A hundred and fifty years ago, American Modernist literature was born to Amelia and Daniel Stein, in the form of their daughter Gertrude, on the second-floor of 850 Beech Avenue—a modest but handsome nineteenth-century row-house of blue-painted brick and red-hued window trim in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. Gertrude Stein would only reside here for about six months before moving to Baltimore, then to Vienna, before ultimately settling in Oakland, California.
However, the address which is most associated with Stein—patron of Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse, hostess of salons including Pound, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and a poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist who published radical works such as Tender Buttons and The Making of the Americans—was 27 rue de Fleurus in the sixth arrondissement of Paris’ Left Bank.
The cramped Stein home in Allegheny, dyed black from sulphureous steel mill exhaust and reeking of yeast from the nearby breweries was rather different from her Parisian residence, which as Hemingway would describe it in A Moveable Feast is like “one of the best rooms in the finest museum except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable and they gave you good things to eat and tea and natural distilled liqueurs made from purple plums, yellow plums or wild raspberries.” This description wasn’t hyperbole; Stein’s walls were covered in Delacroix, Gauguin, Renoir; what American critic Henry McBride called a collection of geniuses, which Stein replicated in her friendships, her romances, within her own head.
A cosmopolitan life, but as she wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, recounting her upbringing from the perspective of her life-long lover, “she has always remained firmly in Allegheny.” Noting with sadness that the city of her birth had been subsumed into its larger neighbor of Pittsburgh, Stein writes that she “has never seen it again and now it no longer exists.”
Only a slight overstatement to say that something similar has happened to Stein’s writing, though the author herself already saw her fate, writing in Everybody’s Autobiography that “It always did bother me that the American public were more interested in me than in my work.” Compared to those whose work she made possible, sometimes through financial support but also in the form of conversation, advice, and editing, Stein is too often remembered as the mere patron of a Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
Compared to those whose work she made possible, sometimes through financial support but also in the form of conversation, advice, and editing, Stein is too often remembered as the mere patron of a Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
More than Tender Buttons or The Making of Americans, Stein’s name brings to mind discussions about psychoanalysis over absinthe cocktails and bourbon boulevardiers at Harry’s Bar with Hemingway, of conversing about Cubism, Surrealism, and Futurism with Picasso while enjoying a dish of cold poached sea bass garnished with truffles and hard-boiled eggs, or in cozy domesticity with her partner while biting into bars of hash fudge (Toklas lovingly recorded their meals in her cookbooks).
Yet if European Modernism apotheosized with James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, then the American branch of that polyphonous movement was gestated over cocktails at 27 rue de Fleurus where this urbane woman who nonetheless considered herself a consummate American would revolutionize literature, not just through her own guidance and taste, but in her own writing as well. Those whom she helped to create still populate English syllabi; Stein has to be content with being played by Kathy Bates in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
Today, Stein’s legacy lay more with her persona than it does with her actual work. It’s true that without Stein’s patronage, support, and editorial genius, we’d arguably have greatly diminished versions of Sinclair Lewis, Thorton Wilder, and Carl van Vechten, not to mention Pound, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Several decades older than many of her mentees (she was the first to refer to them as the “lost generation”), Stein’s own writing—radically avant-garde, experimental, and queer—has too often been obscured in a narrative that has her as mere historical bit player, as matronly den mother to a group of male enfants terribles.
Stein’s literary vocation begins in 1903 with the publication of Q.E.D., arguably also the genesis of American lesbian literature in the author’s frank depiction of a same-sex love triangle, an auspicious and audacious professional beginning only two years after the death of Queen Victoria, a monarch who was so repressed that she supposedly refused to even believe that sex between women was possible. Beyond being among the earliest examples of the word “gay” to signal same-sex desire, Q.E.D. hasn’t endured, yet Stein’s freshman attempt signaled the start of a prolific career of writing novels and poems, art catalogues and essays, even librettos.
The dozens of seminal works which Stein published include her 1922 poetry anthology Geography and Plays, a novel entitled The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress from 1925, and of course her experimental memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The author can sometimes be an uncomfortable fit in her role as a queer icon, from Stein’s embrace of the French Vichy government (despite being Jewish) to her interest in the misogynistic crackpot Otto Weininger whose 1903 psychoanalytical text Sex and Character can read like the rantings of a belle epoque incel.
Nonetheless, Stein whole-heartedly, unreservedly, and openly embraced her lesbianism and made no apologies for her love and commitment to Toklas. “They were regular in being gay,” writes Stein unrepentantly about two characters in Geography and Plays, a book written more than a century ago. “They learned little things that are things in being gay, they learned many little things that are things in being gay, they were gay every day, they were regular, they were gay, they were gay the same length of time every day, they were gay, they were quite regularly gay.”
It was her poetry anthology of 1914 entitled Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms which announced Stein as an indispensable voice of American bohemia (whose capital happened to be the Left Bank of Paris). Tender Buttons is a collection which attempts to do with words the same thing that Stein’s friend Picasso did with shapes; to render their familiarity strange and disorienting, to be less concerned with content and meaning than with the interplay of sound.
“A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacled and nothing strange a single hurt color/and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not/unordered is not resembling. The difference is spreading.” Stein’s first prose-poem in the collection, reproduced here in its entirety, is a work of linguistic befuddlement. Noting that the title of the lyric is “A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass,” critic Marjorie Perloff writes in American Poet that 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.”
To ask what Stein’s poem is “about” is to miss the point. What remains in the poem are the intimately felt congruences of sound, even if they lack sense. The words are rarely more than disyllabic, all Anglo-Saxon in etymology, and when uttered aloud there is a staccato rat-a-tat-tat to the lines. Stein writes poetry the way a Cubist paints a picture—to paraphrase the poet herself, there is no there there, because what’s there is something else: pure sound.
Within the anthology, Stein explores her most enduring theme, the malleability and unreliability of language, the very substance of poetry. Enumerating her aesthetics in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein explains that her work “has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of the inner and outer reality. She has reproduced simplification by this concentration, and as a result the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose.”
A declaration of independence from the Romantic tyranny that demands our poetry be simply about ourselves—indeed a rejection of the basic imperative that poetry be about anything. For Stein, poetry’s proper subject would be poetry itself. Far from being an allegorizing occultist, the mission of Stein’s work was to distill language to its most basic elements whereby there is a redemption of abstraction only after descending through the most abject concreteness. What are a snowy wood, a red wheelbarrow, or a rose, but words, words, words.
Of course if there is any line which is associated with Stein, it’s “A rose is a rose is a rose” from her 1913 poem “Sacred Emily.” As a writer, Stein was taken to punning and playing with language; a poet known for both obscurity and humor, hermeticism and bounciness. A confused reader who queried Stein about what the line meant received a response in 1933 from Toklas—the author’s de facto secretary—who responded that because “Miss Stein is unfortunately too busy herself to be able to tell you herself” that she nonetheless “trusts that you will eventually come to understand that each and every words that she writes means exactly what she says” because, according to Toklas, the “device rose is a rose is a rose means just that.”
A representative example of Stein’s reputation for churlish condescension perhaps, but also taken at face value a philosophical statement of what the poet means—exactly what she says. By liberating the “rose” from the symbolic associations that the word has accumulated over the centuries, indeed by divorcing it from any meaning at all, this seemingly tautological nonsense by Stein expresses the arbitrariness of language, its capricious and expansive nonexistence other than as a set of occasionally agreed upon conventions. Poetry as deconstruction.
The great victory of Stein’s poetry is that she did pen thousands of words that meant nothing at all. She is a poet for our own epoch because she understands the emptiness of words, their malleable promiscuity and mercurial betrayals.
Born as a Victorian in a Gilded Age of petticoats, corsets, and gloves—after all, Stein was already twenty-six at the turn-of-the-century—she would die less than a year after the bombing of Hiroshima, a woman very much of the contemporary world, and who in turn forged a vernacular for describing our disorientations. She has been robbed of her audience. Her contemporary the novelist James Thurber castigated that “most eminent of the idiots” in a review which he intended to critically defenestrate Stein but that ironically described exactly what made her a genius, claiming that Geography and Plays consisted of “approximately 80,000 words that mean nothing at all.”
Yes, it should be affirmed to Thurber, that’s exactly it. He meant it as an insult, but the great victory of Stein’s poetry is that she did pen thousands of words that meant nothing at all. She is a poet for our own epoch because she understands the emptiness of words, their malleable promiscuity and mercurial betrayals.
If you search for Stein at 850 Beech Avenue, you will not find her there, nor is she at 27 rue de Fleurus. Rather look at the smooth, inhuman face of the stolid, mountainous figure painted by Picasso in his 1905 portrait of Stein permanently exhibited at the Met. The face of the poet, with her unsmiling mouth and severe brown hair pulled back, appears as if were a mask. A mask without a face behind it.
Stein’s eyes are both penetrating and empty. Eyes which convey how words mean just what they mean which is perhaps nothing at all. Sign and signified have been severed, the referent did not hold, semiotic anarchy has been loosed upon the world, where words and images signify nothing, not even sound and fury.
“What is the answer?” Stein supposedly asked Toklas on her deathbed as she withered from stomach cancer at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, her lover informing her that there was none. “Then, there is no question,” Stein responded.