Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American author, poet, and art collector. She’s considered one of the most significant writers of the early twentieth century. Though some consider her writing incoherent or absurd, others view it as a singular voice.

Born into a well-to-do family Jewish family in Pennsylvania, Stein went to college at Radcliffe and then studied medicine for four years at Johns Hopkins University.

Stein lived most of her adult life in Paris, where she moved in 1903. She and her brother Leo Stein amassed an important art collection; the two lived together in Paris for some years, but after she met her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, a rift grew between the sibling. Leo resented Toklas and called her “a kind of abnormal vampire.” 

“The Lost Generation”

Stein met Alice B. Toklas on September 8, 1907, the day after the latte arrived in Paris from her native San Francisco. Their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus became an intellectual hub. It served as a salon, where Stein famously championed notable artists before and after they became famous, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Juan Gris.

She coined the term “The Lost Generation” to describe the expatriate writers of the 1920s, notably, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Other writers who frequented rue de Fleurus included Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, and James Joyce. Stein, formidable as she was, served as a nurturing, encouraging figure.

Her relationship with Hemingway was complicated. He helped her type one of her most important works, The Making of Americans, which was finally published in 1925 after having been written some twenty years earlier. On the other hand, in his posthumous memoir of his Paris years, Hemingway maligns her and her relationship with Toklas.

From most accounts, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were a most devoted couple. Toklas was a legendary cook, and played the wifely role as Stein held court with the writers and artists who frequented their salon. The two remained together until Stein’s death, after which Toklas took upon herself the role of widow, doing what she could to preserve her life partner’s legacy.

gertrude stein and alice b. toklas

You might also like: Gertrude Stein Quotes to Perplex and Delight

Experiments in poetry and prose

Her poems were unlike any others — each almost like a piece of abstract art to experience throughout the senses. Stein’s most popular work was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is written as though through Alice’s point of view. Aside from poetry and novels, Stein also wrote plays, operas, and gave many lectures.

Her experiments in prose, which may have originated with automatic writings, were highly influential. According to The Penguin Companion to American Literature:

These experiments may be seen in various stages of development in Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1914), and Geography and Plays (1922). These books gave her a reputations for extreme unintelligibility, and she became in the eyes of many the leader of the avant garde in American writing. 

Her syntactical manipulations perhaps blinded her first readers to the homespun quality of her feelings about place and country — she was the only modernist who was always ‘patriotic’…

The really radical departure in her stylistic experimentation was her attempt to develop a ‘cubist’ literature, a prose independent of meaningful associations, relying merely on sound-orchestration. 

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Stein and Toklas

The Making of Americans and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925) is her most weighty work, It this 900-plus-page modernist novel she presents a history of American life in excruciating detail through the accounts of the fictional Hersland and Dehning family. She disrupts the novelistic space with meditations on the process of writing.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which was written by Stein and not Toklas, was less experimental and in fact helped Stein gain a wider readership. Once again, from The Penguin Guide to American Literature:

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, combined with her lecture tour of America in 1934 — out of which came her Lectures in America (1935) — and her ‘mothering’ of American G.I.s during World War II, brought her into public prominence. Her writing took a turn for the lucid, and her naïve posture — which many had thought drollery — combined with a new lucidity, made her a lost leader in the eyes of … aesthetic intellectuals. 

Last years

She either thought quite highly of herself and her genius, or else was pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes — with the formidable Gertrude Stein, it was often hard to tell. She wrote, ostensibly writing of herself, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”

Gertrude Stein seemed to enjoy life more than ever in her last hears. Her only children’s book, The World is Round (1939) is a play off of her most famous poetic lines, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Also among her last works were Paris France (1940); Picasso (1939), in which her lifelong appreciation of art is crystallized; and Wars I Have Seen (1945). For those just getting acquainted with her work, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein edited by Carl Van Vechten (1946, 1962) is a good place to start.

Stein died in Paris on July 27, 1946 at the age of 72 from complications from stomach cancer surgery after surgery. She is buried in Paris, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

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