Gertrude Stein

Biographical Information
Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein from their literary archive at Beinecke Library
Name

Gertrude Stein

Birth

February 3, 1874, Allegheny, Pennsylvania

Death

July 27, 1946, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

Country of Origin/Citizenship

United States/American

Kind of Artist/Cultural Worker

writer, poet, art collector

Avant-Garde Movements Associated With

Cubism, Modernism, Feminism

Date & Places of Overlap with Loy

Paris: 1910 - 1938, 27 rue de Fleurus

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein is one of the most prominent figures in American literature. She developed a taste for European culture at the age of three when her family moved to Vienna and Paris for a year, and spent her adult life living in Paris (Sprigge). From 1893 to 1897, Stein participated in psychological research at Radcliffe College studying under William James. Stein’s work reflects the “steam of consciousness” technique he theorized  and taught (Greenfield). Having studied art and medicine in America, in 1902 Stein accompanied her brother, Leo, to London and then Paris (Galvin). Upon moving to France, they became known for hosting avant-garde artists and writers in their Paris salon.

Stein and her brother shared living quarters in a two-story apartment (with adjacent studio) located on the interior courtyard at 27 rue de Fluers. Here they accumulated and housed works of art from the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and Renoir. By 1906 they had a collection of avant-garde art that is renowned for its foresight and historical importance. From 1903 to 1938 many talented artists and writers, who Stein dubbed the “Lost Generation,” gathered at the salon, viewing the art and engaging in conversation (Greenfield). It was during this time that Stein began submitting writings of her college experiences for publication. Her first published book, Three Lives, released in 1909, sold poorly. Among Stein’s most famous works are The Making of Americans (written 1906–8, published 1925), Tender Buttons (1914), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a book written from the point of view of Toklas but telling the story of Stein’s life. Although Stein books did not sell well in America, she eventually developed a level of celebrity. Hers was a legacy built largely and enthusiastically by her friend, Mabel Dodge. In her article, “Speculations, or Post-Impressions in Prose,” Dodge declares Stein “is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint” (Burke 146). A sentiment that bled into American culture over the next twenty years.

Known for her experimental literary style, which is often paralleled to Picasso’s Cubism, her employment of visual forms and experimental writing arguably make her the most prominent and radical of all the modernists (Loy). Her forward-thinking composition, “Patriarchal Poetry” (1953) categorically deconstructs language. Stein incorporates witty, and strategically staged repetition, variation, and rhyme in order to breaking away from traditional poetics (Nelson 22). Her often rhythmical and cadenced writing leaves readers wondering just what are the poetic parameters? By exposing gendered and hierarchical biases, Stein collapses adopted meanings and presents language that can “function as neutral syntactic units” freeing the reader to “recognize patterns of semantic association that all language carries with its use” (22). Incorporating everyday thought and imagery, Stein disrupts the metaphoric logic that defines society, challenging both reader and culture to reevaluate what has been assumed (22).

As with a piece of art, Stein’s writing forces the reader to stop, view, and process language outside of appropriated conceptual meanings. Creating poetics and prose that can be seen, heard, and internalized. An admirer of her work, noted critic and photographer, Carl Van Vechten brought Stein “from obscurity and into the mainstream” (White). After meeting Stein in 1913, his interest in Stein “swiftly morphed into an obsession” (White). The two became lifelong friends and champions of each other’s work, although Stein was tentative in her praises. He promoted her work by acting as Stein’s American agent. He went so far as to write an article in the popular arts magazine, The Trend entitled, “How to Read Gertrude Stein” (1914), as an insider’s guide to understanding Stein’s work and her personality (White). The two were so close that they devised pet names for each other: “Papa Woojums” for Van Vechten, Mama Woojums for Toklas, and “Baby Woojums” for Stein (White).

Another close friend was Mina Loy. Introduced in 1910 through Mabel Dodge, they remained life-long friends (Burke 119). Stein comments that Loy showed interest and had “always been able to understand” her writing (130). Likewise, Loy credits Stein with opening her up to a “new form of expression” that “turn[ed] her sights toward the New World and inspire[d] her to write” (119). Both explored the relationship between human consciousness and literary and artistic expression in their writing, elevating and internalizing the literary experience (Goody). Something not always appreciated by critics and audiences. After the publication of The Making of Americans there were so few positive responses that Stein notes, “I am writing for myself and strangers” (Burke 130). Stephen Haweis, Loy’s first husband pleaded with Stein to insert commas into her long, unpunctuated sentences. Stein replied that “commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas” (Burke 130). However, Stein conceded and added two commas in exchange for a painting—later removing them, commenting “Mina Loy…was able to understand without the commas (130). In 1923, when Loy returned to Paris, she and Stein reunited. Loy wrote a two-part article and poem titled “Gertrude Stein,” which was published in Transatlantic Review in 1924 (Burke 329). Her poem equates Stein to the “Madam Curie of language,” and was presented by Loy as a tribute to Stein at Natalie Barney’s Paris salon in 1927.

A committed supporter of Philippe Pétain, head of state of the pro-Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime in France during the Second World War, Stein’s activities and political views have been called into question. While seeming to be the embodiment of high modernism, as a Jewish, lesbian, woman writer, throughout her life Stein leaned to the political right. During WWII she was a propagandist for a Nazi-dominated political regime and a supporter of a “new France.” Protected by her Nazi official friend, Bernard Faÿ, who acted to shield her and Toklas from persecution and her art collection from confiscation, Stein must have had some inherent fear for their safety. When urged to leave France by American embassy officials and friends, Stein declined stating, “it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food” (Will). Moreover, Stein endorsed Hitler for the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize, citing his ability to mobilize Germans and to remove “all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic Left elements…driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace” (Greenhouse). Similarly, Stein was also seen performed the Nazi salute at Hitler’s bunker in Berchtesgaden after the Allied victory in 1945 (Will).

Ironically, while identified with the modernist movements in art and literature, to Stein, the modern industrial revolution was a negative force on society, leading to its decline. For Stein, the “path forward into the future often lays in a return to something lost” (White). While Stein was pro-immigrant, pro-democratic, and anti-patriarchal, her last major work was poignantly the feminist libretto of the opera The Mother of Us All (1946). It tells the hopeful tale of Susan B. Anthony, leader of the suffragette movement and the social progression she and the cause represented. On July 27, 1946, Stein died before coming out of anesthesia after a stomach cancer operation. She is interred at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France. Toklas is buried next to her. Carl Van Vechten was named as her literary executor, and made sure more of her works were published after her death.

Works Cited

Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. University of California Press, 1997.


Galvin, Mary E. Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Greenwood Press, 1999.


Goody, Alex. Modernist Articulations: a Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and


Gertrude Stein. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.


Greenhouse, Emily. “Why Won’t the Met Tell the Whole Truth About Gertrude Stein?” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/why-wont-the-met-tell-the-whole-truth-about-gertrude-stein.


Loy, Mina, and Roger L. Conover. The Last Lunar Baedeker. The Jargon Society, Inc., 1982.


Kellner, Bruce. A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content with the Example. Greenwood, 1988.


Nelson, Cary. “A Century of Innovation: American Poetry from 1900 to the Present.” The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, Oxford Univ. Press, 2014, pp. 3–49.


Sprigge, Elizabeth. Gertrude Stein, Her Life and Work. Harper, 1957.


White, Edward. “The Making of an American.” The Paris Review, 8 Apr. 2016, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/05/14/the-making-of-an-american/.


Will, Barbara. “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein.” National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), 2012, www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/marchapril/feature/the-strange-politics-gertrude-stein.


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