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Gertrude Stein Biography

(1874–1946), Three Lives, Tender Buttons

american autobiography writings life

American novelist, poet, playwright, and critic, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, educated at Radcliffe College and Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore. As a child, Stein lived in Vienna, Paris, and Oakland in California before taking an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Harvard where she studied under William James, who was later to remark that she was among the brightest students he had ever taught. Her interests were in experimental psychology, and she enrolled in a course in pre-medicine at Johns Hopkins University as a prelude to what she hoped would be a career in psychology. In 1902 she travelled with her brother Leo first to London and then, in 1903, to Paris where her subsequent fame as an American expatriate, patroness of the arts, and arbiter of taste was established (see Lost Generation). With Leo she began to collect modern paintings, notably those of Braque, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso (who painted a well-known portrait of her in 1906), and she actively encouraged the careers of other artists. Her own writings were a linguistic response to the ‘discoveries’ of Cubism, and her first published work, the stories in Three Lives (1909), experimented with various narrative perspectives. When she parted from her brother in 1912—by which time she was living with her life-long companion, Alice B. Toklas—she quickly became an established figure of literary and artistic life in Paris. She was visited by Roger Fry, Clive Bell, and Wyndham Lewis, and later by American writers, notably Ezra Pound, who took an instant dislike to her, Sherwood Anderson, who spoke frequently of her influence on his work, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The publication of Tender Buttons (1914), a volume of prose poems, marks the beginning of her systematic investigation of the elements of language, particularly its grammatical, syntactical, and semantic properties. While her own creative writings are frequently difficult to read, it is her interest in the formal roots of language which she was to bequeath to her American protégés. William Carlos Williams wrote that she tackled ‘the fracture of stupidities bound in thoughtless phrases, in our calcified grammatical constructions, and in the subtle brainlessness of our meter and favourite prose rhythms—which compel words to follow certain others without precision of thought’. Her linguistic experimentation is best seen in one of her most important works, The Making of Americans, Being a History of a Family's Progress, published in 1925 though written between 1906 and 1908. Her autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written as if it were the autobiography of her close friend, became one of her most successful and popular works. A lecture tour to the USA followed in 1934, and the transcripts of Lectures in America were published in 1935. She wrote prolifically through the 1930s, particularly plays and opera libretti (often for music by Virgil Thomson), and a number of non-fictional prose works, notably Narration: Four Lectures (1935), The Geographical History of America (1936), a further volume of autobiography, Everybody's Autobiography (1937), and her portrait of Picasso (1938). During the Second World War her care of American servicemen brought her further public distinction. She continued to write over the last few years of her life and Wars I Have Seen (1944) is among the more readable of her late narratives; other important works were published after her death. There are two valuable anthologies of her writings, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (1946), edited by Carl Van Vechten, and Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures, 1911–1945 (1967), edited by Patricia Meyerowitz. See Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Her Work (1957) by Elizabeth Sprigge and Gertrude Stein (1961) by Frederick J. Hoffman.

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