by Lauren Owen
In 1874 the ground was fertile for Gertrude Stein to become a woman of virile thoughts even in her youth. After having been born in a small industrial town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, little Gertrude Stein took to a life abroad at age one–crawling, then walking in Vienna, America, and elsewhere in Europe, under the care of her capricious, travel-happy father, her mother, and her four siblings.
Her first language was German. Then she learned French. In Baltimore at the age of five, she began to speak English, which was the language she favored in regards to writing or reading. It was the language in which “emotions began to feel themselves.” Thus commenced the stubborn sense of “Americanism” which stayed with her no matter how long she inhabited another country. She carried American English in her blood. As Rene Stenal, editor of Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures put it:
From that time on, and for the rest of her life, she knew how to remain the five-year-old child who discovers the English language for the first time, tries it out without prejudice, endlessly repeating, wantonly changing, destroying, and recreating it.
But she was a quiet, introspective child, who grew into a young woman lacking the confidence or experience to really speak out. She explored philosophy and psychology at Radcliff, the women’s annex at Harvard, studying under such people as William James, brother of Henry James, who would inspire her with his “stream of consciousness” ideas. “Never reject anything,” William once said. “Nothing has been proved. If you reject anything, that is the beginning of the end of your life as an intellectual.” She began to break up traditional literary writing by her own structure, jumbling interesting subjects together, while remaining focused, like a meditation. She created fiction that was poetry, and poetry that fractured reality; a broken mirror repeating each piece of human nature in a new infinitely strange way. Or she could be disarmingly simple and brilliant: she had a flair for the staccato dropped lines that would be quoted around the world. For instance, “There is no there there,” she later said when she realized her one-time-hometown, Oakland, was no longer what is used to be. Or, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” she said, when she courageously “caressed and addressed a noun,” attempting to bring meaning back to a word squandered by over-use.
According to Stein, she quit medical school though only a class away from a Ph.D., due to her boredom with technical science. After a torturous and fruitless affair with beautiful New Englander, May Bookstaver, her college companion (who influenced her first novel, Q.E.D., and many of her other stories) Stein moved to Britain to be with her brother. She found her time in London dark and laborious: disillusioned with her first love, she desperately strived to devour as much as she could of the English canon. Surprisingly, in her journals she doesn’t mention trying out the styles or conventions of other authors; her focus was on inner natures, not styles. She made brief forays into formal, Victorian-style writing, but soon abandoned this to address the reader with her intimate sensibility. She delved into deep psychological explorations of her characters, as she began writing the source material for The Making of Americans:
Some feel some kinds of things others feel other kinds of things. Mostly everyone feels some kinds of things. The way some things touch some and do not touch other ones and kinds in men and women then I will now begin to think a little bit about describing.
Stein was a collector. She valued cutting-edge modern art, peculiar or famous people, and the avant-garde ideas rising out of the new era. She was progressive, and as is often the case with progressive thinkers, she was misunderstood by many. Whenever guests visited the Stein apartment, they always seemed to mention that her collection of paintings “were so strange.” Many visitors from around the world heard about the strange creations by word of mouth, and would come to view them, while in France. But no one really knew that these distorted images or half-finished surfaces would grow to be worth millions, and signal the start of an artistic movement.
It was 1907, the turn of an age, and Gertrude and her older brother, Leo, lived in Paris. Saturday evenings were the night for guests, when they would hold intimate gatherings, to show off the latest paintings they had purchased. Leo mildly invested in art, and had influenced his sister, so that she had began to purchase on her own from a young artist named Pablo Picasso. But Leo still dominated the studio with his ideas and talk. He was a voice of unflagging criticism in Gertrude’s ear whenever she wrote, bought paintings, or expressed theories. Stein had depended on Leo for love since their parents’ death, because she held him dearest; the family member most like her. This combined with her admiration for him made it hard for her, even in her mid-thirties, to parade forth her own creativity.
Then one day Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude’s future “wife,” visited the bohemian hangout at 27 rue de Fleurus. Stein’s “salon,” or living room, overflowed with color and new forms of art. Picasso’s paintings hung on the walls, as well as work by Henri Matisse and Georges Braque (now world-renown artists).
Although Gertrude was struggling, her enticing presence shook the impressionable Toklas. Stein was charming, witty, and a commanding woman, reeling in the sweet Miss Toklas like a fish on a hook. As Stein selected and cultivated her growing number of paintings and interesting people, it seemed she took Toklas into this very collection. Or perhaps Stein partnered up with Toklas seeing how this social woman could certainly help Stein achieve the life she dreamed of. Toklas would eventually replace Leo, as she was far better equipped to serve this movement and this artist. Leo was a loud, self-focused, and argumentative man who could not allow the salon gatherings or Gertrude’s writing to take shape at their full height. Soon after Stein and Toklas agreed to “marry,” the siblings fought, and Leo quickly moved out. Thus, Toklas became the essential backbone to weekly parties with some of the most famous minds of the 20th century, alongside her favorite genius, Stein.
Flip forward to 1910. On Toklas’s prompting, Stein sent out clips of Three Lives (arguably one of her best and most in-depth books) to several newspapers in America. All of them had something to say. Some reviews were kind, most were harsh, but Stein drove bull-headed through them, and each time she received criticism, she became more willful. After dealing with her sibling’s critique for so many years, she had become a stubborn and small, hefty oak-like woman, with roots planted firmly in the earth, and eyes to the stars. She felt she could conquer any obstacle that stood in her way. She grabbed her life like clay, molding it immediately into what she wanted. The Saturday evening gatherings became even more vital to her testing of ideas.
“Hello,” a visitor would say, arriving at the apartment. “My name is ____ and I was sent by _____.”
“Entrez-vous,” Gertrude would surely reply, showing the caller the way through the atelier to the salon. Most anyone was welcome: one’s connections were merely a formality.
Once the visitor had entered “General Gertrude’s”(as she was now jokingly called for her mighty presence) domain, they were not allowed to speak of James Joyce (at least not until her later life when she had equaled her contemporary in popularity), and they must speak strongly and with intelligence or they would be passed on to Toklas, who entertained the “spouses.” Stein’s profile was now regale as Caesar’s, her laugher boomed, as she sat her royal “genius”-ness in a high backed chair, staving off-criticism or disagreeable theories with mockingly simple remarks. Although matriarchal, Stein held a strong sense of equality within herself, she had proclaimed herself a genius in her work, and had claimed to be “the literary creative mind of the century” in her writing. She had unleashed her will to power.
But despite her self-promotion, she truly possessed wisdom. Besides her influential and experimental writing, she could hold together and promote a network of artists, philosophers, storytellers, journalists, and many patrons and supporters. Artist Pablo Picasso, Stein’s best friend, would appear weekly, drinking in everything with his wide dark eyes, and drawing attention with his gorgeous wife in her billowing hat. Writer Ernest Hemingway would often drop by to visit Stein “and a companion” (as he called Alice, whom he did not like) on Saturdays, at least until they quarreled and annulled the friendship. Painter Henri Matisse would discuss something with Stein in a corner of the salon, his sparse words heavy with meaning as they fell from his reddish beard. Guillame Apollinaire, the attractive, brilliant writer and philosopher, quickly saw the meaning in any subject they discussed, and brought it to the next level with his clever, stunning wit. His lover, Painter Marie Laurencin, would be traversing the walls of pictures, her lorgnette hovering close to her eyes. Toklas, of course, would be forever chatting with the spouses of the intellectual and talented guests.
Rue de Fleurus held bundles of potential, as it was a haven for the sacred sparks of insight visited upon humans: the late night-or sometimes drug-induced-ideas. Stein’s apartment was a church with art as the divine matter. The curious thing about this particular writer is that it was not writing that attracted the people during these early days. Most of her famous friends did not speak English, the language she chose to write in. Instead, people came to her for her colossal personality, her foresight on art, insight on literature, and her natural charisma, born of the comfort she now felt within herself, that drew people in. She spoke out like a preacher at an altar of inspiration. James Lord, one of the GI’s of World War II, describes Stein’s personality, when she would speak to groups of intellectual soldiers who came to see her:
Like all remarkable performers, she was mindful of her audience. She lectured and admonished us but she amused us. Although she held center stage, her spectators were made to feel that their role, passive as it might be, was no less vital than her own.
Despite the fact that she could be overbearing to young artists, Stein’s advice and words were always held in high regard. After all, she was kind enough to face this brigade of young soldiers in two wars, recounting stories and encouraging the arts.
An Author Emerges
In Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, one of her most famous works, she cleverly uses her partner’s voice to chronicle her life among the intellectuals of two generations. But few books unravel how she became this powerful Stein of this novel, how she came to hold such gatherings and lectures. For that, one must gaze into the facts, pictures, and early writings that yellow and crumble in the back of her confident voice.
Her word choice became meticulous. Her sentences, with their lack of punctuation, became trying at times. But she claims that her writing is the simple and straightforwardness of her era. And with her adherence to commonly used words, sometimes called “babytalk” by critics, and her thorough repetition (extracting exact meanings) one can certainly see the basis for this claim. Judy Grahn offers invaluable advice for reading Stein in her book Really Reading Gertrude Stein (1989). She talks of things such as reading aloud and skipping around if parts feel tedious. Stein tends to detail the inner streaming consciousness of her characters, a technique which can be fascinating, and at the same time, difficult.
While Stein traveled, and even after she settled in France, she wrote a great deal about her own life in her fiction and poetry. Reading her prose, it becomes apparent Stein gained much from travel. She had moved to the metros of culture and sensation-in her childhood; from Pennsylvania to Vienna, California to Massachusetts, and in her adult life; from to Britain to New York, to France, even touring Rome, Spain and Italy. Stein did not have a vast income. She had her father-like brother, Michael, sending her a couple thousand dollars every so often, to live on. But the writer had so much passion and ideas about all the arts, believed in genius, and supported true talent so fiercely, that she had to follow her will to explore, immerse, and eventually settle in a metropolis of people and things that interested her. It was because of this obstinate fervor that she became an ardent liberal; planting roots and spreading branches to shade other new artists of her time.
It all came full circle. It was these artistic friends who made her famous in America. She wrote about her involvement with them, and became a sensation to American audiences. But she still had to face a great deal of criticism from the American Press, especially for her more abstract poetry works, like Tender buttons (1914):
Lovely snipe and tender turn, excellent vapor and slender butter, all the splinter and the trunk, all the poisonous darkening drunk, all the joy in weak success, all the joyful tenderness, all the section and the tea, all the stouter symmetry (Roast Beef)
People growled about this crazy woman who seemed to be almost making fun of them, or holding her meaning just out of reach. As Robert McAlmon says, in his book, Being Geniuses Together, “Stein fumbles and mauls [words], and gradually something emerges as so much mud emerges into some sort of form in the hands of a maladroit child.”
Yet, as with everything, Gertrude remained unrelenting, and was not afraid to try. And she sure enough, she succeeded. Her abstract and whimsical plays and operas were preformed around the United States, even set to music by her now-famous friend, Virgil Thompson. As her most successful book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, became a hit, she traveled America, and gained fortitude as she lectured about her theories on literature and art.
Thus became known, around the world, the dream of a woman full of life and wisdom: a woman collecting worldly ideas and people, with the stubborn strength to weave them together. Once called “the mother of modernism,” Stein not only brought a distinctive beauty to prose writing, but provided the foundation, and inspiration, for generations of artists. She is one root of a complicated system supporting life after the trauma of two world wars. Like the title of one of her operas, she essentially became “A Mother to Us All,” as she gathered struggling artists and lost soldiers. She represented and argued for the validity of the experience of the modern artist-in both the form and the content of her writing, the exceptional talks she gave, and the room and time she lent to simple gatherings around the world. Above all, her work celebrates life, and the miracle of individual minds thinking, making change as they part the tumultuous waves of ‘naysayers’.