic and stylistic revolution akin to the visual revolution attempted by her artist friends. By the 1920s her apartment had become a center of artistic life and a place of pilgrimage for the aspiring expatriate American writers she dubbed "the Lost Generation," including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Stein's first original work, Three Lives (1909), the story of three working-class women, included "Melanctha," a study of the consciousness of an American mulatto girl involved in an unhappy affair with a black doctor. "Melanctha" made a great impression on the practitioners of the "new writing," with its use of vernacular black English and stylistic experimentation, attracting many to her salon. Her later works moved toward ever greater experimentation, with Stein rejecting realistic, linear narratives for linguistic free play, playing with words both for their sound and rhythm and for their subconscious associations. At first she had to pay for the publication of her work, yet she could also write lucidly and engagingly, and her reputation grew. Even at its height, attitudes toward her swung between adulation and scorn; nonetheless, her own circle regarded her as a great writer, and she had a powerful impact on later modernist and postmodern writers. In Tender Buttons (1914), a series of "portraits" of inanimate objects, she tried to establish a type of abstract writing which some critics called "cubist," others "primitivistic." It was terse, sometimes childlike, and often repetitive. Her most quoted line, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" (Geography and Plays, 1922), is indicative of the absurd linguistic play at the heart of much of her work. While many of her most experimental books were not appreciated in her lifetime, including her 1,000 page semi-autobiographical The Making of Americans (1925), a plot-less exploration of the assimilation of American immigrants, her most conventional work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), was widely read. This autobiographical work, ostensibly written by her secretary and companion, told the history of her salon and of her relationship with the new literature and art.

Her later work included experimental plays, poems, novels, and criticism. She made sweeping generalizations about the character of nations and peoples, and the relationship of American and European cultures (The Geographical History of America: the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, 1936). She used orthodox prose effectively and even nostalgically in Paris, France (1940); but Four Saints in Three Acts, produced as an "opera" with music by Virgil Thomson in 1934, proved amusing but largely unintelligible. Her World War ii experiences in Belignin, in the south of France, where she remained in safety and comparative seclusion, were described in two entertaining books, Wars I Have Seen (1945) and Brewsie and Willie (1946). On the liberation of Paris, she returned there and continued her sponsorship of new writing.

Many of Gertrude Stein's unpublished manuscripts were deposited in the Yale Library. Among those published after her death are Four in America (1947), Two: Gertrude Stein and Her Brother, and Other Early Portraits, 190812 (1951), and Mrs. Reynolds (1952), an experimental novel. Gertrude Stein's brother leo stein (1872–1947) was a painter and art critic, who made Cézanne his chief interest in life. He wrote Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose (1947) and his letters and papers, edited by Edmund Fuller, appeared as Journey into the Self in 1950.

bibliography:

A. Stewart, Gertrude Stein and the Present (1967); F.J. Hoffman, Gertrude Stein (1961); Dupee, in Commentary, 33 (1962), 519–23; R. Bridgemen, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1941). add. bibliography: J. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (1974).

[Frederick J. Hoffman /

Craig Svonkin (2nd ed.)]

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