Stein, Gertrude: Introduction

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Amajor American writer associated with literary Modernism and Cubist painting, Stein is noted for her avant-garde approach to language and literature. Rejecting patriarchal literary traditions, Stein produced novels, plays, and poetry known for their obscurity and characterized by multiplicity of meanings and absence of punctuation. Her most famous, and most successful, work is her 1933 autobiography The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, named for her lifelong companion.


The youngest of five children, Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, into a wealthy Jewish family. Her parents, Daniel Stein and Amelia Keyser Stein, moved the family to Europe a year after Stein's birth; they spent three years in Vienna and two in Paris before returning to America where they took up residence in Oakland, California. The education of the Stein children—particularly the two youngest, Gertrude and her brother Leo—during this period was chaotic, consisting of a combination of public schooling and private tutors. Stein was an avid reader and she supplemented her meager formal education by reading extensively on her own. After her mother's death in 1888 and her father's in 1891, Stein was raised by her oldest brother Michael, who took a relaxed approach to his duties as guardian of his younger siblings. Stein developed an especially close relationship with her brother Leo, two years her senior, and when Leo went to Harvard University in 1892, Stein decided to follow him. She entered Harvard's women's division in 1893, a year before it became Radcliffe College, and studied under the psychologist William James. Upon graduation, Stein again followed her brother's academic career path, enrolling in Johns Hopkins Medical School. She left in 1902 without earning a degree, and the following year she and Leo moved to Paris. Their home at 27, rue de Fleurus, became a salon frequented by the leading writers and artists of the time, among them Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jean Cocteau. In 1913, Leo moved out of the apartment, partly because of disagreements with his sister about art and literature, including Stein's own writing, but chiefly because of Stein's relationship with Alice B. Toklas, who had moved in with the brother and sister in 1909. Stein described Toklas as her "wife" and the two became lifelong companions; Stein and Leo, who became a prominent art critic, never spoke again.

Stein wrote in her studio at night after her guests had departed, producing her first novella in 1903 (unpublished until 1950) and her first published book, Three Lives, in 1909. During World War I, Stein and Toklas, subjected to shortages of both food and fuel in wartime Paris, fled to Majorca for a year. They returned to Paris in 1916 and became involved in the war effort. Stein bought a truck, learned to drive, and transported hospital supplies to wounded French and American soldiers for the remainder of the war. Stein characterized the international community of writers in Paris after the war as "the lost generation," but she and Alice rejected their way of life in favor of a conventional bourgeois existence. Rather than frequenting the bars and cafes fashionable with the expatriates, the couple entertained their friends—among them Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—at home. The 1920s and 1930s were Stein's most productive years and also marked the high point of her literary reputation. Her work was published in a variety of small literary magazines, usually without compensation. Her first, and only, popular and commercial success came with the publication of the best-selling The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Following its very favorable reception in America, Stein embarked on a six-month lecture tour of various colleges and universities, among them Harvard and the University of Virginia. Her tour was also a success, and she was finally courted by an American publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House.

In 1939, Stein and Toklas lived at their summer residence in the farming village of Bilignin, near the Swiss border. Even after France fell, the pair resolved to stay there for the remainder of the war even though their status as Jews and as American nationals made that a dangerous choice. Despite some close calls, they survived the occupation and returned to Paris at the end of 1944, where they began entertaining American G.I.s in their home. Stein's hectic lifestyle began to exhaust her, and she became seriously ill while vacationing in Luceau. She was diagnosed with cancer and underwent an unsuccessful operation for her condition. Stein died July 27, 1946, and was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery; Toklas, who died twenty-one years later, was laid to rest by her side.


Although Stein was an extraordinarily prolific writer who produced works in a wide variety of genres, her best known text remains The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir of her early years in Paris up to and including her involvement with the literary community of expatriates in the 1920s. The work was a Literary Guild selection and appeared in a series of four installments in Atlantic Monthly. Unlike most of her other works, The Autobiography was considered highly readable. In contrast was Stein's personal favorite, the novel The Making of Americans which was widely deemed long, rambling, and repetitious, and although the author compared it to Remembrance of Things Past, it was judged far too eccentric to find an audience. Assessed as equally difficult was the only volume of poems published during her lifetime, Tender Buttons (1914). The work is divided into three sections: "Objects," "Food," and "Rooms," and is considered by many scholars to be Stein's erotic tribute to Toklas.

Her dramatic works, most of them written in her unique experimental style, include What Happened (1913), Ladies' Voices (1916), and A Circular Play (1920). Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), which was scored by Virgil Thomson, was one of the few plays by Stein to be produced during her lifetime. She also collaborated with Thomson on 1947's The Mother of Us All, a drama based on the life and work of Susan B. Anthony.

Stein's essays on literature, such as Lectures in America (1935) and Narration (1935), and her memoirs of historical periods and events, such as Wars I Have Seen (1945) and Brewsie and Willie (1946), were produced in a more conventional, and therefore more accessible, style. Like her autobiography, these works were far more popular with both readers and critics than her more innovative texts.


Although Stein was forced to underwrite the expenses of her first published work herself, Three Lives was well received by American critics who especially praised the story "Melanctha." However, the reception of what Stein considered her masterpiece, The Making of Americans, was negative, and she was unable to find an English or American publisher until fourteen years after she completed the book. The majority of her work was considered far too eccentric for most readers and most of it was published at her own expense. Critics and literary scholars objected to Stein's experiments with language and syntax and by her deliberate violations of the standard conventions—both thematic and stylistic—of virtually every literary genre. Her intricate patterns of repetition and her failure to use punctuation made her writing not just challenging, but according to some critics, unreadable.

These same violations of literary norms, though, are what feminist scholars have found most praiseworthy in Stein's body of work. They consider her experimental use of language and forms to be a conscious rejection of the patriarchal literary tradition, and find her treatment of sexuality and gender roles to be bold and innovative. Wendy Steiner (see Further Reading) claims that although Stein was read only as a cult figure at the time of her death, forty years later she had been elevated to a position within the American literary canon largely due to increased attention from feminist critics. Bettina L. Knapp reports on Stein's complicated relationship to feminism, claiming that while Stein was "not an overt subscriber to feminism," in some of her poetry she "clearly displays her ire against the patriarchal Judeo-Christian society."

Ironically, although Stein rejected conventional notions of femininity in her own life, she often advocated a traditional role for other women. Her essay "Degeneration in American Women," written in 1901 or 1902 and recently analyzed by Brenda Wineapple, makes this clear. According to Stein, "the only serious business of life in which [the female] cannot be entirely outclassed by the male is that of child bearing," although she did allow for a limited number of exceptions—herself included. Janice L. Doane (see Further Reading) points out discrepancies between Stein's 1898 essay, "The Value of a College Education for Women," and her polemical 1904 novel Fernhurst. According to Doane, in the novel "Stein rejects … through her narrator's speech, the defenses of women's colleges which she had previously endorsed so wholeheartedly" in the essay. For Doane, by insisting on essential differences between men and women, Stein put herself in the difficult position of "reserving a special place for herself as an anomaly in terms of traditional categories. She is a woman speaking as a man …" Claudia Roth Pierpont concurs, reporting that Stein had been persuaded by a friend to write the paper on women's education; for Stein herself, though, "the last thing she was interested in was the cause of women's rights."

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Stein, Gertrude: Introduction

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