This February marks the 150th anniversary of American writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein, who is best known for her groundbreaking contributions to modernist literature. Modernism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is characterized by a shift away from traditional artistic and literary norms. During this period of rapid change in Western societies produced by the industrial revolution and the resulting rise of the middle class, technological advances, and a shift from rural to urban life, Stein and other artists and writers sought new ways to represent the constantly changing world and the complexities of human experience.
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Stein became a central figure in the expatriate community of Paris during the early 20th century, where she regularly hosted a famous salon that attracted some of the most influential artists and writers of the time, such as Picasso, Matisse, or Apollinaire, and was said to have helped define modernism in literature and art.
The following selection of works will guide you into Stein’s world and make you appreciate her resolutely avant-garde aesthetic and literary style through four very different pieces written by herself, as well as three books analyzing different aspects of her work.
Three lives : stories of The Good Anna, Melanctha and The Gentle Lena (Gertrude Stein)
Stein’s literary work is characterized by its experimental and innovative use of language. She is renowned for challenging traditional narrative structures and syntax, pushing the boundaries of conventional writing. One of her most acclaimed and controversial works is Three Lives (1909), a novel that explores the lives of three women in a non-linear fashion, anticipating the narrative experimentation of later modernist writers. In her early years in Paris, Stein was particularly interested in French novelist Gustave Flaubert, whose Trois contes she translated into English. It is widely assumed that this piece provided the tripartite structure for her Three lives.
The making of Americans : being a history of a family’s progress (Gertrude Stein ; foreword by William H. Gass ; introd. by Steven Meyer)
In 1903, Stein’s desire to study her own psychology in relation to her family led her to begin work on The Making of the Americans, an ambitious undertaking finished eight years later in 1911 after many interruptions. The new style used in this monumental piece consists in the recurring use of essential terms and expressions linked to the individual; it focuses less on traditional plot elements and more on the inner thoughts and perceptions of the characters. As such, the novel challenges the conventional storytelling norms and reflects Stein’s avant-garde sensibilities and her desire to push the boundaries of literary form.
In some the nature in them is clearer when they are very young, in some when they are young, in some when they are not so young, in some when they are getting older, in some when they are old ones. (p.386)
Tender buttons (Gertrude Stein)
Perhaps Stein’s most iconic work is Tender Buttons, a collection of prose poems that defies easy categorization. These poems focus on ordinary objects, often everyday items found in a domestic setting: A plate, a piano, or a chair. Stein approaches these objects in an abstract and unconventional manner playing with language and form, breaking down conventional linguistic boundaries in order to create a unique and new exploration of these objects and experiences. Her use of repetition, wordplay, and fragmentation in Tender Buttons was a departure from the literary norms of her time, influencing subsequent generations of writers and artists.
The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude Stein)
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is not an autobiography in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a literary experiment in which Stein narrates her own life through the voice of her life partner Alice B. Toklas. Through this narrative device, Stein gives readers a glimpse into her own experiences, relationships, and the vibrant artistic and literary circles in which she and Toklas moved, particularly in Paris during the early 20th century. The book offers a unique perspective on the avant-garde and modernist movements, as it captures the cultural and artistic milieu of the time. It provides gripping insights into the lives of prominent figures such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and other artists and writers who were part of Stein’s social and intellectual circle.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas received critical acclaim for its wit and humor, and became one of Stein’s most popular and accessible works, reaching a wider audience than some of her more abstract and experimental writings.
Gertrude Stein : modernism and the problem of “genius” (Barbara Will)
One of the central themes in Stein’s work and discussions about Modernism was the concept of ‘genius’. The traditional notion of genius as an individual with exceptional, innate talent was challenged during this period. Modernist artists and writers questioned the idea of a singular genius and instead explored collaborative and collective approaches to creativity. Central to Stein’s concept of ‘genius’ was the idea that creativity emerges from a collective and interconnected process. She valued collaboration and interaction among artists, emphasizing the influence of the cultural and social environment on artistic production. This perspective is evident in the salon she hosted in Paris, where artists, writers, and intellectuals gathered to exchange ideas and influence each other’s work.
Yet her ability to frame her story as the story of “everybody” suggests once again that for Stein “being a genius” is also largely a relational experience, contingent upon others for its full articulation (p.15)
Gender and genre in Gertrude Stein (Franziska Gygax)
In postmodern writing the blurring and transgression of genres are a primary characteristic. But according to Franziska Gygax, Stein’s generic transgressions call for particular attention because of their radical nature.
Gertrude Stein experimented with narrative form and language, breaking away from traditional literary structures, resulting in her work not having clearly defined traits according to classic genre theory. Stein’s works also challenge conventional notions of gender and sexuality; She was openly lesbian and addressed themes of identity, relationships, and sexuality in her writing. Her works, such as Three Lives and Tender Buttons for example, explore the complexities of human relationships and identity, and defy traditional gender norms.
In this book Gygax explores Stein’s direct and indirect references to genre and gender and her questioning and challenging of rules, hierarchies, and categories.
Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso : l’aventure des Stein
Finally, it would be a shame not to mention the crucial role the Stein family played as art collectors. Gertrude Stein’s support and patronage were crucial in promoting the careers of many modernist artists, like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, and Georges Braque. Gertrude and her brother Leo created a floor-to-ceiling gallery space in their apartment on 27 rue de Fleurus.
Featured image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]