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Gertrude Stein

(1874—1946) American writer


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(1874–1946)

US writer, who from 1903 lived in Paris, where she became a focus for the American expatriate literary community.

Born in Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein graduated from Radcliffe College in 1897 where, under the influence of William James (1842–1910), she developed an interest in psychology. She spent several years at Johns Hopkins medical school studying the anatomy of the brain, but eventually grew bored with her studies and, in 1902, decided to follow her brother Leo to Europe. By 1903 she had settled in Paris where she was shortly joined by Alice B. Toklas, who remained her companion for the rest of her life. Apart from lecture tours – to Britain in the 1920s and to America in 1934 – she lived in France until her death. During World War II she withdrew from Paris to the country, where she lived with blithe unconcern at the risk to herself and to others who protected her from the Gestapo. At her Paris flat she presided as a kind of cult figure for the young, especially such young American writers as Ernest Hemingway, whose prose style she influenced. An undeniable talent for self-promotion assured that her image – cropped hair and baggy shapeless clothes – was immediately recognizable everywhere; indeed, this has remained familiar, while her difficult and often tedious writings have never been widely read.

With her brother Leo, who had profited from an acquaintance with Bernard Berenson, Stein very early started buying the paintings of Matisse, Braque, and Picasso before they were generally known, and she liked to take credit for the later growth of cubism. This claim was vehemently contested by most of the artists involved, one of whom noted that her knowledge of French was so poor that she could not have had the slightest inkling of what their concerns were. In any case she amassed a good collection of their pictures and did much to promote modern art.

Most of Stein's writing is experimental, an attempt to create a continual present by means of repetitions with slight variations and by other techniques. Her books include Three Lives (1909), relatively straightforward stories, Tender Buttons (1914), poetry concerned with rendering objects, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which is in fact her own autobiography, the libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), an opera by Virgil Thomson, Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein (1938), and Lectures in America (1935), on her theory of composition and the influence on it of William James and Bergson.

Subjects: literature.


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