Unheard Voices: Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein was a literary anarchist. She was a pioneer of early American modernism and was central to the ‘lost generation’, a term which many alleged that she coined. Whilst Stein’s influence is profound, it seems to have been overshadowed by literary heavyweights of the period such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom she mentored in her salon and whom we now come to associate with the ‘lost generation’ instead, thus leaving her legacy clouded by obscurity.

Her influence is profound, but seems to have been overshadowed by literary heavyweights

Born in Pennsylvania in 1874 to a German-Jewish family, and raised in Oakland California from the age of 4, Gertrude Stein proceeded to attend Radcliffe College studying under the psychologist William James. After Radcliffe, Stein enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, however, she soon became disillusioned and dropped out in her fourth year, moving to France with her older brother Leo. In 1907, Stein met her life partner, Alice B. Toklas.

Stein sought inspiration in France where she took comfort in her number 27 Rue de Fleurus home on the rive gauche of Paris. She soon became one of the central artistic figures of the early twentieth century and was integral to the Parisian avant-garde. She was renowned for her extensive art collection that included works of Picasso and Matisse, both of whom she befriended.

Stein rejected both the sentimentality and specificity of nineteenth-century literature and was unafraid of toeing the line between clarity and disorientation in her writing, rejecting previous linear narrative convention for a ‘continuous present’. This is unsurprising given the influence of William James and his experiments that parented ‘stream of consciousness’.

Unafraid of toeing the line between clarity and disorientation

Her passion for the visual arts is evidenced through her writing, with her repetitious layering of phrases mirroring the cubist paintings she collected. Despite her numerous poems, novels, and plays, Stein’s work was received poorly as her affinity for repetition was considered tiresome. Nevertheless, it is this experimental genius that brought us phrases such as ‘There is no there there’ and ‘Rose is a rose is a rose.’

When she decided to publish her first book, Three Lives, Grafton Press assumed that she was uneducated due to the colloquial idiolects that she deliberately employed to narrate the unhappy lives of her marginalised protagonists. However, Stein vehemently replied: ‘No, you are mistaken about that, I am not uneducated. I have had more education and experience than they or you.’ Disregarding her highly original style, Stein did not celebrate much success as a writer in her own lifetime. Her memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was her only best-seller; however, the conventionality of this novel was out of character, straying from her traditional eccentricity.

Stein had an ambivalent relationship with feminism

Throughout the war, Stein battled the patriarchy as she protested in 1937 that there was ‘too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing.’ However, Stein had an ambivalent relationship with feminism. She rejected traditional female roles herself and was considered masculine in her stature, yet she strongly advocated motherhood for women. Moreover, she almost exclusively hosted male artists in her salon.

People often tend to be fascinated in the marvellous new literary landscape Stein helped cultivate, yet this often distracts from the turbulent political landscape with the emergence of Fascism in the 1930s. Stein surprisingly worked for France’s Vichy government, which colluded with the occupying Nazi forces, and was also associated with central figures, Bernard Faÿ and Marshal Philippe Pétain. However, it is arguable that Stein was following a politics of preservation by doing so. As a lesbian Jewish writer who possessed an immensely valuable collection of artwork, as well as living near the epicentre of fascism, it was through her friendship with Faÿ that her collection avoided Nazi confiscation as well as ensuring her own safety.

Stein was a high achiever, yet she was also a highly complex woman

It is without doubt that Gertrude Stein was a high achiever, yet she was also a highly complex woman. Whilst Stein was culturally significant in helping disseminate much of the major art and literature of the early twentieth century, her confusing collaborationist sympathies sit uneasily with the modern reader. After dying in 1946, Stein faded into virtual anonymity. Despite her work has recently increasing in popularity, her main legacy remains to be a background cog in the modernist machine.

Image by K Kendall via Flickr

2 thoughts on “Unheard Voices: Gertrude Stein

  • Thank you for your nice article, about Gertrude Stein.
    And do you know the Preface she wrote for the first Riba-Rovira Francisco’s exhibition in Paris, where she gave us her last art vision when she speaks about Cezanne, Picasso, Juan Gris, and Riba-Rovira who did the last oil painting Portrait of Gertrude Stein, “a very hieratic one”, original by this way and which was in the MET of New-York in the exhibition called “The Stein’s collect; Mattis, Cezanne , Picasso and the others…” on 2012

    Reply
  • Thank you for your nice article, about Gertrude Stein.
    And do you know the Preface she wrote for the first Riba-Rovira Francisco’s exhibition in Paris,
    where she gave us her last art vision,
    when she speaks about Cezanne, Picasso, Juan Gris,
    and Riba-Rovira who did the last oil painting Portrait of Gertrude Stein,
    “a very hieratic one”, original by this way and
    which was in the MET of New-York in the exhibition called
    “The Stein’s collect; Mattis, Cezanne , Picasso and the others…” on 2012
    Kinds Regards

    Reply

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