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Gertrude Stein

From Women in European History

File:Example.jpg Photograph By Cecil Beaton 1935


Gertrude Stein: A Critical Biography

Gertrude Stein: A Critical Biography

There is an inherent challenge in writing about a writer. The writer by profession trades in personal histories, and often separating historical fact from literary artifice can be a problematic venture. Such is the case with Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein, the prolific writer, poet, philosopher and matriarch of Europe’s famed “lost generation”, introduced herself to Europe and the world through her work The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Using her longtime lover, assistant, and friend Alice B. Toklas as narrator, Stein’s Autobiography provides a nuanced portrait of the lifestyle and philosophy of the community of artists and intellectuals that Stein hosted in her Parisian home in the years before and after the First World War.

European society at the turn of the twentieth century was firmly rooted in traditional gender roles. Women were pressured into assuming the mantle of wife and mother and generally discouraged from pursuing higher education. Stein, as an expatriate, a homosexual, and an independent and highly-educated free thinker, diverged in almost every way from the established cultural norms and behaviors expected of other contemporary European (or American) women. Arguably, it was this very rupture with European traditionalism that qualified Stein to foster the artistic and intellectual endeavors of a new community of avant-garde painters, writers and thinkers who through their rejection of established European cultural, artistic, and intellectual norms would bring Europe into modernity.

Early Life

Stein was born on February 3, 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania into what she claimed was, “a very respectable middle class family.” [1] Daniel Stein (Gertrude’s father) was a railroad executive and very much detached from his children. In her memoirs Stein claimed to have always found her father “depressing”. Be this as it may, Stein’s father laid the foundation for her intellectual inquisitiveness and cosmopolitan character by bringing the entire family to live in Paris and Vienna and by keeping the Stein family bookshelves well stocked. Even at a young age, Stein broke with traditional feminine normative patterns. The first role Stein would reject was that of the obedient daughter. Stein was defiant of her father’s paternal authority and greeted his death with relative indifference. Fortunately Stein had a large family, and was supported by her elder brother Michael who provided her with, “the economic stability to pursue whatever goals she chose” [2] Needless to say, very few other women in Europe or America enjoyed such a degree of personal and economic liberty. Indeed, Indeed, without Michael Stein’s financial backing Gertrude Stein’s normative rebellion would never have been possible.

Stein and Status

Stein, free from the need the need to support herself economically enjoyed the benefits of two of the most reputable institutions of higher learning in the United States. Years later, while living in Paris Stein was able to entertain luminaries all day and write late into the night because of the stable economic foundation her brother had established for her. This simply would not have been option for the majority of women on both sides of the Atlantic. In general, the options available to both European and American women at the turn of the twentieth century were extraordinarily limited. The majority of women received little or no higher education and thus worked low wage low skilled jobs. Socio-economic constraint necessarily engenders a limitation in geographic mobility. In general, lower wages made international travel a luxury and a near impossibility for the majority of European women. As a result, most middle-class women lived relatively static lives, their geographic possibilities restricted by their economic realities.Indeed Stein’s extraordinary education and geographic mobility informed her ability to become the host, writer and intellectual that she ultimately became.


In 1893 Stein entered Radcliffe College, Harvard College’s sister school. After completing her undergraduate work at Radcliffe, Stein went on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins University. While Stein did not complete her M.D, the level of higher education she received was rare for any individual, and extraordinary for a woman at the turn of the twentieth century. While in Cambridge, Stein’s already rebellious tendencies flourished under the tutelage of the philosopher and academic William James. James encouraged his students to embrace the new the unorthodox and unconventional. James famously exhibited, “a willingness to accept what was not readily understandable”. [3] It is incontestable that this particular intellectual spirit shaped Stein’s development as a writer, an intellectual, and as a human being. One of the trademark elements of James’s philosophy was his, “insistence that no possible truth or method be discounted”[4] and This open approach to novel concepts not only shaped Stein’s writing (“stream of consciousness” was a phrase introduced by William James, and later applied to literature by Stein) but more importantly, James’s insistence that his students, “keep [their] minds open” undoubtedly influenced Stein’s tendency to seek out patterns of thought and art that did not fit within the standard normative framework. The Harvard students of the 1890s—particularly female students—were expected to be seen rather than heard in the classroom. James’s influence further buttressed Stein’s already strong intellectual independence. This philosophy would serve to help stein better foster and encourage the often-unorthodox artistic and intellectual endeavors of the individuals who became a part of the community at 27 Rue de Fleurus in the following years.

Take, for example Stein’ subsequent defense of Pablo Picasso’s early cubist paintings in mid nineteen teens. According to Greenfield, despite Stein’s “initial reservations” she “realized that Picasso was trying to strike out in new directions in his art” and was “progressing toward what would develop into an artistic revolution… She… championed his cause [5] Once again the combination of a good education and healthy tradition of divergence, Stein was able to foster the new ideas that would ultimately push Europe into modernity. But Stein’s education was not the only divergent characteristic that furthered her relative degree of personal and professional liberty. Stein’s homosexuality and dominant personality, combined with her wealth, allowed her to remain free from the inhibitions that generally accompanied traditional marriage and child rearing. However, while Stein was openly homosexual within her own community, she remained largely restrained in public life. At the turn of the twentieth century nearly all homosexual public figures were largely ostracized.

File:picasso.jpg Pablo Picasso Les Demoiselles d'avignon. 1907

Stein Meets Alice B. Toklas

In 1907 Stein met the woman who would become her life long companion, assistant and friend, Alice B. Toklas. Using Toklas’s voice Stein recounts her own autobiography with a matter-of-fact tone and a degree of detachment that would have been impossible otherwise. From the autobiography, it is abundantly clear that Stein assumed the dominant, traditionally “masculine” role in the relationship while Toklas remained relatively deferential and submissive. In her years as salon hostess in the teens and twenties Stein would quite notoriously only discuss serious intellectual matters with her male guests, leaving Toklas to entertain, “the wives of geniuses and near geniuses”[6]. Needless to say, Stein’s lesbianism marks another break with the European sexual tradition. European society by definition in the 1890s was rigidly heteronormative. Quite arguably, Stein’s role as the dominant partner in her sexual relationship with Toklas facilitated the intellectual relationships that Stein forged with men like Picasso, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Had Stein taken a husband, it is not unreasonable to conclude that it would have been her, and not Toklas who would have been entertaining the wives of near geniuses in the kitchen while the men talked. Unrestrained by restrictions of traditional heterosexual European marriage, Stein retained her intellectual agency. However, it is important to note that Stein’s sexuality was only one factor among many that enabled her create the distinctly avant-grade community that she did, and thereby serve as a Madame Geoffrin for turn of the century. Ultimately, all of Stein’s divergent characteristics were further amplified by her unique geographic and temporal circumstances, congealing her position as the center of the modernist movement that spread outward from Paris after the First World War. The Modernist movement as a cultural force overturned existing patterns of art, literature, even religion. Who better to lead such a movement than a woman who categorically rejected the cookie cutter femininity imposed on her by a conservative and oppressive society.

Stein in Paris

As an unmarried and independently wealthy woman, Gertrude Stein was entirely unrestrained by matrimonial, maternal, or monetary concerns, and therefore was completely at liberty to leave her medical studies at Johns Hopkins in 1903 and join her brother in Paris simply because, “in the last two years at the medical school she was bored, frankly openly bored”i.. Not so with Gertrude Stein. Rather than allowing profession to determine her residence, Stein’s residence shaped and informed her profession. Paris, Stein’s adopted “hometown”, has a rich tradition of being a nexus of intellectual and creative energy. As Howard Greenfield writes, Stein’s Paris was:

…drawing to it the most inventive, creative artists of the age—and from all over the world. Most of them still poor and struggling, but they felt they could best develop their art in the stimulating atmosphere of the French capital[7]

The fact that Paris became a confluence of new artistic and intellectual creations at the turn of the century was no accident. Paris in the years before and after the First World War attracted the divergent, the new, the deviant, and the avant-garde. The Modernist movement that Stein helped to cultivate served to overturn all things traditional.In the broadest terms, modernism encompasses the activities and output of those who thought traditional or established forms of art, architecture, literature religious faith and social organization were in need of change. Gertrude Stein as the homosexual, the intellectual and atheist was the very embodiment of this rupture in European normativity. Every facet of Stein’s identity served to overturn the from and structure of traditional European society. Stein, like her predecessors the Salonières, happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time to focus these burgeoning artistic and intellectual energies into one cohesive modernist movement.

The First World War

Having exclusively focused on the ways in which Stein’s life and work departs from the traditional patterns of European Society at the turn of the twentieth century, It is important to note that when the conflagration of the First World War engulfed Europe in 1914, Stein and Toklas, despite their eccentricities and radical idiosyncrasies, underwent a wartime experience that was shared by women throughout the European continent. Stein and Toklas, like European women everywhere, were immobilized by the constant threat of violence. Stein and Toklas experienced air raids frequently:

The next time there was a Zeppelin alarm and it was not very long after the first one, Picasso and Eve were dining with us. By this time we knew that the two story building of the atelier was no more protection than the roof of the little pavilion under which we slept

Stein and Toklas, through their volunteer work with the American Fund for the French Wounded, were active active participants in battle of the home front. After returning from Mallorca in 1916, Stein and Toklas acquired a ford truck and began delivering medicine and supplies to French troops:

We did finally arrive in Perpignana and began visiting hospitals and giving away our stores and sending word to headquarters if we thought they needed more than we had…We were also given quantities of comfort bags and distributing these was a perpetual delight, it was like a continuous Christmas. [8] Through their contribution to the war effort, Stein and Toklas revealed precisely how moblizied Europeans of all stripes became during the First World War . Both Stein and Toklas were awarded the Recconaissance Francaise for their contributions. In their work for the American Fund for the French wounded, Stein and Toklas encountered the horrors of war firsthand, and it impossible to understand Stein’s postwar life and work outside of the context of the first world war. File:R.jpg

Gertrude Stein and her supply van "Auntie"

Stein the Writer

Gertrude Stein’s work, like her like life, was characterized by rupture and divergence from the normative establishment. Stein’s writing defies many of the conventions of English literature. Stein was notorious for her extensive use of the split infinitive and rejection of punctuation..[9] After the First World War, Stein’s divergent writing style intensified. Throwing off a European literary ideology characterized by a reliance on highly structured narrative form, Stein furthered the idea that “emotion itself” should not be the source of literature, but rather, writing should, “consist of an exact reproduction of either an outer or an inner reality”. This philosophy of writing had a particular resonance with the new writers who emerged from the wreckage of World War One. Stein was Hemingway’s mentor, and her encouragement to “reproduce reality” undoubtedly influenced Hemingway’s writing in particular and fiction in general[10]

Stein continued to write and entertain artists and intellectuals in her home until well into the late 1930s, and was forced out of her home by the outbreak of World War II, but her legacy of normative divergence lives on, having laid the foundation for later generations of European women to break with tradition and reshape their societies to meet their needs and thereby change the very world around them. Gertrude Stein was a trailblazer for the homosexuals, the atheists, and the burgeoning new school of modernist writers. In rejecting the identity society had crafted for her, Stein opened the possibility for further generations of European women to upend societal expectation and truly shape independent and individual identities.

Annotated Bibliography

1) Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1933

2) Knapp, Bettina. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum Books, 1990.

This text contains a focused treatment of Stein’s childhood, and places Stein within a more concrete historical context. It supplements Stein’s self-portrait in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

3) Hobhouse, Janet. Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. London: George Winfield and Nicholson Limited, 1975.

This particular biography has chapters devoted entirely to Stein’s years as a student and her participation in the First World War, two highly emphasized periods in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

4) Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. London: Pandora Press a division of HarperCollins, 1991.

This text provides valuable (and objective) insight into the relationship between Stein and Toklas. The Author ‘s “focus is the story of the story of the relationship between Gertrude and Alice- a devoted marriage”. Stein’s characterization in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas lacks the objectivity this text provides.

5)Greenfield, Howard. Gertrude Stein: A biography. New York: Crown Publishers Inc, 1973.

This text has a particularly strong focus on the relationships Stein built while in Paris. This is particularly important as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas strongly emphasizes Stein’s social circle.

7)Stein in Time: History Manuscripts and Memory. John Witter Furgeson. Modernism/Modernity, Volume 6, Number 1, January 1999, pp. 115-151.

This Essay discusses Stein’s theories of history and historiography, thus providing a lens through which to examine The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

8)Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography and the Art of Contradictions . Timothy W. Galow. Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 32, Number 1, Fall 2008 pp. 111-128.

This essay directly addresses the ramifications of stein’s break with traditional autobiographical form in her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In order to better understand this work as Stein’s autobiography this question must be addressed.


  1. Howard Greenfield, Gertrude Stein: A Biography (New York: Crown Publishers, 1973), 9
  2. Greenfield 11.
  3. Greenfield 15
  4. Greenfield 16
  5. Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice (London: Pandora Press, 1991) 103.
  6. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1933), 85
  7. Greenfield 35
  8. Stein 247
  9. Knapp, Bettina. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum Books, 1990, 67
  10. Stein 301

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