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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

[4004] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1935), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103680].

Gertrude Stein lived most of her life in Europe, yet considered herself an American, famously declaring that “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” In 1903, after dropping out of medical school, she joined her brother Leo in Paris and began to write. She and her brother began collecting modern art; paintings by Matisse, Picasso, and other avant-garde artists hung on the walls of her studio. In Paris she developed friendships with some of the foremost artists and writers of her time: Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, and Fitzgerald, among many others. Her home at 27 Rue de Fleurus became a well-known gathering place for the artistic avant-garde as well as intellectuals and up-and-coming writers, who received advice and encouragement from Stein. In 1913 her brother Leo moved out and they divided their art collection. Her longtime companion and lover Alice B. Toklas lived with her from 1909 until Stein’s death in 1946, and the two traveled together and hosted artists and expatriates at their house in Paris. Together they served France in both world wars, amassed an impressive collection of modern art, and created a gathering place for literati and artists seeking one another in a time of artistic experimentation.

Her first published book, Three Lives (1909), was composed of three stories written while examining a Cezanne painting and struck her as being “the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature.” In the five hundred novels, stories, articles, plays, and poems Stein would write in her lifetime, she remained committed to experimentation with language and to breaking away from the traditions of the past. Her radical outlook on art and the central role she played in the modern art world made Stein a celebrity in America and Europe, and following World War I, she gave lectures at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as in numerous American cities on a lecture tour in the 1930s.

Stein is known for her radical experiments with language; in The Making of Americans (1925) she employs stream-of-consciousness and repetition to draw readers’ attention to her language. Tender Buttons (1914) likewise challenges readers: Stein invents her own system of language here, and often meaning is not possible to determine. Stein wished to separate language from its use in representing the world of objects in the same way that abstract painters tried to separate painting from representation.

Teaching Tips

  • In Really Reading Gertrude Stein, poet Judy Grahn offers several suggestions that may help students appreciate what Stein was trying to do with her often confusing prose. Grahn suggests reading Stein’s work aloud to help readers appreciate the sound of her writing and to involve them actively in the language Stein chooses. Grahn also cautions against being too serious in one’s pursuit of meaning in Stein, and invites readers to skip around Stein’s sometimes exceedingly lengthy meditations on people and objects. She reminds readers that there are ideas lurking behind the jumble of words and recommends paying attention to point of view in particular. It might be useful to tell students that getting a handle on Stein isn’t supposed to be easy and that there isn’t one right “answer.”
  • To help students navigate the repetitious prose of The Making of Americans, preview the first few paragraphs in class before you ask students to read the selection in its entirety. A brief introduction to what Stein was trying to accomplish could be followed by a look at what she outlines as her project in the opening paragraphs. You might ask students to speculate about what “it” is in these paragraphs and about why so many people don’t want to know “it” and why Stein does.
  • In a consideration of modernism, you might compare Stein’s repetition in The Making of Americans to Ezra Pound’s extremely spare poem “In a Station of the Metro” and ask students to think about how modernism can take such different forms. Ask them to speculate how these different techniques might achieve some similar ends (e.g., working in fragments, and thereby emphasizing the modern sense of perception as fragmentary).
  • Tender Buttons can be read as a series of still lives, or portraits of objects. Traditionally, a still life is a painting of an inanimate object, such as flowers, food, or books. Still lives allowed artists to demonstrate their skill in representing these objects realistically and by manipulating color, light, and texture. Like elegies, still lives emphasize life’s fleeting qualities and offer a stay against mortality by immortalizing these objects in paint. Using reproductions of modernist still lives by Cezanne, discuss with your students what innovations painters made in this genre in the first decades of the twentieth century. Was the goal to be as realistic as possible? If not, what was the goal of the modernist painter of still lives? How may you apply these conclusions to the still lives Stein presents in Tender Buttons?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Try to pinpoint some of the ways Stein uses the terms she has selected. What exactly does she mean by “repeating,” in The Making of Americans, for example? What is it exactly that she repeatedly intends to “begin”?
  2. Comprehension: What are the objects examined in Tender Buttons? Are there any hints about why they are described as they are? What is “A Piece of Coffee”? Why do you think “A Red Hat” begins, “A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey is monstrous ordinarily”?
  3. Context: Much of modern art and literature shows an interest in displaying the world as bewilderingly fractured and fragmented. Consider the fragmentation of Stein’s writing in conjunction with a contemporary work of art by a cubist painter and with John Dos Passos’s pastiche of headlines and newsreel materials. How do all these works represent the modern world and what comment might they be making on modern modes of living?
  4. Exploration: You might make fruitful comparisons between Stein’s The Making of Americans and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, which seeks common attributes of humanity while also celebrating diversity. Find passages in both works that suggest to you common threads in the two writers’ projects. Where do they diverge?

Selected Archive Items

[4003] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, New York (1934), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103678]. 
Stein became a celebrity in the United States and Europe because of her radical experiments with language and her importance to the world of modern art.

[4004] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 103680]. 
Photograph of Stein standing in front of American flag. Although Stein considered herself American, she lived in Paris, where she offered patronage to many promising expatriate American writers.

[4024] Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture (Les Poissons) (1911), 
courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. 
Painting by modern artist Henri Matisse. Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo began collecting original works of modern art in the early 1900s, including paintings by Matisse and Picasso.

[7849] Linda Watts, Interview: “Gertrude Stein’s Relationship to Feminism” (2002), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Watts, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences director and professor of American studies (University of Washington, Bothell), discusses Stein’s feminist beliefs and commitment to women’s rights. Although not aligned with the suffrage movement, Stein challenged restrictive gender norms.

[7850] Catharine Stimpson, Interview: “Gertrude Stein, Experimentalism, and Science” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science (New York University), discusses the influence of Stein’s scientific training on her literary work, particularly the expec-tations of trial and error in experiments.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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