Gertude Stein: Experimental American Poet of the Twentieth Century
by Elizabeth Fifer
ertrude Stein was a leading avant-garde American writer of the first half of the twentieth century. Although intimately connected to American history and culture, she lived as an expatriate in France most of her adult life, where she famously hosted one of the most important and influential literary and artistic salons of the post World War I era. Friends with such major figures as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among many others, she played a central role in the discussions that shaped the seminal theories of modernism in literature and the visual arts.
Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She spent part of her childhood in Europe. The family later settled in Oakland, California, where Stein grew up. She graduated from Radcliffe College with a B.A. in 1898 and studied medicine at Johns Hopkins, although she did not receive a degree. Instead, she moved to Paris with her brother Leo in 1903 and opened a salon where artists and writers of the day mingled freely. She met her lifetime partner, Alice B. Toklas, in 1909. During this period she was writing the fiction that would later become Three Lives (1909), considered her masterpiece, and The Making of Americans (1909-11). She was deeply influenced by the paintings of Picasso and Matisse, and sought, in her writing, to mirror their avant-garde depiction of a fragmented world. This became known as "cubist writing," although she was not attempting to create an exact equivalence between words and colors.
Her writing occurred as spontaneous prose. She would write for two hours without stopping in the morning and have Toklas type her manuscript later. Repetition was an important early technique, as was free association (seen in Tender Buttons: Objects, Foods, Rooms, 1914). Although readers often could not grasp her meaning because they were daunted by her opaque style, lack of public acceptance did not deter her from continuing her wordplay and her stream of consciousness narration. She achieved some fame with her early works but not until The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) did she gain a popular following. In this book Stein spoke in Toklas' voice, recounting the years of their salon, hosting writer friends like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as musicians and painters. Stein participated actively in World War I, driving an ambulance in France. Soldiers she met in both wars became friends she depicted vividly in Wars I Have Seen and Brewsie and Willie (1947). Stein died in 1947.
Her productive career had many phases. In the first phase, beginning in 1903, she established her pioneering style of repetition and spontaneous prose. The composition of the autobiographical QED, published posthumously, and Three Lives, preoccupied her. Here the two strains of Stein's life appear clearly--the "private" or forbidden writings like QED, (Quod Erat Demonstrandum), that catalogued an early love affair with May Bookstaver in coded language and was not published until 1950, and the "public," more accessible writing that conveyed ideas about the larger world. In Three Lives Stein tries her hand at the portrait, sketching three women whose lives sharply contrast, "The Good Anna," "Melanctha," and "Gentle Lena." Of the three, "Melanctha" is the most discussed because of its subject, an African American woman. Stein had experience in the African American community, attending births while in medical school. But this portrait, like the others, relied more on Stein's sense of Impressionist and Post Impressionist aesthetics, not on realism. In the style of her writing she tried to reflect the work of the painters she loved. "The Good Anna" was based on the structure of Cezanne's landscapes, "Melanctha" used repetition and the idea of sexual freedom she associated with Picasso, and "Gentle Lena" recalled Matisse's portraits in its vivid psychology of a woman.
Although a "cult classic" often read aloud by devoted admirers, The Making of Americans seems nonsensical to the average reader because of its widespread use of repetition. Stein needed to take this technique to the furthest extent possible. She had wanted to write a family saga of three generations loosely based on the bildungsroman. The result was a long and circular text that has baffled critics. Nevertheless she considered it one of her great works that never received the acceptance it deserved.
In Tender Buttons (1914) she established her non-sequitur style and playful use of language that would characterize her writing from that time on. Avant-garde but accessible, the work is meant to reflect a continuous present composed of moments of consciousness that would appear without reference to time or memory. She divides the text into three sections: "Objects, "Food," and "Rooms," and uses free association to create lists and juxtapositions that startle and engage the reader by their originality. Repetition plays a role, but does not dominate. This work is reminiscent of cubist art but also reflects the spontaneity the surrealists tried to inject into their compositions by pulling words at random out of a hat. Since it was written this work has been admired for its musicality and has inspired many different settings.
Virgil Thomson, a close friend, composed the music for two of her three operas, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1946), and Al Carmines composed the music for In Circles (1968), all artistic and popular successes. She toured America giving lectures in the wake of the publication of her widely read Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But despite these successes, much of her work was so private that it was not published until after her death, in The Yale Series of the Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein (1951-58). Richard Bridgman's Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970) stimulated interest again in her work, and afterward many important critical studies appeared by Linda Simon, Catharine Stimpson, Cynthia Secor, Marianne DeKoven, Lisa Ruddick, Harriet Chessman, and many others. Interest in her as a transgressive and avant-garde writer continues to this day.
Studying an important text like The Mother of Us All, completed a year before her death, reveals many techniques she explored throughout her writings. Although ostensibly about the feminist reformer Susan B. Anthony, champion of women's suffrage, it also contains a self-assessment of Stein's own life and career. When Stein's identity as an artist is transposed onto the figure of Susan B. Anthony, aesthetic considerations become social and political. Stein's literary revolution parallels Anthony's social revolution: "I do want what we have got, has it not gone, what made it live" (Last Operas and Plays 87). Stein details her own family history, confronting both her father and her brother Leo.
The "boresome" pontificating fathers of the play mirror Stein's past, especially "the bearded" Daniel Webster, recalling her father in name and appearance. The play's brothers, especially Indiana Elliot, who doubles as "Herman," one of her nicknames for herself, inevitably disapprove of Stein's homosexual marriage. Men in the play have many faults--including conservatism, ugliness, selfishness, and gullibility. They fight Anthony and each other, fearful of losing their own power. Heterosexual reproduction is "rather horrible" (85); Anthony makes her decision not to marry to devote herself to the women's rights agenda. Her companion Anne, like Alice B. Toklas, considers herself married to Anthony, "to what you have been" (75).
Anthony fears that women will become like men when they get their rights. Yet she still welcomes the new generation who will carry on her struggle. Stein's concern with role-playing and gender politics finds its expression in her treatment of the power of names and naming. Will Anthony choose to preserve her own name, like Indiana does, or take Jo's? May the couple be like the "delicious and troubling" Henrietta M., "a woman without a last name?"(67). History has kept Anthony's name alive and at the end of the play everyone admires a statue of her.
Naming means identity. To establish himself, Jo the Loiterer must claim a wife. John Adams cannot court the woman he loves because he must protect his family name. He would have kneeled at Constance Fletcher's feet and kissed her hand. Instead, he apologizes to her, saying "you would have ruined my father if I had had one" (62). Father Daniel (in the guise of Daniel Webster) appears often in the play, even in the role of God the Father, who created a garden but expelled Eve (played by Indiana) because she laid claim to a tree there. From that time on, women "darn and wash and patch" (55). Anthony declares her freedom from these norms, "I am not a martyr anymore" (55).
Daniel Webster, Anthony's chief antagonist, is the representative of masculine power and the structures of rationality and law that flow from it. Anthony fears he will "overthrow her undertaking" (58). She is interested in the inner as well as the public life of women but Webster is only aware of the institutions of which he is "an honorable member" (58). Even if she fails in her lifetime, she warns him that "they will come again" (58) to continue her fight.
In Two: Gertrude Stein and Her Brother, a very early work, written in 1910-1913, although not published until after her death, she also takes up the question of identity, hers and her brother Leo's, who she lived with when she first came to Paris: "The two were he and she. / She was one. He was one. There were two. / There were he and she " (100). The description of their relationship reflects the pattern of confusion, backsliding, re-alliance, and further splintering. After their split, Leo tried to win back his sister's sympathy, but she uses words in this text to duplicate and mirror each other until they cancel each other out. Word splitting and recombination help the "she" to establish a separate selfhood free from the "he" who tries to dominate her. Leo ridiculed her writing and refused to read it. Later Stein wrote in Everyone's Autobiography (1937, 77) that "it destroyed him for me and destroyed me for him." Leo was intolerant of his sister's aspirations, as he writes in his autobiography," it's almost impossible to believe that she believes the stuff she wrote and equally difficult to believe that she is lying" (Leo Stein, 1950, 149).
Her early dependence on him is a frequent theme--"I had always been following" (Two, 75-76). She has to find her own words, because a man's words force her into the masculine world, inundating her. Leo is rational, "estimating" and "concluding," "leading" (98). Her language would be a rejection of his logical approach. She willfully creates an art that has a "slipping sound sounding" (106). That slippery sound, non linear and cut loose from its textual mooring, unmakes Leo for her as she distances herself from him with words that complete her separation. Repetition assures her a safe break from him into an area where he cannot follow.
She had to represent both Leo and herself because she was now the "whole and the half" (134). Before, he had controlled "the half" and "the whole," "the complete way" (122). He "had not the sound" to communicate with her in her new language (116). He was also becoming deaf at this point in his life (EA 72-73). His frustration was so acute he "hoped they would stay away" (Two 110)--his rupture was with both Stein and Toklas. His refusal to listen to her writing parallels his physical disability, "he was not interested in all that there was to hear" (113). After their separation was final "he intended to remain away"(114). She had another union, her marriage with Alice B. Toklas--"she had learned to feel to be the whole of that…married…there was a union" (124-25). The state of homosexual marriage is the central subject and yet unmentioned in Two. Her love for her brother must be transmuted into this new love, not a copy of the past but a redefinition of the present self. "Staying away from home meant everything" she asserts (108). He does not fit into the new design she has made for her life.
Stein's plays often operate in an area of suggestion and denial. Her language is coded, studded with "inappropriate" intrusions that suddenly appear--seemingly beyond the author's volition. These intrusions reveal inner equivocations and unresolved conflicts. She fears the reader might disapprove or even punish her for her thoughts or the life she leads. In Operas and Plays (1932) she asks "Can you be rowdier?" ("Saints and Singing," 74). Later in the play she will "pronounce myself as aroused" (81). Stein's writing often assumes a bantering tone, yet she writes movingly of the anguish of being misunderstood. In "A Sweet Tail" she asks for an active reader who will search for meaning, "gracious oh my cold under fur, under no rescued reading" (Geography and Plays, 67).
Her text can manipulate and overlay her argument with nonsensical and distracting effects:
Come in cubicle stern old wet places. Come in by the long excuse of more in
place of …to cut a whole condition…all that can see the pen of pigs wide.
All this man is a make of chins which is to be tall and most many women,
in the directory that shows why the state which is absolutely with….
plastering received with boast. All this in bedding ("Old and Old," OP 229-
The passage reveals an anomalous free-floating sexuality, with its reference to "wet places," "pen of pig," "plastering." She references orifices, the pen that writes about forbidden lesbianism, the boasting refusal to feel ashamed. She twists her language and reshapes it, altering syntax.
Stein still insists that she writes "a work of pure imagination in which no reminiscences intrude" ("Paiseu," LO&P). She mentions the instincts, important in automatic or spontaneous writing. Once instinct is evoked, then sexual ideas may intrude more easily. That word, when repeated, unleashes erotic phrases that come out randomly.
"When the instinct that has lead to the spread of rubbing has been shed then we will invite each one to sign himself yours sincerely Herman G. Read ("Objects Lie on a Table" (OP 107).
Stein, as "her man," the man in her relationship with Toklas, identifies herself with the opposite gender through punning, an invitation to read the text as written by her male persona.
Her experimentation with repetition may be the most important legacy she leaves. Her interest in mirroring and doubling allows her to investigate language by the unit of the syllable in addition to the word. A restricted vocabulary allows security. Slowly she builds an authentic voice: "Repetition…stability…precaution…accentuation…attraction" ("Capital Capitals," OP 69). By disrupting syntax, repetition also forces the reader to be responsible for content:"If you can repeat it and somebody chose it, somebody shows it, somebody knows it. If you can repeat and somebody knows it" ("A List," OP 103).
Meanwhile Stein's challenge to conventional syntax and diction may be the single most alienating feature of her experimental style. Her repetition, punning, and double meanings invite interpretation while her more disordered passages that omit or ignore essential components of language make her style opaque and untranslatable. Her language contains many different kinds of "errors"--phonetic, semantic, phonemic, syntactic, pragmatic, grammatical but nonsensical, and ungrammatical and unreadable. Stein can write elegant prose that leads into gibberish with inexplicably random vocabulary: "The least license is in the eyes which make strange the less sighed hole which is nodded and leaves the bent tender" ("A Sweet Tail" GP 67). Although the syntax is fairly clear word choices make meaning fuzzy. The significant "wrong words" (license, strange, sighed, hole, nodded, bent, and tender) form a composite emotional and physical image of marriage. Of the two levels of this sentence, grammatical and meaningless, the meaningless part provides a vehicle for interpretation while the grammatical part of the line is bland, without meaning.
At times Stein's humor breaks through, opening her language to recognition and communication. She may address the reader in a frank and playful way. In this section from "Civilization: A Play in Three Acts" she offers information about her life, its irregularity reflected in the style:
With which they will relish.
That he is more than leave it. As a pleasure.
It is a wife who has joined with a mother
and they need not be neat because or gather that they will add
Or would she.
Be fond of leaving.
The entrance as a door. (OP 50-51)
The passage opposes civilization and desire, what "they relish." If he is more than he seems, "leave it," the censor says. A wife has joined with a mother, with men absent. Are we entering a "door" that opens only in the dark?
Often the plays are in name only. Stein's intrusions and intermingling of the inner and the public life cast doubt on the whole idea of genre. In "Photograph" she interweaves the language of photography and drama.
Photographs are small.
They reproduce well.
I enlarge better.
Don't say that practically.
And so we resist.
So that the house chosen has a soft wall.
Oh come for just one minute
Two a twin. –Step in.
Two twins have two doors.
They do come together but some come
more frequently than others.
I can sigh to play.
I can sigh for a play.
A play means more. (LO&P, 152-54)
The passage is welcoming, with the social comings and goings of the Stein ménage. This also serves as a metaphor for the marriage, the hidden realm of domesticity. She explores what the couple is like, "twins" in an erotic duality, in which she can "sigh for" and "cipher" the meaning of the play on the stage and in the mind.
Apart from their inscrutability, the most notable aspect of these texts is their saturation in the fantasies, hopes, fears, vanities, loyalties, and hallucinations that dominate her inner life. Aided by revelatory slips of the tongue Stein crosses the boundaries of the ungrammatical, the inessential, and even the unspeakable. The texts provide a phonetic and semantic wilderness whose map the writer will change and revise, plotting strategies of flight and defense. Employing circumlocution and free association, repetition, redundancy, abbreviations, and ambiguity, she shows the arsenal of techniques possible for an artist who had to reinvent her language to suit her public and private selves.
Stein's radically different writing and her non-traditional life influenced contemporary writers in several ways. Her poetry, plays and prose introduced a freedom of expression that writers continue to explore. Her importance was not recognized in her own time, but since her death she has gained recognition and acceptance. Writers like Ernest Hemingway imitated her repetitive style. Her inventive language and syntax continue to perplex readers, stretching the envelope of what is acceptable as literature and challenging them to understand a language both strange and beautiful.
Stein, Gertrude. Everybody's Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1937
____________ . Geography and Plays. 1922. NewYork: Something Else Press, 1968
____________ . Last Operas and Plays. ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Rinehart, 1949.
____________. Operas and Plays. Paris: Plain Editions, 1932.
____________. Portraits and Prayers. New York: The Modern Library, 1934.
____________. Yale Series of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. ed. Carl Van Vechten. 7 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951-58.
Stein, Leo. Journey into the Self. ed. Edmund Fuller. New York: Crown Publishers, 1950.
A Very Valentine
Very fine is my valentine.
Very fine and very mine.
Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.
Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and
mine is my valentine.
from Bundles for Them
If you hear her snore
It is not before you love her
You love her so that to be her beau is very lovely
She is sweetly there and her curly hair is very lovely
She is sweetly here and I am very near and that is very
She is my tender sweet and her little feet are stretched out
well which is a treat and very lovely.
Her little tender nose is between her little eyes which close
and are very lovely.
She is very lovely and mine which is very lovely. (Portraits and Prayers 152, 155)
from "Bernard Fay"
Partly a the
An article in a and an and the.
Thank you for all three.
The making of never stop. Or the making of stop or stopped.
The own owned own owner.
This is a sentence. Or either. (Portraits and Prayers, 45)