Gertrude Stein(1874-1946)

What do Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway have in common? They would all meet in Gertrude Stein's Parisian Salons where they would discuss literature and art. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) authored many books, poems, and the bestseller The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Stein had a profound influence on modernist literature.

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Table of contents

    Gertrude Stein: Biography

    Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Between 1877 and 1878, Stein's family moved between Vienna, Paris, and California. In 1878, they settled in Oakland, California. Her parents were wealthy immigrants from Germany and Stein was raised Jewish. Both her parents died, leaving Stein an orphan at the age of 17.

    In 1893, Stein began her studies at Radcliffe College where she studied psychology. After, Stein went to Johns Hopkins to study medicine. She left in 1901 and did not complete either of her degrees. In 1903 she moved to Paris. She went with her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, and Stein's brother, Leo. Stein and Toklas volunteered as hospital supply drivers for France during the First World War.

    Stein and Toklas remained partners for 39 years. The two shared a special relationship built on their common backgrounds as Jewish writers from San Francisco living in Paris, and their love of art and literature. Toklas was a huge influence on Stein, often read Stein's manuscripts and providing beneficial feedback. Toklas also typed up the manuscript for The Making of Americans (1925). Toklas very much helped Stein behind the scenes.

    Stein proposed to Toklas in 1908, even though marriage between two women was still illegal, and they moved in together in 1913. Toklas was in charge of running the home, planning the finer details for their famous Saturday night salon, and typing Stein's manuscripts. Together they lived a very loving and harmonious life.

    Gertrude Stein, Paris sketch, StudySmarterIn 1903, Stein moved to Paris with Toklas and Leo, Pixabay

    After the war, Stein, Toklas, and Stein's brother Leo moved to an apartment in Paris that would become a famous salon where all the modern and experimental writers and artists would meet. Stein was interested in any new and innovative movements in literature and is even credited with coining the phrase "The Lost Generation" which came to define an entire literary phrase.

    Gertrude and Leo's salon was incredibly influential to modern art. In the beginning, the salon was focused on Stein and Leo's collection of Cezanne, Renoir, Gauguin, and Manet paintings and early works by Picasso and Matisse. Many came to take a look at the modern pieces Stein had on display and to hear and participate in discussions about art.

    In the 1920s, the salon became the center of modern literature. Leo and Stein had parted ways in 1912, leaving Stein with only some of the prolific art collection. It was also in the 1920s that Stein began to be recognized for her innovative and experimental form of writing. Stein would invite a literary circle of mainly American writers who would become famous for their modernist literature. These writers include Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson.

    Stein's salon discussions on Modern literature, as well as exposure to Modern art practices like cubism and surrealism, greatly shaped and influenced the growth and direction of the Modernist movement.

    The famous Gertrude Stein salon was located at 27 rue de Fleurus which today is considered a historical landmark. Many influential writers and artists would gather there to discuss art and literature and even look over each other's work.

    Gertrude Stein, Paris Salon, StudySmarterStein hosted a famous salon on 27 Rue de Fleurus, Pixabay

    In 1909, Stein published her first book called Three Lives, and her second book Tender Buttons was published in 1914. Tender Buttons began to show glimpses of Stein's unique writing style, including word associations, sounds, and an almost paint-like quality. Stein continued writing and published three incredibly influential books: The Making of the Americans (1925), How to Write (1931), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) which gained Stein prominence and recognition in the United States.

    In 1934, Stein returned to the United States with Toklas. She was famous there for her writing and embarked on a six-month tour. Stein was greeted as a celebrity; there was even a sign in Times Square, New York City that announced her arrival. In 1935, Random House agreed to be Stein's American publisher for any future writings to come. Stein returned to Paris successfully.

    Stein returned to Paris and when Nazi Germany established the Vichy government regime in France under Marshal Philippe Petain, Stein supported it. Despite Stein being Jewish, she continued to praise Petain throughout and after World War II. There is controversy if she was simply supporting Petain to save herself as she was Jewish or if she truly believed in him.

    In 1946, Stein died of inoperable stomach cancer. She died during surgery and was buried at the Pere Lachaise Cemetry in Paris, France. Her executor, Car Van Vechten, continued to publish her unpublished works after her death.

    Gertrude Stein's last words are remembered in Alice B. Toklas's book, What is Remembered (1963):

    What is the answer? … In that case, what is the question?” (Chapter 12).

    Books by Gertrude Stein

    Gertrude Stein, Open Book, StudySmarterStein wrote many books and poems, Pixabay

    Gertrude Stein wrote many influential books, poems, and a literary bestseller autobiography that all contributed greatly to the Modernist literary movement. Her Saturday night salons allowed for discussions on literature that would lead to innovations and experimentation within Modernist literature.

    The Modernist Literary movement was a period between the early 1900s and early 1940s, in which writers experimented with form, structure, and language in their writing and rejected traditional forms of literature. Stein along with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and many others are considered modernists.

    Three Lives (1909)

    Three Lives (1909) was Stein's first published book and contains three stories: "The Good Anna", "Melanctha", and "The Gentle Lena" The only common factor about each story is that they are based in the fictional town of Bridgepoint. Each protagonist is from the working class and is of German descent. The narration of the story is straightforward and each character seems to have a relationship of movement with another character. This creates a balanced composition, much like in a painting.

    Technically, Stein's first written book was QED (1950), but it was never published. It was published posthumously in 1950, 47 years after it was written.

    Tender Buttons (1914)

    Tender Buttons (1914) consists of three parts: "Objects", "Food", and "Rooms". Each part is an accumulation of poetry, experimental language, and prose. Stein wanted the reader to see the word and find the relationship to the object seen through the lens of realism. Although the main themes of the book are contested, the themes of sexuality and the realistic nature of objects are present. The most famous piece from the book, noted as an example of Cubist literature, is "A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass".

    Gertrude Stein, glass caraffe and glass, StudySmarter" A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass" is a famous poem from Tender Buttons, Pixabay

    Cubist Literature focuses on the use of visual art to convey meaning. Rather than traditional forms of writing which included formulaic writing, logic, clarity, and structure, Cubist Literature focused on how things are happening at that moment which can be random and illogical.

    A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing

    strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading"

    -'"A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass", Tender Buttons, 1914

    This is an example of Cubist literature. Rather than simply describe the carafe with a logical and formulaic set of words and sentences, Stein describes what she is thinking just as she is seeing it. It does not entirely make sense and seems random. Rather than use the mind, Stein uses her eyes.

    The Making of Americans (1925)

    The Making of Americans (1925) follows the Hersland and Dehning families. In the book, Stein traces their family histories, genealogy, and even psychology. The book mainly focuses on Alfred, Julia, his wife, Martha, and David. Repetition and the use of the present tense are key Modernist characteristics of the text. Stein jumps between narration and reflective meditations throughout the text.

    Poems by Gertrude Stein

    Gertrude Stein, Poetry writing, StudySmarterStanzas in Meditation is a poetry collection by Gertrude Stein, Pixabay

    Stanzas in Meditation (1950) is considered Stein's best and most complex poetry collection. It was published posthumously but was written in 1932. Stanzas in Meditation contains five parts with 162 stanzas. The stanzas explore the relationship between linguistic constructions and formulas and the mind. Stein uses repetition and a flat tone and her word choice is relatively simple.

    The poems contained in Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation contrast greatly with the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was written at the same time. Whereas Stanzas in Meditation is complex in meaning and simple in words, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is dense and chatty.

    Let them be mine therefor. Everybody knows that I chose. Therefor if therefore before I close. I will therefore offer therefore I offer this" ("Stanza 83", Stanzas in Meditation).

    Stein's word choice is simple, yet the structure and form in which she places the words together are highly complex and at times illogical. In this excerpt from "Stanza 83" from Stanzas in Meditation, you can see her unique and complex writing style. The reader is unsure of the subject or what it is that Stein is choosing, but the reader knows it is something that had to be thought over. Therefore, "Stanza 83" almost mirrors the thought process one goes through when deciding on something.

    The Bestselling Autobiography by Gertrude Stein

    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) is considered one of Stein's best and most compelling works. The book is in the form of an autobiography written by Alice B. Toklas, Stein's lifelong partner. It is not a true autobiography as it is authored by Stein and told from the perspective of Toklas. Its contents include stories about how Toklas and Stein met, her time in Paris meeting artists like Picasso and Matisse, and stories about Stein's life. Unlike Stein's other works that are of more complex construction, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas follows a clear narrative structure with heavily descriptive sections about people, settings, and time.

    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was written after Stein asked Toklas to write an autobiography about Stein. Toklas didn't want to so Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a way of writing about her own life through the eyes of Toklas. Stein innovated a new style of autobiographies not seen since Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928).

    Gertrude Stein's Writing Style

    Gertrude Stein's writing style was incredibly innovative and experimental. It is also very complex and at times difficult to understand. There are a few key characteristics of Stein's writing that make it a bit easier to understand.


    While reading Stein's books, especially her poems, it is clear Stein was fond of repetition. Repetition causes the reader to think more deeply about the significance of the word rather than simply its function. In an article written in the Ann Arbor News in December 1934, Stein said,

    I am inclined to believe that there is no such thing as repetition...The inevitable seeming repetition in human expression is not repetition but insistence."1

    Therefore, what a reader might see as repetition, Stein saw as a way to emphasize the meaning or significance of a word and saw repetition as a way to truly make the reader think about the word.

    "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" ("Sacred Emily", Geography and Plays, 1922).

    This is an example of repetition that can be found in Stein's work. By repeating the phrase "is a rose" the reader is forced to think, in the context of the poem, what a rose is. Is it simply a flower? Does it symbolize something? Is it something more than its physical form? These are the deep, mindful questions Stein wanted the reader to think about as they read her work.

    Unique Narration

    When Stein wrote from other people's perspectives, she would focus on their speech patterns, word choices, and a reflection of their minds. She wanted to show the point of view of the subject rather than her point of view projected onto the subject.

    The best example comes from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In the book, Stein writes an autobiography from the point of view of Toklas, therefore she imitates precisely Toklas's way of speaking and thinking.

    Another interesting way Stein was unique in her narration was her use of adverbs and prepositions rather than nouns and adjectives to write portraits of people and settings.

    She said a Frenchman should not stay unexpectedly to a meal particularly if he asked the servant beforehand what there was for dinner" (Chapter 2, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).

    In this quote from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein reveals her unique way to paint a visual portrait of someone. Here she is speaking about the French painter Matisse. Rather than say that Matisse was an improper guest with the use of nouns and adjectives, Stein says Matisse stays unexpectedly, using an adverb. This forces the reader to infer Matisse's character rather than simply be told.-Try to reformat this as well in order to not be italicized. JC

    Quotes by Gertrude Stein

    These quotes by Gertrude Stein that provide glimpses into her personality, writing style, and unique perspective on the world.

    I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead" (Chapter 1, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).

    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is written by Stein from the perspective of Toklas. In this excerpt Toklas is remarking on the three geniuses she knows: Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. Although it is written from the perspective of Toklas, it was written by Stein which means Stein is acknowledging her own genius indirectly.

    Dirt and not copper makes a color darker. It makes the shape so heavy and makes no melody harder.

    It makes mercy and relaxation and even a strength to spread a table fuller. There are more places not empty. They see cover" ("Dirt and Not Copper", Tender Buttons).

    In this excerpt from Tender Buttons, the reader can see Stein's Cubist writing style. Rather than logically and formulaically explain how copper makes things darker than dirt does, Stein uses visual imagery and a natural flow of thought to do so. There is a sense of randomness in the writing too, which is characteristic of Stein's work.

    Everything is an illustration, but take any piece of land. Let alone the farmer and the real estate agent or the picnicker, one painter will see it fiat, another painter will see it in depth, another as structure, another as fluffy, another as dark and light, another as spots and lines, another as still, another as changeable, another as full of its detail, another as a general expression or mood, and so on. But it is all the time the same commonplace piece of land." 2

    During an interview, Stein revealed how everyone whether they are an artist or not will see something, such as land, and project their meaning, feeling, and visualization onto it. Although at its most basic point, it is just land, the land can be interpreted and seen from multiple different perspectives and angles.

    Gertrude Stein - Key takeaways

    • Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She moved around often in her childhood and in 1903 moved to Paris with her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas and her brother, Leo.
    • Gertrude Stein hosted a salon where modernist writers, painters, and thinkers would gather to discuss art and literature.
    • Gertrude Stein is known for her many Modernist books such as Three Lives, her many poems such as Stanzas in Meditation, and her bestselling book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
    • Stein had a unique writing style that was based on Cubist Literature, repetition, and a unique narration structure.
    • Stein was greatly influenced by modernist art movements led by artists such as Picasso and Matisse and also heavily influenced their work.


    1. "Miss Stein States There is No Such Thing as Repetition". Ann Arbor News, December 15, 1934.
    2. Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. p. 180-203.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gertrude Stein(1874-1946)

    Who is Gertrude Stein? 

    Gertrude Stein was a Modernist writer and art collector known for her many books and poems. 

    What books did Gertrude Stein write? 

    Gertrude Stein wrote books such as Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1914), and The Making of the Americans (1933). 

    What is Gertrude Stein famous for? 

    Stein is known for her innovative and experimental writing style that focused less on traditional and formulaic structures and more on using words like paint to compose a piece. 

    Was Gertrude Stein a feminist? 

    There is no evidence that Stein ever called herself a feminist, but Stein did contribute greatly to the recognition of women writers in male-dominated literary circles. 

    Who did Gertrude Stein influence? 

    Stein heavily influenced writers such as Ernest Hemingway and painters such as Pablo Picasso. 

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