Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, the youngest of five children of Daniel and Amelia Stein, her wealthy German-Jewish-American parents. As a child, she lived in Vienna, Austria, and Paris, France, but grew up mainly in Oakland, and San Francisco, California. Living in these different countries, she learned to speak German, French, and English fluently. She also learned music and dance. Her early formal education was spotty, but she was a dedicated reader and had a strong interest in art. When Stein was fourteen her mother died, followed by her father just three years later. With the family splintered, Stein, along with one sister, moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with her aunt.
With only a year of high school, Stein managed to be admitted in 1893 to Radcliffe College, in Massachusetts, where she specialized in psychology and became a favourite of psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910). He discovered her great capacity for automatic writing, in which the conscious waking mind is suspended and the unconscious sleeping mind takes over. The emphasis of the primitive mind at the expense of the sophisticated mind was to become an important part in Stein’s theory and is demonstrated in most of her writing.
Stein did not take a degree at Radcliffe or Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, where she studied medicine for four years. In 1903 she went to Paris, France, and took up residence on the Left Bank with her brother Leo. In 1907 she met Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967), a wealthy young San Franciscan who became her lifelong companion and secretary, running the household, typing manuscripts, and screening visitors. France became their permanent home.
During Stein’s early Paris years she established herself as a champion of the avant-garde painters, or artists that strive for new methods and techniques within their art. With her inherited wealth she supported young artists and knew virtually all of the important painters, including Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), who did a famous portrait of her, Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Juan Gris (1887–1927), Andrée Derain (1880–1954), and Georges Braque (1882–1963). Her brother Leo became a famous art critic, but their relationship, which had been extremely close, fell apart in 1912 because of a disagreement over his marriage.
Stein’s first two books, Three Lives (1909) and Tender Buttons (1915), stirred considerable interest among a limited but sophisticated audience, and her home became an informal meeting place visited by many creative people, including American composer Virgil Thomson (1896–1969), British writers Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939), Lytton Strachey (1880–1932), and Edith Sitwell (1887–1964), and American writers Ezra Pound (1885–1972), Elliot Paul (1891–1958), Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). It was to Hemingway that Stein characterized the disenchanted expatriate veterans (those living overseas) as a “lost generation.”
A woman with deep black eyes and a supremely self-assured manner, Stein was frequently intimidating, impatient with disagreement, and oftentimes pushed people away. The unique style of her writing appealed primarily to a small audience, but her reputation as a patron of the arts was lifelong.
Stein’s 1934 visit to the United States for the opening of her opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson, started an enormously successful university lecture tour. During the German occupation of France, both Stein and Toklas lived briefly in Culoz, France, returning to Paris in 1944. Stein’s reactions to World War II (1939–45) were recorded in Paris, France (1940) and Wars I Have Seen (1945), and her interest in the soldiers was reflected in the conversations of Brewsie and Willie (1946), which was published a week before her death, on July 27, 1946, in Neuilly, France.
Stein’s first book, Three Lives, her most realistic work, foreshadowed her more abstract writings and demonstrated a number of influences including, Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–1880) Trois contes, and automatic writing. “Melanctha,” the best of the three novellas that made up the book, was an especially tender treatment of an impulsive, flirting African American woman whose relations with men were recorded in a informal, deliberately repetitious style intended to capture the immediacy of consciousness. Stein wanted to give literature the plastic freedom that painting has, and Tender Buttons was a striking attempt at verbal “portraits” in the manner of the cubist painters, an early twentieth-century movement that emphasized the use of geometric shapes.
Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925) gave character analysis within a family chronicle, although it was chiefly concerned with the servants and only very little with the family members. In the 1930s and 1940s she concentrated on memoirs (an account of personal experience), aesthetic theory, plays, and art criticism. How to Write (1931) and The Geographical History of America: The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (1936) explained the theoretical basis of her literary practice.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written as if by Toklas, was an autobiography of Stein. Unexpectedly readable and charming, it became a best-seller. Critic F. W. Dupee called it “one of the best memoirs in American literature.” A sequel, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), described Stein’s visit to America, and Portraits and Prayers (1934) was a collection of verbal pictures of her Paris circle.
Stein’s libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) was a study of the attraction of opposites—the self-disciplined and the compassionate. Picasso (1939) was an inconsistent, witty, sometimes illuminating study of the development of the great painter’s art. Her three wartime books and In Savoy; Or Yes Is for a Very Young Man: A Play of the Resistance in France (1946) showed unexpected social concern.
After Stein’s death, there were numerous publications of the works she left behind. Some of the more notable are The Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein and Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. These works were released in 1974 and 1977 respectively. In 1996 Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts was remade into an avant-garde opera.