Indeed. Gertrude Stein wrote for "herself" for many years prior to ever being noticed as the marvelously talented and versatile writer that she was. That fact was a reality simply because she did not have the opportunity for many years to publish the work she was so tirelessly putting out. Meanwhile, her legacy today is that of an extraordinarily insightful and respected woman of letters, an innovator, an elite member of the artistic avant garde in Europe, a prolific poet and writer, a visionary, something of a rebel, and more. Although she died in 1946 (of intestinal cancer), her work is discussed, debated, dissected and analyzed like the work of few other poets/writers. It's almost as if she were alive today.
Certainly this paper focuses on a gifted thinker whose poetic form is sometimes misunderstood, but rarely ignored. And it also delves into the life of a courageous woman who was a lesbian at a time when there was no "gay movement," when there were no "gay rights," and in fact "gay" at the time Gertrude live meant something akin to "happily excited" or "keenly alive and exuberant" (Merriman-Webster, 2003).
This paper also examines the tremendous impact Gertrude's work and life has had on two prominent modern poets, Susan Howe, and Lyn Hejinian. It is likely true that every great writer or artist - of whatever medium and message - has been influenced by the greatness of a preceding giant or innovator. But in the case of Gertrude's influence on Hejinian and Howe, it perhaps goes beyond merely being "influenced." [Editor's note: this paper, out of deep respect and admiration for Gertrude's legacy, uses her first name throughout; the paper uses the last names of others mentioned and quoted; not to lessen their import or impact, but rather to shine a brighter light on Gertrude herself.]
Brief Gertrude Biography and Interesting Personal Facts
When Gertrude Stein's life is more fully understood, her poetry and her place in the world of literature can perhaps be more readily understood as well. Soon after Gertrude's birth (February 3, 1874), her parents left Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and lived in Austria and Paris until returning to the U.S. In 1879, settling in Oakland, California. By the time she was 17, her parents were both deceased, and she moved to the east coast to live with her aunt's family.
As a measure of just how brilliant Gertrude was, and how wonderfully adaptable were the workings of her mind, she graduated with a "magna cum laude" in philosophy from Radcliffe - albeit she had not finished secondary school, and had to be initially admitted into Radcliffe as a "special student." [Editor's note: some biographies indicate Gertrude graduated from Harvard University, not Radcliffe.] In 1903, Gertrude moved to France with her brother, Leo, who was a loyal patron of the arts; in particular he purchased Renoirs, Manets, and Cezannes. Gertrude began writing in France - eventually publishing 28 books - and in 1907, her well-chronicled relationship with Alice B. Toklas began, as Alice arrived in Paris and soon became Gertrude's typist, reader, assistant and critic. In 1910, Alice moved in with Gertrude, and Leo moved to Italy.
It is said Leo and Gertrude had a significant disagreement over Cubism, which Gertrude very much took pleasure in, and Leo despised. And indeed, Gertrude's "Tender Buttons" (1914) publication contained poems analogous to and imitative of Cubism-style paintings done by Picasso and Braque. She was an innovator in this writing style, which emulated art in crafty, creative brushstrokes.
Meanwhile, a couple years before that, her truly innovative side had begun to show (in 1912), when she created "word portraits" of Matisse and Picasso's works. Indeed, she became friends with Picasso, along with a number of literary luminaries who relocated to France from the U.S., who had become "expatriate Americans" - the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Paul Bowles, Natalie Barney and Sylvia Beach. With all the writing she had done, she nevertheless hadn't made any money from her craft until she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas - a work that was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and became a "Book-of-the-Month-Club" selection. Not only did she earn her first literary money on Toklas, she also made a name for herself in the world of publishing and literature.
But this was not a woman who became too "high and mighty" in her fame. In fact, during both WWI and WWII, Gertrude befriended the American soldiers she had met in Europe. She supported organizations which gave comfort to French and American soldiers. She also escaped the awful persecution and even death that most Jews were faced with during the Nazi occupation of France. On that note, it is fair to mention that Gertrude was confused about fascism in the mid-to-late 1930s: in fact, she tried to get Adolph Hitler nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She reportedly met with him once, and spoke highly of him to friends and acquaintances.
When she died in 1946, her estate was left to her loving companion, Alice, who published most of Gertrude's manuscripts over the next 15 years.
Digging into Gertrude's Poetry
The first thing many beginning poetry students often hear with reference to Gertrude Stein is that she is "difficult" to read and comprehend. Plus, for some students and poetry aficionados, Gertrude's eroticism, feminism and lesbianism might be a bit much to swallow. But, the alert instructor can lead a student past those little speed bumps emerging from the difficulties of Gertrude's work, and into the light of day, to see that she really was presenting two abiding concerns through her artistry: a portrayal of the woman's experience, and the exploration of how it is we see and organize what we see. And as for the portrayal of life through the eyes of a woman, one cannot become bogged down in the rut of believing that everything womanly or remotely feminine that Gertrude wrote about was "about herself" or even "about women," any more than a Bob Dylan song about love lost is necessarily about his own lamentable personal experience. For Gertrude, writing through a style - a changing, adapting style - was just another way to convey something, about life, about humanity, about the paradoxes and ironies and juxtapositions of life, as seen through the eyes of a female poet.
Her forms are radical critiques of the relation between content and form in American naturalism, romanticism, and realism," writes editor/instructor Cynthia Secor (Secor, 2002). "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." And speaking of Eliot and Joyce, there are an abundance of materials available as background into their work and their styles of approaching art and life. But, Secor wonders, "what does it mean that over 50 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 Eliot, Joyce, and Ezra Pound?"
Indeed, much has been made of the fact that, whereas Eliot's poem "Prufrock" became, by the twenties, a celebrated work, Gertrude's "prose" sequence didn't come into its own until after WWII. Even today it remains largely unread - because it is allegedly an eccentric passage that cannot be made sense of. Yet once we begin to understand Gertrude's sometimes bizarre way of writing sentences, her utilization of sound play and pun, the way she employs ellipsis and asyntacticality, metonymy and synecdoche, rather than metaphor and symbol, we begin to see her light.
Likewise, her attraction to the use of parody rather than irony (which many poets use as commonly as they breathe in and out), and especially her sometimes slightly annoying use of repetition, not of key nouns, but of words like "notwithstanding," when we become more familiar with her style, she now seems not so very unusual, after all.
Form, in her brilliant book of poetry, Tender Buttons, as in Eliot's "Prufrock" becomes a part of the meaning of the work. And when Eliot reluctantly published Gertrude's poem, "The Fifteenth of November" in the New Criterion, some things were not the same with Gertrude:
Entirely a different thing. Entirely a different thing when all of has been awfully well chosen and thoughtfully corrected.
He said we, and we.
We said he.
He said we.
We said he, and he.
We said it. As we said it. (72)
Also from Tender Buttons, published in 1914, is the first poem in this much-discussed, much-debated work: "A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass" kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing.
All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling.