Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American writer, poet, feminist, playwright, and catalyst in the development of modern art and literature, who spent most of her life in France.
After moving to Paris in 1903 she started to write in earnest: novels, plays, stories, libretti and poems. Increasingly, she developed her own highly idiosyncratic, playful, sometimes repetitive and sometimes humorous style. Typical quotes are
- "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."
- "Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle."
as well as
- "The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable."
These stream-of-consciousness experiments, rhythmical word-paintings or "portraits", were designed to evoke "the excitingness of pure being" and can be seen as an answer to Cubism in literature. Many of the experimental works such as Tender Buttons have since been interpreted by critics as a feminist reworking of patriarchal language. These works were loved by the avant-garde, but mainstream success initially remained elusive.
Judy Grahn lists the following principles behind Stein's work:
- Grounding the Continuous present
Though she and her brother Leo collected cubist painters, the biggest visual or painterly influence on Stein's work is that of Cezanne, specifically in her idea of equality, what Judy Grahn calls commonality, distinguishing from universality or equality: "the whole field of the canvas is important." (p.8) Rather than a figure/ground relationship, "Stein in her work with words used the entire text as a field in which every element mattered as much as any other." It is a subjective relationship that includes more than one viewpoint, to quote Stein: "The important thing is that you must have deep down as the deepest thing in you a sense of equality."
Grahn ascribes much of the repetition of Stein's work to her search for descriptions of the "bottom nature" of her characters, such as in The Making of Americans where even the narrator's essence is described through the repetition of narrative phrases such as "As I was saying" and "There will be now a history of her." Grahn: "Using the idea of everything belonging to a whole field and mattering equally, as well as each being having an essence of its own, she inevitably wrote patterns rather than linear sequences." (p.13)
Grahn means value in the sense of overall lightness or darkness of a painting. Stein used many Anglo-Saxon words and few Latin-based words: blood instead of sanguine. She also avoided words with "too much association". "One consequence of developing value and essence as the basis of her work, rather than social themes, dramatic imagery or linear plots, is that she developed a remarkable objective voice. To an uncanny degree at times, social judgement is absent in her author's voice, as the reader is left the power to decide how to think and feel about the writing." Grahn continues, "Anxiety, fear and anger are not played upon, and this alone sets her apart from most modern authors. Her work is harmonic and integrative, not alienated; at the same time it is grounded useful, not wistful and fantastic." (p.15)
Stein predominantly used the present tense, "ing", creating a continuous present in her work, which Grahn argues is a consequence of the previous principles, especially commonality and centeredness. Grahn describes play as the granting of autonomy and agency to the readers or audience, "rather than the emotional manipulation that is a characteristic of linear writing, Stein uses play." (p.18) In addition Stein's work is funny, and multilayered, allowing a variety of interpretations and engagements. Lastly Grahn argues that one must "insterstand...engage with the work, to mix with it in an active engagement, rather than 'figuring it out.' Figure it in." (p.21)
Though Stein influenced authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright, as hinted above, her work has often been misunderstood. Composer Constant Lambert (1936) naively compares Stravinsky's choice of, "the drabbest and least significant phrases," in L'Histoire du Soldat to Gertrude Stein's in "Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene" (1922), specifically: "Everday they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday," of which he contends that the, "effect would be equally appreciated by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever," apparently entirely missing the pun frequently employed by Stein.
Gertrude Stein wrote in long hand, typically about half an hour per day. Alice B. Toklas would collect the pages, type them up and deal with the publishing and was generally supportive while Leo Stein publicly criticized his sister's work. Indeed, Toklas founded the publisher "Plain Editions" to distribute Stein's work. Today, most manuscripts are kept in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
In 1932, using an accessible style to accommodate the ordinary reading public, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; the book would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was really her own autobiography. She described herself as extremely confident, one might even say arrogant, always convinced that she was a genius. She was disdainful of mundane tasks and Alice Toklas managed everyday affairs.
The style of the autobiography was quite similar to that of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which was actually written by Alice and contains several unusual recipes such as one for Hashish Fudge (also called Alice B. Toklas brownies), submitted by Brion Gysin.
Several of Stein's writings have been set by composers, including Virgil Thomson's operas Four Saints in Three Acts, The Mother of Us All, and James Tenney's skillful if short setting of Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose as a canon dedicated to Philip Corner, beginning with "a" on an upbeat and continuing so that each repetition shuffles the words, eg. "a/rose is a rose/is a rose is/a rose is a/rose."