Gertrude Stein - brief biography

[adapted from an entry in the (c)Encyclopedia Britannica] (b. Feb. 3, 1874, Allegheny, Pa., U.S.--d. July 27, 1946, Paris), avant-garde American writer, eccentric, and self-styled genius, whose Paris home was a salon for the leading artists and writers of the period between World Wars I and II.

Stein spent her infancy in Vienna and Paris and her girlhood in Oakland, Calif. At Radcliffe College she studied psychology with the philosopher William James. After further study at Johns Hopkins medical school she went to Paris, where she was able to live by private means. From 1903 to 1912 she lived with her brother Leo, who became an accomplished art critic; thereafter she lived with her lifelong companion Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967).

Stein and her brother were among the first collectors of works by the Cubists and other experimental painters of the period, such as Pablo Picasso (who painted her portrait), Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque, several of whom became her friends. At her salon they mingled with expatriate American writers, such as Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, and other visitors drawn by her literary reputation. Her literary and artistic judgments were revered, and her chance remarks could make or destroy reputations. In her own work, she attempted to parallel the theories of Cubism, specifically in her concentration on the illumination of the present moment and her use of slightly varied repetitions and extreme simplification and fragmentation. The best explanation of her theory of writing is found in the essay Composition and Explanation, which is based on lectures that she gave at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and was issued as a book in 1926. Among her work that was most thoroughly influenced by Cubism is Tender Buttons (1914), which carries fragmentation and abstraction beyond the borders of intelligibility.

Her first published book, Three Lives (1909), the stories of three working-class women, has been called a minor masterpiece. The Making of Americans, a long composition written in 1906-08 but not published until 1925, was too convoluted and obscure for general readers, for whom she remained essentially the author of such lines as "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." Her only book to reach a wide public was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), actually Stein's own autobiography. The performance in the United States of her Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), which the composer Virgil Thomson had made into an opera, led to a triumphal American lecture tour in 1934-35. Thomson also wrote the music for her second opera, The Mother of Us All (published 1947), based on the life of feminist Susan B. Anthony.

Stein became a legend in Paris, especially after surviving the German occupation of France and befriending the many young American servicemen who visited her. She wrote about these soldiers in Brewsie and Willie (1946).


A critical study is Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1971). James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (1974, reissued 1982), describes her life in France. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (eds.), Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature (1987), contains scholarly essays. Bruce Kellner (ed.), A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content with the Example (1988), provides a literary guide, including an annotated bibliography of selected criticism.


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