Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 - July 29, 1946) was an American writer, poet, feminist, playwright, and catalyst in the development of modern art and literature, who spent most of her life in France.

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now the North Side of Pittsburgh), her family moved to Vienna and then Paris when she was three. After returning almost two years later, she was educated in California, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1897 followed by two years at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1906
In 1902 she moved to France during the height of artistic creativity gathering in Montparnasse. From 1903 to 1912 she lived in Paris with her brother Leo, who became an accomplished art critic. Gertrude Stein was a lesbian. She met her life-long companion Alice B. Toklas in 1907; Alice moved in with Leo and Gertrude in 1909. During her whole life, Gertrude Stein was supported by a stipend from her family's business.

In Paris she started to write in earnest: novels, plays, stories, librettos and poems. Increasingly, she developed her own highly idiosyncratic, playful, sometimes repetitive and sometimes humorous style. Typical quotes are

"Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"
and
"Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle."
as well as
"The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable."
These stream-of-consciousness experiments, rhythmical word-paintings, were designed to evoke "the excitingness of pure being" and can be seen as an answer to Cubism in literature. They were loved by the avant-garde, but mainstream success initially remained elusive.

She and her brother compiled one of the first collections of Cubist art. She owned early works of Pablo Picasso (who became a friend and painted her portrait), Henri Matisse, Andre Derain plus other young painters.

When England declared war on Germany in World War I, Stein and Toklas were visiting with Alfred North Whitehead in England. They returned to France and volunteered to drive supplies to French hospitals; they were later honored by the French government for this work.

By the 1920s her salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, with walls covered by avant-garde paintings, attracted many of the great artists and writers including Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson and Georges Braque. She coined the term "Lost Generation" for some of these ex-patriate American writers. Extremely charming, eloquent, cheerful and overweight, indeed cheerfully overweight, she had a large circle of friends and tirelessly promoted herself. Her judgements in literature and art were highly influential.

Gertrude Stein, 1934
In 1932, using an accessible style to accommodate the ordinary reading public, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; the book would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was really her own autobiography. She described herself as extremely confident, one might even say arrogant, always convinced that she was a genius. She was disdainful of mundane tasks and Alice Toklas managed everyday affairs. The style of the autobiography was quite similar to that of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which was actually written by Alice and contains several unusual recipes such as one for Hashish Fudge (also called Alice B. Toklas brownies).

Gertrude Stein wrote in long hand, typically about half an hour per day. Alice B. Toklas would collect the pages, type them up and deal with the publishing. Indeed, Toklas founded the publisher "Plain Editions" to distribute Stein's work. Today, most manuscripts are kept in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

In the manuscript for Stanzas in Meditation, written in 1932, every word "may" and "May" is crossed out and replaced by "can" respectively "day" or "today". This change had been forced by Toklas out of jealousy after having read Stein's early and unpublished short novel Q.E.D. which recounts a love affair between Stein and a woman called May Bookstaver.

Politically, Gertrude Stein was deeply conservative; she regarded the jobless as lazy, opposed Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal and supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. She would later start a project of translating speeches by Vichy regime leader Pétain into English.

With the outbreak of World War II, Stein and Toklas moved to a rented country home in Bilignin, Ain, in the Rhône-Alpes region. Referred to only as "Americans" by their neighbors, the Jewish Gertrude and Alice escaped persecution probably because of their friendship to Bernard Faÿ, a gay collaborator with the Vichy regime with connections to the Gestapo. When Bernard Faÿ was sentenced to hard labor for life after the war, Gertrude and Alice campaigned for his release. Several years later, Alice would contribute money to Faÿ's escape from prison.

After the war, Gertrude's status in Paris grew when she was visited by many young American soldiers. She died of stomach cancer in Paris on July 29, 1946 and was interred there in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Several of Stein's writings have been set by composers, including Virgil Thompson's operas Four Saints in Three Acts, The Mother of Us All, and James Tenney's skillful if short setting of Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose as a canon, beginning with "a" on an upbeat and continuing so that each repition shuffles the words, eg. "a/rose is a rose/is a rose is/a rose is a/rose".

Selected Works, ordered by publication date:

  • Three Lives (1909)
  • Tender buttons: objects, food, rooms (1914) online version
  • Geography and Plays (1922)
  • The Making of Americans (written 1906-1908, published 1925)
  • Four Saints in Three Acts (libretto, 1929: music by Virgil Thomson, 1934)
  • Useful Knowledge (1929)
  • How to Write (1931)
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
  • Lectures in America (1935)
  • The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (1936)
  • Everybody's Autobiography (1937)
  • Picasso (1938)
  • Ida; a novel (1941)
  • Wars I Have Seen (1945)
  • Reflections on the Atom Bomb (1946) online version
  • The Mother of Us All (libretto, published 1949: music by Virgil Thompson 1947)
  • Last Operas and Plays (1949)
  • The Things as They Are (written as Q.E.D. in 1903, published 1950)
  • Patriarchal Poetry (1953)
  • Alphabets and Birthdays (1957)

External links

Further reading

  • Janet Malcom: Gertrude Stein's War, The New Yorker, June 2, 2003, p. 58-81

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