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Stein's Life and Career


Linda Wagner-Martin

One of the most innovative modern writers, Stein was the youngest child of Daniel and Amelia Keyser Stein, German Jews whose parents had emigrated to Baltimore. Leaving their clothing business in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the Daniel Steins moved to Austria soon after Gertrude's birth and lived there and in Paris until returning to Oakland, California, in 1879. When Gertrude was eleven, her mother became ill with the cancer from which she was to die several years later; her father died suddenly when she was seventeen. She and Leo, the youngest brother, lived for a time with their oldest brother Michael, an executive with the San Francisco street railway system. Then, with her sister Bertha and Leo, Gertrude traveled back to Baltimore to live with her aunt's family.

When Leo transferred to Harvard, Gertrude decided she would attend Radcliffe. Her irregular schooling had been balanced by extensive reading, and she was accepted as a special student even though she had not graduated from secondary school. Studying philosophy and psychology with William James, Hugo Münsterberg, and others, she graduated magna cum laude in philosophy. From Radcliffe she went to Johns Hopkins Medical School, where her controversial stance on women's medicine caused problems with the male faculty. She chose not to graduate, and then worked on studies in the development of the brain with Llewelys Barker. Her published essays from her college years concern attention and the way fatigue affects it.

Lured by Leo's interest in art and his residence in Paris while he studied painting, Gertrude moved in 1903 to 27 rue de Fleurus. While Leo was a patron of the arts, purchasing Renoirs, Manets, and Cézannes, Gertrude became a writer. She observed people during their Saturday salons and then wrote late at night in the atelier, which was hung with pictures. Her earliest writing was the first version of The Making of Americans, her story of the 'progress' of an American family; Q.E.D., an account of her heartbreaking lesbian liaison in Baltimore; and Fernhurst, another treatment of power within a love triangle. In 1905 she began the collection of three 'realistic' stories of common women--the German Anna and Lena, and the mulatto Melanctha--that would be privately published in 1909 as Three Lives. Distancing herself from the autobiographical, Stein relied on her knowledge of brain anatomy as she wrote with what she called 'insistence.' Her repetitions of syntax and language gave Three Lives a distinctively modern flavor. It was followed in 1912 by her word portraits of Matisse and Picasso, published in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work.

In 1907, Alice Toklas visited Paris, part of the group of Californians who admired Sarah and Mike Stein, also now living in Paris and collecting art--mostly works by Matisse. Once she and Gertrude formed their partnership, Alice became Gertrude's reader, typist, and critic. In 1910 she moved into the rue de Fleurus household and several years later Leo moved out--to Italy. Part of the dissension between the Steins stemmed from Leo's dislike of Cubism. Gertrude saw analogies between the Cubism of Picasso and Braque and her portraits and the poems of the 1914 Tender Buttons. Reminiscent of poetry by Apollinaire and Kandinsky, Stein's work seemed unique to American readers.

Finished with the 1000-page The Making of Americans in 1911 and excited by non-representational use of language, Stein wrote daily in French school notebooks. She published little. After she and Alice had lived in Spain for the first year of World War I, and then returned to France to work for the American Friends of the French Wounded (Stein driving a remodeled Ford truck from 1916 to 1919), they concentrated on finding publishers for Stein's accumulating work, which now included plays and novels. Her fame as an avant-gardist brought her many visitors--Sherwood Anderson, Mabel Dodge, Virgil Thomson, Carl Van Vechten--and she became a part of the Paris circle of expatriate Americans, including Sylvia Beach, Natalie Barney, Paul Bowles, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, and others. In 1922 she published Geography and Plays, a collection of portraits and plays, and in 1925 Robert McAlmon published The Making of Americans.

After Edith Sitwell arranged for Stein to lecture in Oxford and Cambridge in 1926, the Hogarth Press published her lectures, Composition as Explanation, and she began to feel as if the ‘gloire' she had longed for might be possible. She was experimenting with longer poems (‘Patriarchal Poetry' and 'Stanzas in Meditation') and with essays about her aesthetic beliefs. Toklas began a publishing house called Plain Edition, publishing Lucy Church Amiably and other of Stein's books in the early 1930s.

After spending six weeks writing the memoir she slyly called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Stein found the recognition she hungered for. Serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, the Autobiography made Gertrude her first money (each of the Steins had lived on between $100 and $150 a month from a family trust fund). To capitalize on this fame, she toured the States lecturing, returning to the country of her birth for the first time since 1904. Between September 1934 and May 1935, Gertrude and Alice were fêted from New York to Richmond, San Francisco to Chicago. Their visit also coincided with performances of Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts.

Returning to Paris, Stein wrote the second volume of her memoirs, Everybody's Autobiography, which Random House published in 1937, under their contract to bring out one book of Stein's each year. During the 1930s she published Portraits and Prayers (1934); Lectures in America and Narration (1935); The Geographical History of America (1936); Picasso (1938); and her first book for children, The World Is Round (1939).

When World War II became unavoidable, she and Toklas left Paris for the summer home they rented in Belley. Protected by the villagers of both Bilignin and Culoz, where they moved in 1944, they escaped the persecution that might have befallen them as Jews. Though life was hard, Stein continued writing. Paris France and What Are Masterpieces were published in 1940 and Ida, A Novel in 1941. The last book of her memoirs, Wars I Have Seen, appeared in 1945. As she had during World War I, Gertrude befriended the American soldiers she met, and her short life after peace was filled with speaking engagements and visiting with American G.I.s. One of her last books, Brewsie and Willie (l946), attempts to capture the soldiers' American idiom. She also finished The Mother of Us All, her opera based freely on Susan B. Anthony's life, before dying in July 1946 of the intestinal cancer that had plagued her family. She left her estate to Toklas for as long as she lived. Most of Stein's manuscripts were published during the next fifteen years in a series of volumes by Yale University Press.

Criticism has only begun to analyze Stein's unique works. Diligent in her efforts to create a meaningful language, one that would reach the reader's consciousness in ways that most writing did not, Stein plumbed areas of communication that are as often non-verbal as linguistic. Her incorporation of humor, sound, sex, and bawdiness, and unpredictable locutions and structures--always executed with the heightened consciousness of the observed performer--made her a pioneer of postmodernism as well as a central figure of modernism. Representative of the work being done by twentieth-century women artists, writers, and readers, Stein's writing gave readers an intimate sense of a woman's life and concerns. In a period when writers prided themselves on being able to shape language to new kinds of expressions, Gertrude Stein moved back into the most traditional relationship between writer and word: letting language find its own patterns, to express whatever meaning the reader might favor, viewing written art as a system of true and mutable communication.

Stein's papers are at the Beinecke Library, American Literature Collection, Yale University; the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

from The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.


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