Gertrude Stein was many things at many different times in her life. Born in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1874, Stein rubbed shoulders with a who’s who of the leading voices in literature and art, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway (who asked Stein to be the godmother of his son), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Henri Matisse, and many others.
She was an art collector, a novelist, a poet, a playwright, and more. When she began publishing her own literary works at the beginning of the 20th century, she became a legend in her own right. She contained multitudes.
Even before she became a darling of the literary world, Stein was embroiled in the world of the arts. She and her brother were art collectors, and in Paris she held a weekly “salon” at her home that was visited by some of the world’s leading artists, writers, and thinkers. These gatherings “brought together confluences of talent and thinking that would help define modernism in literature and art,” according to the website of the Yale Library.
Stein published numerous books, poems, essays, and more beginning in 1909, but it was the 1933 publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that catapulted Stein to literary stardom. Named for (and written from the point of view of) Stein’s life partner, whom she had met in Paris in 1907, the book upended expectations of what biographical (and autobiographical) writing was capable of. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway referred to Toklas as Stein’s “wife.”
Stein’s lesbian relationships were only one of the many complex and often controversial aspects of her life. During World War II, Stein and Toklas relocated to a country house in the French Alps, where they avoided Nazi persecution despite the fact that both women were Jewish. For many critics, this was the result of Stein’s collaboration with the Vichy regime, which worked with Nazis to deport thousands of Jews to concentration camps, most of whom did not survive. Stein continued to support members of the regime – and even of the Nazi party – after the war had ended.
Similarly, Stein’s literary legacy is complicated and often called into question, even while her significance in the world of letters is undeniable. Mabel Dodge Luhan once wrote that, “In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives and, apart from concept, it is so exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music.” Meanwhile, James Thurber called Stein “one of the most eminent of the idiots” and referred to her Geography and Plays as “80,000 words which mean nothing at all.”
Love her or hate her, Stein is a part of our literary fabric, and here to stay. From among her many pieces of published writing, she gifted us with innumerable phrases that have become as everyday as any quotation from Shakespeare or Hemingway—in fact, Hemingway gives Stein credit for the term "lost generation." And perhaps most famous is her phrase “there is no there there,” describing her former home in Oakland, California.
What’s more, Stein’s work has provided an incalculable amount of inspiration for other writers and artists, including a legacy of uncountable works which reference Stein or her oeuvre directly, from the novels of Bret Easton Ellis to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where Stein is played by Kathy Bates.
One of Stein’s earliest works was Q.E.D., which was written in 1903 but not published until after Stein’s death. It is considered one of the earliest “coming out” stories, and chronicles a fictionalized account of an affair that occurred between Stein and several female friends while she was studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Many of her other books would tackle similar topics, including Fernhurst, another early work that wasn’t published until much later, and Tender Buttons, published in 1914.
The latter is considered one of the most famous of Stein’s “hermetic” works, and consists of three sections titled “Food, Objects, and Rooms.” Like many of Stein’s works, these are fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental. “Unlike her contemporaries,” scholar Marjorie Perloff wrote, “[Stein] does not give us an image, however fractured, of a carafe on a table; rather, she forces us to reconsider how language actually constructs the world we know.”
She also wrote librettos such as Four Saints in Three Acts and Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Many of her works – whether fiction or non- or something in-between – were heavily inspired by the artists with whom she had rubbed elbows from her early days in Paris and whose work she had collected even before that. In particular, the work of Paul Cezanne was a major influence, inspiring Stein to use “the entire text as a field in which every element mattered as much as any other.”
Nowhere is this influence more direct than in Stein’s novel (made up of three seemingly unrelated short stories), Three Lives. Specifically, “the stylistic method [of the book] had been influenced by the Cezanne portrait under which she sat writing,” a portrait the artist had painted of his wife and one which was part of Stein’s extensive collection of art.
Stein wrote and published many other books, plays, essays, and poems, and there’s nowhere near enough space here to even so much as touch upon them all. By far the most famous, however, is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was first published in 1933 and rendered Stein an immediate star in the literary firmament. It was the first of her works to be published (in part) in the Atlantic Monthly, and its massive success helped to fund the rest of her life, while critics like Jeanette Winterson have argued that the book created a new literary form by reinterpreting the autobiography.
Of course, as with most everything about Stein, it wasn’t all wine and roses for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Many of her friends and colleagues objected to their portrayals in the book, with Ernest Hemingway calling it “damned pitiful,” while Stein’s own brother, Leo, dismissed it as a “farrago of lies.” Even Stein’s most famous and foundational work seemed destined to a life of complexity and controversy – but perhaps that’s only appropriate for a woman whose life and legacy were so filled with both.