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Gertrude Stein was a writer, playwright, and poet from the United States who became deeply connected to the avant-garde scene in Paris. She also collected art and helped launched the careers of several painters and writers, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Her most famous work was written from the perspective of her lover titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein famously said, “There is no there, there,” about her hometown of Oakland, California.[1]

Early Life and Family

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, to parents Daniel Stein and Amelia Keyser.

Gertrude Stein’s famous quote, “There’s no there there,” refers to her childhood home city of Oakland, California.

Both came from Jewish-German heritage and Daniel Stein immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria in 1841. Gertrude Stein was the last of five children with an older sister and three older brothers. The Steins raised their children in Jewish culture, but did not practice the religion.

When Gertrude Stein was a baby, the family relocated to Europe. They first lived in Austria and then France. The Stein family returned to the U.S. in 1879 and spent a year in Baltimore with Amelia Stein’s family. They settled in Oakland, California, in 1880. Gertrude read the likes of William Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and Henry Fielding to beat boredom.

Stein’s mother died in 1888 and her father died a few years later in 1891. Michael, the eldest son, took over care for his four younger siblings and moved them to San Francisco. Stein joined Leo, her other brother, and Bertha, her sister, when the moved again in 1892 to live with an aunt in Baltimore, Maryland. Leo and Gertrude were very close growing up and she followed him to Harvard University when he enrolled.[2]

Education and Depression

Gertrude Stein enrolled at Harvard Annex, or Radcliffe College by the time she graduated, since women were not allowed to enroll at Harvard University.[3] She graduated in 1897 after studying under Hugo Munsterberg, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, and William James. The last being extremely influential on her academic and later career.

Stein worked in the psychology lab of William James. She performed experiments with automatic writing that later formed her first published work entitled “Normal Motor Automatism,” which appeared in an 1896 copy of Psychology Review. Stein enrolled at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1897 upon James’s suggestion, but she grew bored and her grades dropped for the first time.

Throughout adolescence Stein suffered from overwhelming emotions and depression. Her dislike of medical school and falling in love with a woman who did not love her back exacerbated these feelings. She wrote her first long fiction piece during this time entitled Things As They Are, not published until after her death.[4]

Rebirth in Europe

Gertrude Stein decided to leave medical school and follow her brother Leo when he moved to Europe in 1902.[5] They lived in London, England before settling in Paris, France in the beginning of 1903. “Paris was the place,” according to Stein. She immediately immersed herself in the avant-garde community and started collecting modern art with the help of her oldest brother Michael, who also lived in the city.[6]

Stein met Alice Toklas in 1907 through Michael. Toklas became Stein’s typist, reader, and critic.[7] Stein was now 29 years old and fully committed to her writing. She published her first book, a collection of short stories called Three Lives, in 1909. This featured a short story about a young black woman and has been credited as “one of the earliest and most sensitive treatments of Negro experience.”[8]

27 Rue De Fleurs

Gertrude Stein lived with her brother Leo at 27 Rue De Fleurs starting in 1903.

Gertrude Stein’s residence in Paris, France, 27 Rue de Fleurs became a cultural hotspot for the avant-garde community in France, bringing together many remarkable artists of the time.

They hosted Saturday salons where famous artists would muse about life, love, and art. Toklas moved into the house with Stein in 1910 and Leo left a few years later. Stein produced her famous word portraits of Picasso and Matisse in the house in 1912.

Stein and Toklas welcomed the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Virgil Thomson, Mabel Dodge, Sylvia Beach, Paul Bowles, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Van Vechten, Natalie Barney, Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, and many other writers and avant-garde artists.[9] The couple went to Mallorca, Spain to avoid World War I and returned to Paris in 1916. They both volunteered with the American Fund for French Wounded. Stein learned how to drive and the pair delivered medical supplies to hospitals in southern France.

The salon at 27 Rue de Fleurs prospered in the 1920s filled with young expatriates from the U.S. that Stein referred to as the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway. Toklas grew jealous of Hemingway and banned him from the house. He still used Stein’s words in the epigraph of The Sun Also Rises, his first novel.[10]

Further Books and Poems by Gertrude Stein

The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress exemplifies Gertrude Stein’s experimental style to her writing. She used what she referred to as “a continuous present” in 900 pages with no dialogue or action. She wrote it between 1906 and 1908, but it was not published until 1925. In Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, Gertrude Stein also uses the unique technique with no narration, logic, or conventional grammar in the abstract prose and poems.

One of Stein’s most famous books, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was her only best seller. Stein wrote the novel from her lover’s perspective about her own personal life using her own witty and gossipy voice. Gertrude Stein wrote more than just books and poems, she also wrote several plays, including Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera about Saint Theresa of Avila, and The Mother of Us All, about the life of Susan B. Anthony.[11]

Later Life and Death

Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein lived through World War II in France. Their friends in the U.S. begged them to escape for their safety, but Toklas and Stein only made it to Bilignin, France. The two Jewish women waited for the war to end and may have received protection from some of their government-connected French friends.[12] Stein continued to write despite the great threat to their lives. She published What Are Masterpieces and Paris, France in 1940 and Ida, A Novel in 1941.[13]

Stein recorded the stories of soldiers she met in one of her last books, Brewsie and Willie.[14] Doctors diagnosed Stein with stomach cancer soon after the war ended. She suffered stomach issues through most of her life. Gertrude Stein died in Neuilly-sur-Seine on July 27, 1946, in the American Hospital. She is buried in Paris’s Père-Lachaise Cemetery.[15] Stein left 27 Rue de Fleurs to Toklas. Her extensive manuscripts were published over the next 15 years by Yale University Press.[16]

References

Bibliography

Poetry Foundation. (2017). Gertrude Stein 1874–1946. Poetry Foundation.[1]

Simon, L. (1998). Gertrude Stein. Jewish Women’s Archive.[2]

Wagner-Martin, L. (1995). Stein’s Life and Career. The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.[3]

Footnotes

  1. Simon, 1998
  2. Simon, 1998
  3. Poetry Foundation, 2017
  4. Simon, 1998
  5. Simon, 1998
  6. Poetry Foundation, 2017
  7. Wagner-Martin, 1995
  8. Poetry Foundation, 2017
  9. Wagner-Martin, 1995
  10. Simon, 1998
  11. Simon, 1998
  12. Simon, 1998
  13. Wagner-Martin, 1995
  14. Wagner-Martin, 1995
  15. Simon, 1998
  16. Wagner-Martin, 1995

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