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Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein

Having seen the horrors of World War I first hand, Gertrude Stein understood the trauma that had birthed the “Lost Generation.” She is one of the most well-known literary figures of the era—her judgments as a tastemaker could make or break the careers of artists and writers. Yet her own work was generally challenging and experimental material that did not find a popular audience, resonating most with other writers. How did she become a leader in the art world and an icon for later feminists? Let's explore the life of this influential modernist!

A black and white photograph of gertrude stein taken by Carl Van Vechten StudySmarter

Gertrude Stein photographed by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

Gertrude Stein: Biography

Stein was born into wealth on February 3, 1874, in what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When she was just a baby, her family left the United States to spend five years traveling across Europe. Stein would experience three languages and a variety of cultures while just a toddler. The family settled in Oakland, California upon their stateside return. There, Stein grew up.

Stein at University

When Harvard was still an all-male institution, Stein studied at the Harvard Annex in 1893, later known as Radcliffe College, a private program where Harvard educators instructed female students. In 1897, she earned a degree in psychology and even studied directly with William James. James was impressed with her and helped her to publish two papers in the Harvard Psychological Review. Stein then studied at Johns Hopkins Medical School until 1902 but did not earn a degree.

William James was a Harvard professor who taught the first psychology course in the United States. His two-volume work, The Principles of Psychology, outlined the discipline. Its publication resulted in his being considered the "Father of American Psychology." He later turned to study religious experiences and published The Varieties of Religious Experience.

“America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” –Gertrude Stein1

A black and white photograph of Paris in the 1920s StudySmarter

Paris in the 1920s/Wikimedia Commons

Move to Europe

After Johns Hopkins, Stein moved to London and then Paris with her brother Leo in 1903. In Paris, she would become immersed in the world of art that would define her. She also met her life-long partner, Alice B. Toklas in the city.

Life with Her Brothers

In addition to living with her brother Leo, her oldest brother Michael lived very close. Michael was an art collector who introduced Stein to the art world. Leo became a well-known art critic, together the Steins were among the first collectors of cubist paintings and other experimental styles of art. When Leo moved to Italy in 1912, he left with much of the collection Gertrude and he had developed in Paris. Around this time she began to issue her poems, and her first book of poetry, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, was published in 1914.

Alice Toklas

In 1909, Stein met a newly arrived immigrant from America, Alice Toklas. Stein and Toklas quickly found themselves in a relationship that would last the rest of Stein's life. Toklas was often simply described as Stein's secretary. Despite Stein being known as a strong personality in her own right, Toklas tended to be the dominant one in their relationship. Toklas convinced an unsure Stein that she could be a writer, and typed and publicized Stein's works.

Alice Toklas was born on April 30, 1877, in San Francisco, California to a wealthy merchant family. She was educated in various private schools before studying piano at the University of Seattle. In California, her attraction to women caused her to feel that she couldn't accept the life of a wife and mother as was expected. Toklas left for Paris in 1907, where she entered the art community and met Gertrude Stein.

A Black and White photograph of an ambulance in europe 1918 StudySmarter

An Ambulance of the Period/Wikimedia Commons

World War I

During World War I, both Stein and Toklas volunteered with the French army. Stein purchased a Ford van to use as an ambulance. Both of the women served as ambulance drivers, aiding wounded soldiers. Other writers of the post-WWI era, such as Ernest Hemingway and E.E. Cummings also took on the dangerous work. Haunted by the horrors of the war, Stein herself coined the phrase "Lost Generation" by which those post-WWI writers were known.

Salon in Paris

27 Rue de Fleurus was the location of Stein's famous Salon. Here, she entertained the most well-known names of the art and literary worlds. The list of guests was a who's who of the time. Although her own writing was more niche in its audience, some of her famous guests were heavily influenced by ideas and discussions she held on art and writing.

Salon:

A Salon is a reception room in a house where parties and events are held.

Avant-Garde:

Unusual or experimental, new ideas. Literally the "front-garde," is an analogy for the foremost innovative expression and production in a given field. It often includes radical experimentation and iconoclast attitudes.

Views on Art

Stein strongly promoted the avant-garde in both visual arts and literature. She sought the new and novel, anything that was a break from the past. Her personality was witty, commanding, and self-confidant. Her reviews and criticisms were known to have a major influence on opinion in the art and literature worlds. This led to Stein being more remembered for her personality and influence than for her own work which can be seen as idiosyncratic and hermetic.

Gertrude Stein, poems, books, feminist writer, StudySmarterStein sits at her salon with cubist paintings on the walls and her portrait painted by Picasso. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Stein: Lost Generation

During a conversation with Ernest Hemingway, Stein famously told him that he was a member of a "Lost Generation." The name stuck and became used to identify the literary movement of the period. Some of the well-known artists and writers who were guests at the salon included:

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Sherwood Anderson
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Henri Matisse
  • Ezra Pound
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Max Jacob
  • Henri Matisse
  • Juan Gris

Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway

Heminway and Stein became quite close, which was not to the liking of Alice Toklas. Toklas gatekeeping of who was allowed into Stein's orbit had an effect upon the Salon. F. Scott Fitzgerald was always welcomed but at some point Toklas banned Ernest Hemingway.

A black and white photograph of Gertrude Stein taken by Carl Van Vechten StudySmarter
Gertrude Stein photographed by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

Gertrude Stein Books

Critical appraisal of Stein at the time was mixed. Many found her work not just challenging but incomprehensible. Her works were largely ignored by commercial publishers, producing only one popular work. Yet in her own estimation, Stein was not shy about declaring herself to be a genius. Many critics today do argue that her experimental writing is overly neglected when considering the literature of the time.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." –Gertrude Stein2

Gertrude Stein Poems

Much of Stein's work took the form of prose poetry. Ideas both artistic and scientific combined in her work, such as the Cubism she encountered in Paris and the psychology that she studied with William James. Her poetry explored ideas such as consciousness and its relationship to language. She played with this using techniques such as describing objects without using their name or any words commonly associated with them. This was an attempt to incorporate ideas in psychology relating that people who knew different languages interpreted reality differently.

Cubism in Writing

Stein was an avid supporter of the Cubism movement in art. Taking things even further, she attempted to replicate Cubism in writing. Instead of linear narratives, she focused on a constant present. Her style centered around abstraction both the inner world and the outer world to the reader. Her dense works often did not have any plot, dialogue, or even standard grammar. One of the strongest examples of her attempts to integrate Cubism into writing was the book of poems Tender Buttons in 1914.

Cubism- A fragmented and abstracted style of painting

Composition as Explanation

In the 1920s Stein lectured in England on writing. These lectures were eventually turned into the book Composition as Explanation in 1926. The book was an attempt to describe her method and meaning and provide a key to understanding her other works. Many critics of the time were still unsure if the extreme abstraction she used resulted in works that had any discernible meaning to anyone but herself.

Gertrude Stein Feminism

Gertrude Stein has held a place of interest with feminist scholars and critics. Her role as a feminist was not that of an outspoken political activist, campaigning for specific issues. Despite this, her role as a leader in the art world at the time and her discussion of gender and sexuality in her writing have made her of interest to feminists. She was a woman who took a leadership role in her field, discussed homosexuality in her work, and was noted for focusing on complex ideas instead of emotions as was associated with earlier female writers.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was Stein's one major hit. The work did not follow the avant-garde leanings of her other works but told a straightforward narrative. Despite its name, it was written by, and primarily about, Stein as a memoir of her own experiences told as though they were being relayed by Toklas. The book brought her from the exclusive art world to greater public recognition.

Operas and Return to The United States

Although not as big as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein found some success in writing for opera. Virgil Thompson created two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, which Stein wrote the text for. A performance of one of the operas in Connecticut finally brought Stein back to the United States for her first visit in thirty years. Stein continued on a six-month lecture tour which received widespread press attention and was the subject of her second memoir.

Final Years

When World War II broke out, Stein and Toklas left Paris for a home near the Swiss border. She was often visited by and entertained American soldiers during the war. The first World War strongly influenced the Lost Generation, and WWII became the focus of Stein's later works. She passed away on July 27, 1946, of cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France at the American hospital.

Gertrude Stein - Key takeaways

  • Born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, Stein moved to Paris in 1903.

  • Studied Psychology under William James at the Harvard Annex.

  • Her salon was host to many of the most important writers and artists of the time.

  • Coined the term "Lost Generation."

  • Influentially supported the avant-garde in the Paris art and literature scenes.

  • Her own work was so dense and abstract that it did not find as wide success as others she supported.

1. Gertrude Stein, "An American in Paris," (n.d.).

2. Gertrude Stein, "Sacred Emily," 1913.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein is known for hosting writers and artists at her salon, her confidant and witty personality, influencing opinion on the arts and her theories on art and literature. Her most popular works were The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, The Making of Americans, and two operas. 

Gertude Stein passed away from cancer in 1946.

Gertrude Stein spoke French before she spoke English.  Her parents left for a long journey through Europe when she was just a baby. 

Gertrude Stein was an art collector and even the subject of a painting by Pablo Picasso but she was not a painter herself. 

She used the term "Lost Generation" to describe writers who had become disillusioned by the first World War. 

Final Gertrude Stein Quiz

Question

With what work did Gertrude Stein find popular sucess?

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Answer

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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Question

Gertrude Stein was mostly known for...

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Answer

Influencing ideas on art and writing 

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Question

Where did Gertrude Stein live for most fo her adult life?

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Answer

Paris 

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Question

Who was Gertrude Stein's partner?

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Answer

Alice Toklas 

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Question

What did Gertrude Stein do during World War I? 


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Answer

Drove an ambulance 

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Question

Where did Gertrude Stein famously host writers and artists?

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Answer

Her salon

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Question

What style of painting did Gertrude Stein attempt to replicate through writing?

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Answer

Cubism

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Question

What did Gertrude Stein do during World War II?


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Answer

Hosted American soldiers and wrote about them 

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Question

What brought Gertrude Stein back to America?

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Answer

The performance of an Opera based on her work 

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Question

Who did Gertrude Stein move to Paris with?

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Answer

Her brother 

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