In This Article Gertrude Stein

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Alice B. Toklas

American Literature Gertrude Stein
by
Kirk Curnutt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0005

Introduction

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to Daniel Stein and Amelia (“Milly”) Keyser. Orphaned by the age of eighteen, she attended Harvard Annex (renamed Radcliffe College in 1894), studying philosophy with William James, before enrolling in the Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1903 she left the United States to join her older brother Leo (1872–1947) in Paris. At the soon-to-be-famous address of 27 rue de Fleurus, she immersed herself in the groundbreaking art of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In 1906 she met her eventual “wife,” Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967), and completed her first major work, Three Lives (1909). Over the next two decades, she produced a steady stream of sui generis experiments, including The Making of Americans (written c. 1906–1911 but not published until 1925), Tender Buttons (1914), and Geography and Plays (1922). While supporters such as Mabel Dodge, Carl Van Vechten, and Sherwood Anderson touted Stein as accomplishing in prose what Picasso had in Cubist painting—fracturing perspective and reimagining dimension—the popular press found her a risible symbol of avant-garde self-indulgence and embarked on a decades-long tradition of mocking her as “the Mother Goose of Montparnasse.” Nevertheless, aspiring writers in Paris sought her audience. The most famous of these “students” was Ernest Hemingway, whose style owes Stein’s an immense debt in its use of rhythm and repetition. Stein would not achieve a readership comparable to her former pupil’s until 1933, when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became a surprise bestseller. It proved so popular that Stein returned to the United States in 1934–1935 for a lecture tour, a trip recounted in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937). When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, she and Toklas elected not to flee, a decision that inspired her account of life in occupation, Wars I Have Seen (1945). In 1946 Stein fell ill from cancer and died at age seventy-two. Toklas lived until 1967, during which time she produced her own memoir, What Is Remembered (1963). Although Stein was posthumously remembered as the mater of expatriate Modernism, interest in her work did not really take off until the 1980s, thanks in a large part of the popularity of feminist and poststructuralist criticism. Today, scholarship on the full breadth of her writing thrives, and she is truly recognized as an artist in her own right.

General Overviews

Perhaps because the variety of Stein’s work is wide, critical overviews are relatively rare; instead, scholars tend to focus on a particular period of her life or a literary genre whose conventions she challenged. Hoffman 1976, part of Twayne Publishers’ now discontinued American Authors series, is an exception. Among the handful of synoptic surveys, Bridgman 1971 remains the most useful for providing basic explications, followed closely by Brinnin 1987. Bowers 1993 and Hoffman 1961 are hampered by brevity, while Sutherland 1951 is aimed at specialists. DeKoven 1983 is slightly more accessible, while Leick 2009 addresses reception more than explication.

  • Bowers, Jane Palatini. Gertrude Stein. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

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    An entry in Eva Figes and Adele King’s Women Writers series, this 174-page overview introduces principal Stein techniques: repetition, digression, linguistic play, and genre revision. Useful explications for beginners; hampered only by its size, which causes the focus to fall on Three Lives, The Making of Americans, and Tender Buttons.

  • Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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    The best starting point for a basic overview of Stein’s themes and stylistic development—with one glaring exception: despite discussion of the sexual content, Bridgman only obliquely touches on Stein’s lesbianism, perhaps in deference to “her own reluctance to speak directly of certain subjects.” Accordingly, Alice B. Toklas is described as a “factotum.”

  • Brinnin, John Malcolm. The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

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    Originally published by Little, Brown in 1959. Before Mellow 1974 (under Biographies), Brinnin’s was the standard biography. Since then it has functioned primarily as a reminder of how Stein was read before feminism and poststructuralism. Brinnin defines Stein’s method largely by analogy: Three Lives is her attempt at expanding Flaubertian realism, Tender Buttons her version of Cubism, and so on.

  • DeKoven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

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    Surveys Stein’s literary development mostly through Tender Buttons, though a final chapter discusses Four Saints in Three Acts. Approaches Stein’s techniques through various linguistic resonances (“Insistence,” “Lively Words,” “Melody”).

  • Hoffman, Frederick J. Gertrude Stein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961.

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    A short explication of methodology that somewhat abstractly posits that Stein “was engaged in an analysis of the mind in its precise function of apprehending and experiencing objects.” Insists that Stein’s intellectual debt to William James is her defining characteristic.

  • Hoffman, Michael J. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

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    As close to a concise introduction as is available today—although, as befits its era, still evasive on the issue of sexual orientation. The book begins as a chronological overview, but after a discussion of Tender Buttons switches gears to assess Stein by genre (operas and plays, novels, and literary criticism and autobiography).

  • Leick, Karen. Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    Explores Stein’s public notoriety up through 1935, focusing on how Stein depicted “the popular” in her work and how popular culture, in turn, depicted her. Argues that Modernist culture and mainstream culture are more interrelated than autonomous.

  • Sutherland, Donald J. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951.

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    Explores the psychology of Steinian techniques with a sometimes abstract formalist approach: “With some reservations it can be said that the plays . . . are ballets of concepts and perceptions, as one might say Pope’s Essay on Man is a minuet of adages or that Swinburne is the Offenbach of sentimental ideation.”

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