Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Contributing Editor: Cynthia Secor
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Many students will have heard that Stein is "difficult" so they come to her work expecting not to understand. They expect "style" and "experimental strategies," but not content. There exists no cottage industry "explicating" her difficulty, so one does not have easy sources of data such as Readers' Guide to Gertrude Stein to which to refer students. In addition, her lesbianism and feminism put off some readers, if they get far enough into the text to see it.
One needs to begin by saying that these texts are the creation of an extremely well-educated woman--an American, a Jew, the child of immigrant parents, a lesbian, and a feminist--whose life experience and literary production bridge the Victorian and modern eras.
Her two enduring concerns are to portray the experience of woman and to explore what it means to present the fact or act of perception--which can be described as how we organize what we see.
How Gertrude Stein organizes what she sees and how she presents "seeing": this is probably enough metaphysics for a beginning.
When students see that the texts are about something, something very serious and important to the author, they relax and "read" the text.
The texts included here allow you to trace the evolution of Stein's style from realistic and naturalistic through abstract and cubist to simple and straightforward. You can also compare and contrast her representation over the years of women, femininity, and culturally determined depictions of women. Bridgman (p. 104) notes this preference in subject matter. Why and how she chose to depict women adds a new dimension to American literary history. My students have enjoyed "opening up" the style only to discover that it really is about "something."
Consider asking your students to write about a subject matter of their own choice in each of the styles represented in the anthology. Ask them to choose something from their own experience that they think will "fit" with that style. Have them comment on what they have learned from the exercise. Does the style determine a range of appropriate experiences? Can you truly use her style with your experience? How does the "fit" fit? When does it not? Did you learn something new about your experience by "seeing" it as Stein would have at the time she used that style? The underlying point here is that her "style" literally changes from text to text. The style is specific to the matter at hand.
Students become engaged with Stein's ideas, values, and experience as a woman. Her response to war interests them. They are interested in her ideas about democracy, race, geniuses, about why ordinary people are worth so much serious attention. They like the children's stories, when we get into what it means to write for children. Detective story buffs get into her ideas about the detecting mind.
My experience has been that once students believe she is serious, they give her serious attention and are fascinated by how she chooses to present the fabric of her life. Hers is a powerful mind and they respond to it. How she turns marginality into centrality is of interest to most of us.
Even so, their question continues to be, "Why is she so hard?"
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Gertrude Stein is interested in:
what it is to be an American
what it is to be a woman
how people see things
how people tell stories
She describes her own ordinary experience.
She writes about ordinary, commonplace people in such a manner that the absolute uniqueness of each is captured. This is her contribution to the American tradition of democracy and individualism.
She writes extensively about her life, and her growth into her life, as a major American writer of the twentieth century. She comments on culture, art, politics, and sexuality.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Begin by showing how her work grows out of the American tradition of realism and naturalism.
Then show how she, in a typically twentieth-century fashion, becomes concerned with how we see what we see. As an American, a first-generation child of European Jewish parents, a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, and an artist, she is fully aware of marginality and centrality and ponders the process by which we organize experience and assign centrality, value, and worth. Remember that she is educated at Harvard University in philosophy and at the Johns Hopkins University in medicine.
She is fully aware that what she is has not historically been treated as fully human, fully civilized. Her literary strategies of a lifetime can be seen to be attempts to portray each life, each point of view, as fully real, absolutely present, and of equal value.
I focus on her willingness to continue writing serious and challenging texts without benefit of a wide contemporary audience. She says she writes for herself and strangers.
Serious writers, common readers, the audiences of her operas, and readers of her autobiographies and essays are variously able to articulate what attracts them and compels their attention. She tries very hard not to be influenced by "audiences."
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Stein is so self-consciously American and so well read that it is fruitful to take her poetry and prose and set it beside such writers as Dickinson, Whitman, James, Wharton, Norris, Dreiser, and see what she does with related subject matter--her forms are radical critiques of the relation between content and form in American naturalism, romanticism, and realism.
Flaubert and Mann are interesting set beside her early prose works. Similarly Hemingway's early short stories are profitably set beside hers. One can see how she evolves a prose style in which the subject matter and the mode of narrative are about equal in weight. It helps to see that she is looking steadily at the "real" world, as she evolves her prose and poetic (and hybrid) conventions.
Cluster T. S. Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Stein. Often these male contemporaries are on her mind as she does something different. She does not share their interest in the past. She evolves a presentation of female persons independent of patriarchal myth.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I ask them to recall what was happening politically, socially, and artistically from 1874 to 1946. What events, achievements, personalities, movements, and concepts associated with those years have a bearing on how we perceive women, Americans, immigrants, Jews, lesbians, and geniuses? This lets us look at who "we" are, what we "see," and how it provides for us a context for understanding what Stein is doing with her writing.
2. (a) Consider Tender Buttons, "Preciosilla," and Four Saints in Three Acts. Characterize Stein's "modernist" strategies. T. S. Eliot and James Joyce add layers of meaning and mythic reference; she seems bent on stripping meaning away and living in a literal present represented as fully as possible. Is this a strategy for writing beyond patriarchy rather than shoring it up or representing fully its complexity?
(b) Stein's impulse to describe, speculate, and pontificate places her firmly in the tradition of Emerson and others. She writes about herself as a Jew, a lesbian, a westerner, an American, an expatriate, and a bourgeois Victorian lady of limited but comfortable means. How does she expand our definition of American individualism?
(c) How does one integrate her comparatively large body of erotic poetry into the American literary tradition? What does it mean that a major American woman writer born in 1874 writes extensively about sex, and that her partner is a woman? How does it enlarge our concept of female sexuality and of female experience?
(d) It is useful to talk about the tradition of female biography, autobiography, letters, and memoirs, and how this differs from the male tradition. Stein both writes directly about her experience (Everybody's Autobiography, Paris France) and incorporates it into fiction (The Making of Americans, "Ada," and Ida, A Novel). How does she extend our understanding of this mode?
(e) A number of Stein's works, including Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, have been set to music or produced for the stage. What critical language is appropriate for discussing prose and poetry that experiment with generic con- ventions and concepts normally applied to scene design, ballet, opera, or piano compositions?
(f) What does it mean that forty years after her death, we still do not have major editions of her letters; her notebooks; scholarly editions of her works; adequate representation in teaching anthologies; study guides that would make her obscurity as clear as we find that of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound?
(g) What did Stein gain and lose by living in a foreign country, where the daily language was other than the language of her childhood, her art, and her domestic life? Hemingway, Wharton, and Baldwin also lived abroad. Why? What other American writers chose to live abroad for long periods of time? Why?
(h) What does it mean that over half of her work was published posthumously and that most of her serious work, when published in her lifetime, was not widely read or understood? What comparison can be made with Emily Dickinson's accomplishment, limitations, and reputation?
Bassoff, Bruce. "Gertrude Stein's 'Composition as Explanation.'" Twentieth Century Literature: Gertrude Stein Issue 24, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 76-80.
Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Chapter Five.
Dubnick, Randa. The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Chapters Two and Five.
Katz, Leon. "Weininger and The Making of Americans." Twentieth Century Literature: Gertrude Stein Issue 24, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 8-26.
Kostelanetz, Richard. The Yale Gertrude Stein. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980. Introduction.
Secor, Cynthia. "Gertrude Stein: The Complex Force of Her Femininity." In Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York, edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier, 27-35. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1982.
--. " Ida, A Great American Novel." Twentieth Century Literature: Gertrude Stein Issue 24, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 96-107.
Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. Chapter Four.