Stein's own innovative writing emphasizes the sounds and rhythms rather than the sense of words. By departing from conventional meaning, grammar, and syntax, she attempted to capture "moments of consciousness," independent of time and memory. Her first published work was Three Lives (completed 1905, pub. 1909), short stories in which she explored the mental processes of three women, but her most characteristic and probably most difficult narrative is the lengthy, dark, dense, and repetitive The Making of Americans (completed 1911, pub. 1925). The famous Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a linear narrative written in relatively ordinary language, is the story of her own life presented as that of her companion. Stein's critical essays were published as Composition as Explanation (1926), How to Write (1931), Narration (1935), and Lectures in America (1935). Her many other works include the volume of poetry Tender Buttons (1914), a series of "cubist" verbal portraits; two librettos for the operas of Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947); Wars I Have Seen (1945), some personal observations; and Brewsie and Willie (1946), about American soldiers in France.
See biographies by J. M. Brinnin (1959, repr. 1987) and J. Hobhouse (1975); D. Souhami, Gertrude and Alice (1992); B. Kellner, ed., A Gertrude Stein Companion (1988); A. B. Toklas, What Is Remembered (1963, repr. 1985); J. R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (1974, repr. 1991); L. Simon, ed., Gertrude Stein Remembered (1994); B. Wineapple, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (1996); J. Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007); studies by R. Dubnick (1984), J. L. Walker (1984), and U. E. Dydo (2003); bibliography by R. A. Wilson and A. Uphill (1999).
Each period marked Stein's connections with young, and in many cases, brilliantly talented and artistic people at the center of contemporary developments and events. Her writing reflects, or in the case of The Autobiography, reflects on, each decade.
Much of Gertrude Stein's fame derives from a private modern art gallery she assembled, from 1904 to 1913, with her brother Leo Stein. The collection quickly commanded a worldwide reputation; the salon, and the social circle that developed around it, provided the inspiration for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
Leo Stein's acquaintances and study of modern art provided the seed for the famous Stein art collections. He began with Bernard Berenson who hosted Gertrude and Leo in his English country house in 1902, and who suggested Paul Cézanne and Ambroise Vollard's art gallery.
The joint collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein began in late 1904, when Michael Stein announced that their trust account had accumulated a balance of 8,000 francs, a windfall. They spent this windfall at Vollard's Gallery, buying Gauguin's Sunflowers and Three Tahitians, Cézanne's Bathers, and two Renoirs.
The art collection grew and the walls at 27 Rue de Fleurus were continuously rearranged to make way for new acquisitions. In "the first half of 1905" the Steins acquired Cézanne's Portrait of Mme Cézanne and Delacroix's Perseus and Andromeda. Shortly after the opening of the Salon d'automne de 1905 (on October 18, 1905), the Steins acquired Matisse's Woman with the Hat and Picasso's Young Girl with Basket of Flowers (lower left).
By early 1906, Leo and Gertrude Stein's studio was filled with paintings by Henri Manguin, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Honoré Daumier, Henri Matisse, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Their collection was reflective of two famous art exhibitions that took place during their residence together in Paris, and to which they contributed, either by lending their art, or by patronizing the featured artists. Collecting was a shared interest in Gertrude and Leo's inner circle; their elder brother, Michael, and sister-in-law Sarah (Sally) acquired a large number of Henri Matisse paintings; Gertrude's friends from Baltimore, Claribel and Etta Cone, collected in a similar vein, eventually donating their art collection, virtually intact, to the Baltimore Museum of Art. While numerous artists circled into the Stein salon, many of these artists were not represented among the paintings on the wall at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Where Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso's works dominated Leo and Gertrude's collection, Sarah Stein's collection focused on Matisse.
Contemporaries of Leo and Gertrude, Matisse and Picasso became part of their social circle, and were a part of the early Saturday evenings at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Gertrude attributed the beginnings of the Saturday evening salons to Matisse, as
[m]ore and more frequently, people began dropping by to see the Matisse paintings--and the Cézannes: "Matisse brought people, everybody brought somebody, and they came at any time and it began to be a nuisance, and it was in this way that Saturday evenings began.
Among the Picasso circle who frequented the Saturday evenings were: Fernande Olivier (Picasso's mistress), Georges Braque (artist), Andre Derain (artist), Max Jacob (poet), Guillaume Apollinaire (poet), Marie Laurencin (Apollinaire's mistress and an artist in her own right), Henri Rousseau (painter).
A permanent familial break, and a separation of the art collection, was finalized in April 1914, when Leo moved to Settignano, Italy, near Florence. The division of their art collection was described in a letter by Leo, in which he stated:
The Cézanne apples have a unique importance to me that nothing can replace. The Picasso landscape is not important in any such sense. We are, as it seems to me on the whole, both so well off now that we needn't repine. The Cézannes had to be divided. I am willing to leave you the Picasso oeuvre, as you left me the Renoir, and you can have everything except that. I want to keep the few drawings that I have. This leaves no string for me, it is financially equable either way for estimates are only rough & ready methods, & I'm afraid you'll have to look upon the loss of the apples as an act of God. I have been anxious above all things that each should have in reason all that he wanted, and just as I was glad that Renoir was sufficiently indifferent to you so that you were ready to give them up, so I am glad that Pablo is sufficiently indifferent to me that I am willing to let you have all you want of it.
After Gertrude's and Leo's households separated in 1914, she continued to collect examples of Picasso's art which had turned to Cubism (Gertrude several years later). At her death, Gertrude's remaining collection focused on the artwork of Picasso and Juan Gris, having sold most of her pictures by other artists to free up funds to buy the Picassos and the Juan Gris paintings.
In 1888, Amelia Stein (Gertrude's mother) died, and in 1891 Daniel Stein (Gertrude's father) died. Michael Stein (her eldest brother) took over the family business holdings, made wise business decisions and arranged the affairs of his siblings. Michael arranged for Gertrude, and her sister Bertha, to live with their mother's family in Baltimore after the deaths of their parents. (Mellow, 1974, pp. 25-28). It was in Baltimore that Gertrude met Claribel Cone and Etta Cone who held Saturday evening salons which Gertrude would later emulate in Paris, who shared an appreciation for art and conversation about it, and who modeled a domestic division of labor that Gertrude was later to replicate in her relationship with Alice B. Toklas. (Ibid. pp. 41-42).
Gertrude attended Radcliffe College from 1893-1897, and studied under the psychologist William James who first discovered, and then encouraged, her great capacity for automatic writing, a stream of consciousness technique in which the conscious mind is suspended and the unconscious directly evoked. Her studies with James, in psychological experimentation (Mellow, 1947, pp. 31-34), would later resurface in her numerous word portraits. The exaltation of the unconscious mind at the expense of the sophisticated conscious mind was to become an important principle in Stein's work and is manifest in most of her writing. At Radcliffe, she began a lifelong friendship with Mabel Foote Weeks, whose correspondence places much of the progression of Gertrude's life. In 1897, Gertrude spent the summer in Woods Hole, Massachusetts studying embryology at the Marine Biological Laboratory, followed by two years at Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1901, she left Johns Hopkins without obtaining a degree. Hopkins Medical News: The Unknown Gertrude at www.hopkinsmedicine.org
From 1903 to 1914 she lived in Paris with her brother Leo, an art critic. Gertrude and Leo compiled one of the earliest collections of modern art, owning early works by Pablo Picasso (who became a friend and painted her portrait, as well as a portrait of her nephew Allan Stein), Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and other young painters. Before World War I, their salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus attracted these and other artists and members of the avant garde, including the poet, dramatist, critic, journalist Guillaume Apollinaire (Kellner, 1988, pp 144-45).
By April, 1903, Leo rented quarters at 27, Rue de Fleurus, Paris, and that fall Gertrude joined him there. (Mellow, 1974, pp.51-53). During this period Gertrude became friendly with Henri Matisse (about 1905) (Mellow, 1974, p. 82) and with Pablo Picasso (1905) (ibid., p. 85-88 (piecing together conflicting accounts of the first meeting between Picasso and Gertrude)). Gertrude met Mildred Aldrich about 1904, beginning a friendship that lasted to Aldrich's death in 1928. (Kellner, 1988, p. 139-40); Aldrich introduced Gertrude to art patronness Mabel Dodge Luhan (in 1911) (ibid., p. 221) and to the art critic Henry McBride (in 1913) (ibid., p. 225).
Q.E.D. (written, 1903) Gertrude completed Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) on October 24, 1903. (Ibid., pp. 53-58). This piece is more fully discussed later in this article at Relationship with Alice B. Toklas and its precursors
Fernhurst (written, 1904) In 1904 Stein began this fictional account of a scandalous triangular affair involving a dean (M. Carey Thomas) and a faculty member (Mary Gwinn) from Bryn Mawr College and a Harvard graduate (Alfred Hodder). (Mellow, 1974, pp. 65-68). Mellow asserts that Fernhurst "is a decidedly minor and awkward piece of writing." (Ibid, p. 67). However, it contains some commentary that suggests Gertrude included autobiography when she discussed the "fateful twenty-ninth year" (ibid.) during which:
all the forces that have been engaged through the years of childhood, adolescence and youth in confused and ferocious combat range themselves in ordered ranks [and during which] the straight and narrow gateway of maturity, and life which was all uproar and confusion narrows down to form and purpose, and we exchange a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.
Also in our American life where there is no coercion in custom and it is our right to change our vocation so often as we have desire and opportunity, it is a common experience that our youth extends through the whole first twenty-nine years of our life and it is not till we reach thirty that we find at last that vocation for which we feel ourselves fit and to which we willingly devote continued labor. (Ibid, p. 67-68)
Mellow observes that, in 1904, 30-year-old Gertrude "had evidently determined that the 'small hard reality' of her life would be writing". (Ibid., p. 68)
Three Lives (written, 1905-06) Among the paintings was a portrait of Madame Cézanne which provided Gertrude with inspiration as she began to write, and which she credited with her evolving writing style illustrated in her early work, Three Lives:
Gertrude claimed that the stylistic method of [Three Lives] had been influenced by the Cézanne portrait under which she sat writing. The portrait of Madame Cézanne is one of the monumental examples of the artist's method, each exacting, carefully negotiated plane--from the suave reds of the armchair and the gray blues of the sitter's jacket to the vaguely figured wallpaper of the background--having been structured into existence, seeming to fix the subject for all eternity. So it was with Gertrude's repetitive sentences, each one building up, phrase by phrase, the substance of her characters. (Mellow, 1974, p. 71). (Portrait of Madame Cézanne facing Gertrude's work table).
She began Three Lives in the spring of 1905, and she finished it the following year. (Mellow, 1974, p. 77).
The Making of Americans (written, 1906-08) Gertrude Stein fixed the date for her writing of The Making of Americans from 1906-1908. Her biographer has uncovered evidence that it began in 1902 and did not end until 1911. (Mellow, 1974, p. 114-22). Stein compared her work to James Joyce's Ulysses and to Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Her critics were less enthusiastic about its place in the canon of great literature. (Ibid., p. 122).
First publication in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work (August 1912)
Gertrude's Matisse and Picasso word portraits appeared in Alfred Stieglitz's August 1912 edition of Camera Work, a special edition devoted to Picasso and Matisse, and represented her very first publication (Kellner, 1988, p. 266). Of this publication, Gertrude said, "[h]e was the first one that ever printed anything that I had done. And you can imagine what that meant to me or to any one." (Ibid.)
Word Portraits (written, 1908-1913) Gertrude's word portraits apparently began with her portrait of Alice B. Toklas, "a little prose vignette, a kind of happy inspiration that had detached itself from the torrential prose of The Making of Americans". (Mellow, 1974, p. 129). Gertrude's early efforts at word portraits are catalogued in Mellow, 1974, p. 129-37 and under individual's names in Kellner, 1988. Matisse and Picasso were subjects of early portraits (Mellow, 1974, 154-55, 157-58), later collected and published in Geography and Plays (published 1922) and Portraits and Prayers (published 1934). (Kellner, 1988, pp. 34-35 and 56-57). The Matisse and Picasso portraits were reprinted in MoMA, 1970, pp. 99-102.
Her subjects included many ultimately famous personages, and her subjects provided an inside view of what she observed in her Saturday salons at 27 Rue de Fleurus: "Ada" (Alice B. Toklas), "Two Women" (The Cone Sisters) (Claribel Cone and Etta Cone), "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" (Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire), "Men" (Hutchins Hapgood, Peter David Edstrom, Maurice Sterne), "Matisse" (1909) (Henri Matisse), "Picasso" (1909) (Pablo Picasso), "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia" (1911) (Mabel Dodge Luhan), and "Guillaume Apollinaire" (1913).
Tender Buttons (written, 1912)
Tender Buttons is the best known of Gertrude Stein's hermetic works. (Kellner, 1988, p. 61-62). Its publication in 1914 created a rift between Mabel Dodge Luhan and Gertrude, because Mabel had been working to place it with another publisher. (Mellow, 1974, p. 178). Mabel wrote at length about the bad choice in publishing it with the press Gertrude selected. (Ibid.) Evans wrote Gertrude:
Claire Marie Press ... is absolutely third rate, & in bad odor here, being called for the most part 'decadent" and Broadwayish and that sort of thing. . . . I think it would be a pity to publish with [Claire Marie Press] if it will emphasize the idea in the opinion of the public, that there is something degenerate & effete & decadent about the whole of the cubist movement which they all connect you with, because, hang it all, as long as they don't understand a thing they think all sorts of things. My feeling in this is quite strong.(Ibid.) Gertrude ignored Mabel's exhortations, and eventually Mabel, and published 1,000 copies of the book, in 1914. (An antiquarian copy was valued at over $1,200 in 2007). Tender Buttons is part of the Gutenberg project which offers a free on-line version: Tender Buttons
She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else's voice--deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto's, like two voices.)
Shortly thereafter, Gertrude introduced Alice to Pablo Picasso at his studio, where he was at work on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was a painting that "marked the beginning of the end of Leo's support for Picasso.
In 1908, they summered in Fiesole, Italy, Alice staying with Harriet Lane Levy, her companion on her trip from the United States, and her housemate until Alice moved in with Gertrude and Leo in 1910. That summer, Gertrude stayed with Michael & Sarah Stein, their son Allan, and Leo in a nearby villa. (Ibid.) Gertrude and Alice's summer of 1908 is memorialized in images of the two of them in Venice, at the piazza in front of Saint Mark's.
Alice arrived in 1907 with Harriet Levy, with Alice maintaining living arrangements with Harriet until Alice moved to 27 Rue de Fleurus in 1910. In a portrait written at the time, Gertrude humorously discussed the complex efforts, involving much letter writing and Victorian niceties, to extricate Harriet from Alice's living arrangements. In "Harriet", Gertrude considers Harriet's nonexistent plans for the summer, following her nonexistent plans for the winter:
She said she did not have any plans for the summer. No one was interested in this thing in whether she had any plans for the summer. That is not the complete history of this thing, some were interested in this thing in her not having any plans for the summer..... Some who were not interested in her not having made plans for the summer were interested in her not having made plans for the following winter. She had not made plans for the summer and she had not made plans for the following winter.... There was then coming to be the end of the summer and she was then not answering anything when any one asked her what were her plans for the winter.
Majorca, Spain On money acquired from the sale of Gertrude's last Matisse (Woman with the Hat) to her brother Michael, Gertrude and Alice vacationed in Spain from May 1915, through the spring of 1916. (Mellow, 1974, at 218-26). During their interlude in Majorca, Spain, Gertrude continued her correspondence with Mildred Aldrich who kept her apprised of the War's progression, and eventually inspired Gertrude and Alice to return to France to join the war effort. (Ibid., at 225-26).
Auntie Alice and Gertrude returned to Paris in June 1916 and acquired a Ford with the help of connections in the United States; Gertrude learned to drive it with the help of her friend William Edwards Cook. (Ibid., at 226-27). Gertrude and Alice then volunteered to drive supplies to French hospitals, in the Ford they named Auntie, "after Gertrude's aunt Pauline, 'who always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was flattered.'" (Ibid., at 228) (image of Auntie with Gertrude and Alice).
After the war, Gertrude's status in Paris grew when she was visited by many young American soldiers. She died at the age of 72 from stomach cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine on July 29 1946, and was interred in Paris in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
In one account by Toklas, when Stein was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery on her stomach, she asked Toklas, "What is the answer?" When Toklas did not answer, Stein said, "In that case, what is the question?
Stein named writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten as her literary executor, and he helped to usher into print works of hers which remained unpublished at the time of her death. A monument to Stein stands on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, New York.
Her growing awareness of her sexuality began to interfere with the bourgeois values implicit in her medical studies and would have put her at odds with contemporary feminist theory and opinion, and Q.E.D. may have assisted her with understanding her scholarly and romantic failure. However, Stein began to accept and define her masculinity through the ideas of Otto Weininger's Sex and Character (1906). Weininger, though Jewish by birth, considered Jewish men effeminate and women as incapable of selfhood and genius, except for female homosexuals who may approximate masculinity. (ibid)
More positive affirmations of Stein's sexuality and gender began with her relationship with Toklas. Ernest Hemingway describes how Alice was Gertrude's "wife" in that Stein rarely addressed his (Hemingway's) wife, and he treated Alice the same, leaving the two "wives" to chat. Alice was 4'11" tall, and Gertrude was 5'1" (Grahn 1989).
The more affirming portrait "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" is one of the first coming out stories to be published. The piece, like Q.E.D., is informed by Stein's growing involvement with a gay and lesbian community (Grahn 1989) though it is based on lesbian partners Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars (Blackmer 1995). The piece contains the word "gay" over one hundred times, perhaps the first published use of the word "gay" in reference to same-sex relationships and those who have them, (Blackmer 1995) and as such uninformed readers missed any lesbian content. A similar portrait of gay men begins more obviously with the line "Sometimes men are kissing" but is less well known. (ibid)
In Tender Buttons Stein comments on lesbian sexuality and the work abounds with "highly condensed layers of public and private meanings" created by wordplay including puns on "box", "cow", and in titles such as "tender buttons". (ibid)
As for the unemployed she said,
'It is curious very curious ... that when there is a great deal of unemployment and misery you can never find anybody to work for you.' 'But that is natural enough ... because if everybody is unemployed everybody loses the habit of work, and work like revolutions is a habit it just naturally is.'(Ibid., with citations to Gertrude Stein's words in Everybody's Biography).
Reflecting her childhood resistance to variously autocratic and permissive (but consistently non-sensical) parenting by her father, Gertrude's thoughts and deeds demonstrated a bipartisan disrespect for political father figures:
she disliked Trotsky as much as Franco, and Roosevelt as much as either, and she referred to liberals ... as 'people with unhappy childhoods'. It was a position that irritated her friends. When William Rogers sent her a packet of American corn seeds and warned her not to give any of the corn to her fascist neighbours in Bilignin, Gertrude returned the gift with a request: 'please send us unpolitical corn.' Why shouldn't she give her friends the corn, she asked, 'why not if the fascists like it and we like the fascists ...'(Hobhouse, 1975, p. 210, with citation to W.G. Rogers, When This You See Remember Me: Gertrude Stein in Person, Rinehard, New York, 1948).
Images -- The Paintings on the Wall
n.d.-- before 1912 est. 1912-- books and paintings 1913-- est. 1913 1913-- est. 1913 1913-- est. 1913 1913-- est. 1913 1913-- est. 1913 (Young Girl with Basket of Flowers fades, as pictures at right come into focus 1914-- undated, but likely after 1914 1920-- behind writer 1922-- flanking fireplace n.d.-- 1922 est.
Gertrude Stein 1906--Pablo Picasso, painting; 1907--Felix Vallotton, painting; 1912--Michael Brenner, sculpture; 1913--Alvin Langdon Coburn, photograph; photograph; 1916--Marsden Hartley, painting, One Portrait of One Woman; 1920--Jacques Lipchitz, sculpture; 1923--Man Ray, photograph (with Alice B. Toklas); photograph (with Joe Davidson); 1923--Jo Davidson, sculpture, photo of Jo Davidson sculpture by Dewitt Ward; 1927--Man Ray, photograph; 1928--Christian Berard, drawing, drawing; 1929--Eugene Berman, Portrait of Gertrude Stein at Bilignin, pen and ink (Mellow, 1974, image insert pp. 340-41); 1930--Pavel Tchelitchew, brush and black ink drawing; 1930's? (n.d.)--Antoinette Champetier De Ribes, sculpture; 1931--George Platt Lynes, photograph; photograph; 1933--Francis Picabia, painting; photograph of painting (Beinecke Library); 1934/1963--Carl Van Vechten 1963 photograph, of a 1963 painting by [[Richard Banks (artist)], of a 1934 photograph by Carl Van Vechten]; 1934--Samuel Johnson Woolf, drawing for October 27, 1934 Newsweek; 1935--Pierre Tal-Coat, painting; 1935--Imogen Cunningham, photograph; 1938--Cecil Beaton, photograph; photograph; 1945--Francesco Riba-Rovira, painting (referenced in Kellner, 1988, p. 242); 1975--Red Grooms, multi-media; 1980--Andy Warhol, painting; 1991--Faith Ringgold, quilt.
Welcome to 27 Rue de Fleurus; with Godiva and Alice B. Toklas; passport photos; passport photos; with Alice; with Alice; with Alice and Basket at Bilignin; with Alice (studio portrait); Moving Forward; War's End; MoMA Installation of Picasso Portrait
Hobhouse, 1975; Kellner, 1988; Mellow, 1974; Stendhal, 1994 (image dating and source authors).
About Stein's Writings
Stein's writing appears on three different planes: her hermetic works that have gone largely unread, as best illustrated by Stein's The Making of Americans: The Hersland Family; her popularized writing in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which made her famous; and her speech writing and more accessible autobiographical writing of later years, of which Brewsie and Willie is a good example.
After moving to Paris in 1903, she started to write in earnest: novels, plays, stories, libretti and poems. Increasingly, she developed her own highly idiosyncratic, playful, sometimes repetitive and sometimes humorous style. Typical quotes are: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"; "Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle"; about Oakland, "There is no there there"; and "The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable."
These stream-of-consciousness experiments, rhythmical word-paintings or "portraits", were designed to evoke "the excitingness of pure being" and can be seen as an answer to Cubism, and/or photomontage, in literature. Many of the experimental works such as Tender Buttons have since been interpreted by critics as a feminist reworking of patriarchal language. These works were loved by the avant-garde, but mainstream success initially remained elusive.
Judy Grahn lists the following principles behind Stein's work: 1) Commonality, 2) Essence, 3) Value, 4) Grounding the Continuous present, 5) Play, and 6) Transformation
Though Gertrude collected cubist paintings (primarily by Picasso until she could no longer afford them), the biggest visual or painterly influence on Stein's work is that of Cézanne, specifically in her idea of equality, what Judy Grahn calls commonality, distinguishing from universality or equality: "the whole field of the canvas is important" (p. 8). Rather than a figure/ground relationship, "Stein in her work with words used the entire text as a field in which every element mattered as much as any other." It is a subjective relationship that includes more than one viewpoint, to quote Stein: "The important thing is that you must have deep down as the deepest thing in you a sense of equality."
Grahn ascribes much of the repetition of Stein's work to her search for descriptions of the "bottom nature" of her characters, such as in The Making of Americans where even the narrator's essence is described through the repetition of narrative phrases such as "As I was saying" and "There will be now a history of her". Grahn: "Using the idea of everything belonging to a whole field and mattering equally, as well as each being having an essence of its own, she inevitably wrote patterns rather than linear sequences." (p.13)
Grahn means value in the sense of overall lightness or darkness of a painting. Stein used many Anglo-Saxon words and few Latin-based words: blood instead of sanguine. She also avoided words with "too much association". "One consequence of developing value and essence as the basis of her work, rather than social themes, dramatic imagery or linear plots, is that she developed a remarkable objective voice. To an uncanny degree at times, social judgement is absent in her author's voice, as the reader is left the power to decide how to think and feel about the writing." Grahn continues, "Anxiety, fear and anger are not played upon, and this alone sets her apart from most modern authors. Her work is harmonic and integrative, not alienated; at the same time it is grounded useful, not wistful and fantastic." (p.15)
Stein predominantly used the present tense, "ing", creating a continuous present in her work, which Grahn argues is a consequence of the previous principles, especially commonality and centeredness. Grahn describes play as the granting of autonomy and agency to the readers or audience, "rather than the emotional manipulation that is a characteristic of linear writing, Stein uses play." (p.18) In addition Stein's work is funny, and multilayered, allowing a variety of interpretations and engagements. Lastly Grahn argues that one must "insterstand ... engage with the work, to mix with it in an active engagement, rather than 'figuring it out.' Figure it in." (p.21)
Gertrude Stein wrote in longhand, typically about half an hour per day. Alice B. Toklas would collect the pages, type them up and deal with the publishing and was generally supportive while Leo Stein publicly criticized his sister's work. Indeed, Toklas founded the publisher "Plain Editions" to distribute Stein's work. Today, most manuscripts are kept in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
In 1932, using an accessible style to accommodate the ordinary reading public, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; the book would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was really her own autobiography. She described herself as extremely confident, one might even say arrogant, always convinced that she was a genius. She was disdainful of mundane tasks and Alice Toklas managed everyday affairs.
The style of the autobiography was quite similar to that of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which was actually written by Alice and contains several unusual recipes such as one for Hashish Fudge (also called Alice B. Toklas brownies), submitted by Brion Gysin.
Several of Stein's writings have been set by composers, including Virgil Thomson's operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, and James Tenney's skillful if short setting of Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose as a canon dedicated to Philip Corner, beginning with "a" on an upbeat and continuing so that each repetition shuffles the words, eg. "a/rose is a rose/is a rose is/a rose is a/rose."
Reception Sherwood Anderson in his public introduction to Stein's 1922 publication of Geography and Plays wrote:
For me the work of Gertrude Stein consists in a rebuilding, an entirely new recasting of life, in the city of words. Here is one artist who has been able to accept ridicule, who has even forgone the privilege of writing the great American novel, uplifting our English speaking stage, and wearing the bays of the great poets to go live among the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city.
In a private letter to his brother Karl, Anderson said,
As for Stein, I do not think her too important. I do think she had an important thing to do, not for the public, but for the artist who happens to work with words as his material.(Mellow, 1974 at p.260)
F. W. Dupee (1990, p. IX) defines "Steinese" as "gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely puncutated...a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation.
Though Stein influenced authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright, as hinted above, her work has often been misunderstood. Composer Constant Lambert (1936) naively compares Stravinsky's choice of "the drabbest and least significant phrases" in L'Histoire du Soldat to Gertrude Stein's in "Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene" (1922), specifically: "[E]veryday they were gay there, they were regularly gay there everyday", of which he contends that the "effect would be equally appreciated by someone with no knowledge of English whatsoever", apparently entirely missing the pun frequently employed by Stein.
James Thurber ridicules Stein saying that,
Anyone who reads at all diversely during these bizarre nineteen twenties cannot escape the conclusion that a number of crazy men and women are writing stuff which remarkably passes for important composition among certain persons who should know better. Stuart P. Sherman, however, refused to be numbered among those who stand in awe and admiration of one of the most eminent of the idiots, Gertrude Stein. He reviews her Geography and Plays in the August 11 issue of the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post and arrives at the conviction that it is a marvellous and painstaking achievement in setting down approximately 80,000 words which mean nothing at all.(From Collecting Himself, Michael Rosen, ed.)