On this day in 1874, the American author Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania to wealthy German-Jewish-American parents. After her spotty formal education at Radcliffe and Hopkins in medicine, she made a permanent home for herself in Paris, where she championed avant-garde painting, including the works of Picasso and Matisse. She was a powerful literary force around the time of WWI, as she authored several books and held an artists’ and writers’ salon. Her life and work remain controversial in academic circles.
Some of Stein’s most famous works include Three Lives, Tender Buttons, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and the monumental novel The Making of Americans. Many of her works have been collected in two volumes by the Library of America.
Stein’s literary style is typified by repetition and disjuncture (though in some works, such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Wars I Have Seen, her style is more reader-friendly and based in relatively straightforward narrative). Stein is known for handling language in a philosophical way, as in her famous sentence “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” or her meditation on the implications of the statement “I am I because my little dog knows me” in The Geographical History of America.
Stein is today known as something of an iconic figure of literary modernism. She was played by Kathy Bates in Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris, and her often-cryptic writing has been occasionally parodied (see, for example, “Gertrude Stein Gets Her New iPhone” from McSweeney’s). Her life and works have led to a vast body of critical discussion.
Several resources chronicle her life and works:
- The Poetry Foundation offers a long biographical overview with a bibliography of Stein’s works and suggestions for further reading
- Works by Stein at Project Gutenberg: Tender Buttons, Three Lives, Geography and Plays, and Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein
- UbuWeb contains recordings of Stein (and others) reading her works
- Lynne Tillman discusses the innovative poetics of Stein’s work in a New York Times article on new editions of Ida and Stanzas in Meditation
- Joshua Schuster on “The Making of Tender Buttons“
- The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library
- An evocative biographical sketch by William H. Gass