It is difficult to think of 1920's Paris without recalling Gertrude Stein. A friend to some of the most prominent artists and writers of the 20th century, Stein is not only known for her own accomplished writing contributions, but also for her personal lifestyle.
Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She attended Radcliffe from 1893-1897, where she was a student of William James. One day Stein wrote, "Dear Professor James, I am sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today"...the next day James send her a postcard saying "I understand perfectly how you feel, I often feel like that myself," and then he gave her the highest mark in his course (World pg). She then began premedical work at Johns Hopkins. In 1902, she decided to take a break from her studies, and went abroad, finally joining her brother Leo in Paris at 27 Rue de Fleurus in 1903. Stein would not touch American soil again for thirty years. She once said, "I have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half in which I made what I made" (World pg).
Stein became very interested and involved in the modern art movements that was beginning to flourish in Paris. She not only encouraged, but purchased the works of many of the budding artists, including Picasso and Matisse (Stein pg). During the 1920's, she became the leader of a 'cultural salon' that included writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stein had a great influence on her group of post World War I expatriates. Stein is credited with coining the phrase 'the lost generation' in reference to those who were living out the post war years in Paris (Stein pg). "Paris was the place that suited those of us that were to create the twentieth century art and literature..." (World pg). In "Paris France," Stein writes that everyone who writes, lives inside themselves in order to tell what is there, "That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really" (Stein 2).
When I began writing, said Stein, "I was always writing about beginning again and again. In The Making of Americans I was making a continuous present a continuous beginning again and again, the way they do in making automobiles or anything, each one has to be begun, but now everything having been begun nothing had to be begun again" (World pg). Stein's abstract style was not very well received by the general public. Many of those in the art world, however, referred to her as a 'literary cubist,' comparing her the cubist painter of that time, due to her ability of projecting reality beyond reality
World pg). No doubt Stein was influenced by the salon of artists she entertained, however, her former professor William James also had a great influence on her writing style. James, a philosopher and psychologist, invented the term 'stream of consciousness' and explored its meanings in "The Principles of Psychology," 1890. As a student of James during the 1890's, Stein applied the concepts of James' psychology to her writing (American 135). In Stein's "Three Lives," 1909, and "Tender Buttons," 1914, she "showed how the conventions of sequential narrative and discursive description could be demolished and remade" (American 135). "I suppose other things may be more exciting to others...I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves" (World pg). Stein would slowly, but surely win an audience for her 'stream of consciousness' writing. "I am writing for myself and strangers... This is the only way that I can do it..." (World pg).
Stein's writing emphasizes sounds and rhythms rather than the sense of words, by departing from the conventional meanings, the grammar, and syntax, attempting to capture 'moments of consciousness,' "independent of time and memory" (Stein pg). Her first published work, "Three Lives" explores the mental processes of three women. "The Making of Americans," 1925, is considered her most characteristic and most difficult narrative. Stein's most famous work is her 1933, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" (Stein pg). This is actually Stein's own autobiographical work that she presents as that of her lifetime companion. Stein's critical essays include, "Composition as Explanation," 1926, "How to Write," 1931, "Narration," 1935, and "Lectures in America," 1935 (Stein pg). Other works include "Tender Buttons," a volume of poetry, two librettos for the operas of Virgil Thomson, "Four Saints in Three Acts," 1934, and "The Mother of Us All," 1947 (Stein pg). "Wars I Have Seen," 1945, are a collection of some of Stein's personal observations, and "Brewsie and Willie," 1946, is about American soldiers in France (Stein pg).
Kirk Curnutt in "Parody and Pedagogy: teaching style, voice, and authorial intent in the works of Gertrude Stein" writes that Stein is one of the few authors who benefited from the "anti-formalism of contemporary literary studies" (Curnutt 1). Curnutt explains that "because her writing does not manifest the internal complexity of theme, symbolism, and style by which literature is traditionally defined, Stein has long challenged scholars trained in close-reading strategies to reconcile her reputation with hermeticism" (Curnutt 1). Edmund Wilson's Axel remarked, " However unintelligible we may find her writing, we are aware of a literary personality of unmistakable originality and distinction" (Curnutt 1). Critics tended to measure her influence against a variety of authors, "from Hemingway and Richard Wright to Ashbery and William Gass" (Curnutt 1). They did this by calibrating it according to her celebrity, "she was the 'Mother Goose of Monparnasse' who nurtured the nascent careers of those 'young men of twenty-six' flooding" into postwar Paris (Curnutt 1). Stein was the unapologetic egotist who rose to popular success with a gossipy, often caustic memoir of Ezra Pound, labeling him the 'village expainer' and Hemingway as a 'better Rotarian than modernist" (Curnutt 1).
A few critical studies actually attempted to validate her fame by demonstrating that Stein's writing was "amenable to formalist criteria like ambiguity, irony, and paradox," however, these works have not stood the test of time and appear to be antipathetic toward Stein's own suspicions of 'old-fashioned' modernism, often concluding that her writing is meaningful "only as it relates to her biography" (Curnutt 1).
The story of Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein has become legendary. Stein's anecdote concerning the genesis of his portrait of her is found in "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." It is an elaborate narrative of "sexual identity, masquerade, and power" (Lubar 56). It seems that after sitting for Picasso roughly eighty times during the autumn and winter of 1905-1906, their friendship and artistic dialogue had grown in intensity, when the sessions ended abruptly "with an act of erasure, a literal effacement of Gertrude's visage" (Lubar 56). She and her brother, Leo, left for Fiesole in early spring, while Picasso and his lover Fernade Olivier departed for Spain in early summer. Then, the same day Picasso returns to Paris, he completes her portrait from memory. Picasso biographer, John Richardson, writes,
She was in some respects a throwback to the self- fertilizing goddesses and dryads of folklore, who are as fearsome and all-knowing as any male deity. Besides being a hieratic earth mother, she was a new species, a kind of androgyne both more feminine and more masculine than the adolescent waifs of 1905. An 'hommesse'" (Lubar 56).
Stein, remarked in small monograph on Picasso said, "I was and I still am satified with my portrait, for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me" (Lubar 56). Stein claimed Picasso as her own, an attitude that comes with experience, age, and social standing. In "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," Stein portrays her relationship with Picasso as one of an older sister, nurturing, "cultivating a precocious but unformed genius" (Lubar 56). She encouraged those around her to buy his drawings when he was in financial needs and became his adviser and confidante to his personal affairs, including his marital conflicts. Moreover, Stein suggests that Picasso became a man and "realized his genius under her influence" (Lubar 56).
When Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas first met, both women claim to have heard bells ring. It must have been true, for they had one of the happiest marriages of the 20th century (Benfer pg). Alice described that at their first meeting, she believed that Stein was speaking from her brooch, "She wore a large, round coral brooch, and when she talked, very little or laughed a good deal, I thought her voice came from her brooch... It was unlike any other else's voice...a deep, full velvety contralto's, like two voices" (Benfer pg). Alice believed the sound of bells meant that she was in the presence of a genius. Both women had much in common, believing that life should be filled with…