Influential USian writer Gertrude Stein entered the world in 1874 as the youngest of five children. From a young age, Stein was interested in art, and she began attending college after only one year of high school. While studying philosophy and psychology at Radcliffe, and while a student of poet William James, Gertrude discovered her talent with automatic writing. To practice this method, one tries to let go of one’s conscious mind and write unconsciously, as if in a trance. This became an integral part of Stein’s process.
After her time at Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins University, neither of which she earned a degree at, Gertrude Stein moved to France. She met her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, several years later in 1907, and the couple fell in with a circle of artists including Pablo Picasso, who painted a famous portrait of Getrude (shown below.) According to Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude also provoked jealousy and animosity from James Joyce.*
Stein’s first known work is coming-out story Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum), which was only published posthumously. A prolific writer, she composed over thirty volumes of fiction, essays, biography and opera. Until 1932, novella collection Three Lives and “verbal portrait” collection Tender Buttons received the most acclaim, albeit with limited commercial success. The latter has been called a literary answer to Cubism and a feminist take on a male-dominated movement. It also was controversial due to its lesbian-related content and rumors that the title referred to female genitalia.
Gertrude Stein’s most successful book, and the one for which she is most often remembered, is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. As the title implies, it was written as if it were Toklas’ memoir, providing a first-person narrative of Alice’s life including her childhood, travels, and current friendships. Although the premise was unusual, Autobiography proved more readable than Stein’s esoteric, sometimes automatic writing-inspired works. Virgil Thomson, who collaborated with Stein on the operas “Four Saints in Three Acts” and “The Mother of Us All,” proclaimed that Autobiography “is in every way except actual authorship Alice Toklas’s book; it reflects her mind, her language, her private view of Gertrude, also her unique narrative powers. Every story in it is told as Alice herself had always told it […] Every story that ever came into the house eventually got told in Alice’s way, and this was its definitive version.”**
With all that the iconic Stein accomplished, it is tempting—and common—to gloss over the less savory aspects of her character. Unfortunately, she held some deeply troubling political views. A Jewish woman of German ancestry, she infamously suggested that Adolf Hitler be given the Nobel Peace Prize for weakening the European Left. Some maintain that this was a sarcastic joke; at the very least, it was in poor taste. While Stein went on to criticize both Hitler and Stalin in her writing, she remained politically conservative and pro-Fascist.*** Gertrude was ambivalent about her Judaism and is said to have considered writer Otto Weininger, a misogynist and anti-Semite, a personal hero.
Stein died of stomach cancer in 1946, at the age of 72. Before her unsuccessful operation in Paris, Gertrude asked Alice “What is the answer?” and, when she did not receive a response, added “In that case, what is the question?” These were her last known words. Over half a century later, Stein continues to make us think.
* Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.
** Thomson, Virgil Thomson. An Autobiography by Virgil Thomson. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1985.
*** Malcolm, Janet. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.