Gertrude Stein

Kirk Curnutt

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Gertrude Stein


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.

Article.  16917 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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