Gertrude Stein: More Than a Literary Eccentric
According to scholar Michael Hoffman, Gertrude Stein is considered by most people to be the “chief modern literary eccentric.” Although a prolific early 20th century author, Stein is known more as a personality of her time than specifically as a writer. However, her sometimes overlooked writings offer insight into her thoughts on shifting societal norms, specifically those based on events from her own life.
Although American born, her family moved to Austria and then France when she was a young girl, later settling in Oakland, California. Following the death of her parents, Stein and her siblings moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Stein lived until moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts for her undergraduate degree. While in Maryland, Stein was exposed to salon culture, which she would later model when living in Paris, inspiring in others an appreciation for different types of art and theory. This early exposure to a worldly perspective, through living in various countries and meeting nontraditional people, influenced Stein’s literary aims to address the broader human condition. Now more known as a “personality” than an author, Stein’s writings reveal her reflections on the changing nature of humanity, specifically expectations for the education of women during the early 20th century. By looking at the breadth of Stein’s work, it is possible to observe a changing view of society from Stein’s perspective.
Stein began her career as an author at the beginning of the 20th century, following an interest in psychology and an uncompleted degree at Johns Hopkins University. She studied philosophy and psychology with widely known and well-respected men such as William James and Hugo Münsterberg during her time as an undergraduate at Radcliffe. Known for defying typical gender expectations of the time, Stein enrolled at Johns Hopkins to study medicine after completing her undergraduate education, despite the small percentage of female students and her lack of true passion for medicine. After clashing with male faculty over her controversial views of women’s medicine and defying gender norms such as wearing a corset, Stein quit medical school, just short of completing her degree. It is also during this time that Stein discovered her sexuality, after learning of a romantic relationship between two women at Johns Hopkins.
Stein’s exposure to this relationship became the inspiration for her first novel, Q.E.D., published in 1903, a thinly disguised autobiographical account based on the unhappy love triangle between Stein and the two women at Johns Hopkins. After dropping out of Johns Hopkins, Stein moved to Paris to live with her brother Leo and pursued writing and the arts, collecting paintings from rising artists such as Renoir and Cézanne. Her art appreciation and interest in psychology is evident in the changed style of writing throughout her career as an author, and Hoffman argues that her abstract writing style “developed through progressive stages from realism to cubism.” While Q.E.D features a more straightforward style, Stein “settled” into her originality as an author over the course of her works, writing about people and events as they happened in real life with increasing abstraction.
Throughout her work, Stein was interested in describing the “human being such as no one before her had dreamed of formulating,” an idea that stemmed from her early work in psychology. Stein used her fictional stories to explore the essence of being human, which explains why she would use events from her own life to explore larger ideas. Specifically, she addressed her ideas and frustrations about expectations for educated women, paralleling her own life story.
One of Stein’s earlier works, Fernhurst: The History of Philip Redfern A Student of the Nature of Woman, reveals the complexity of gender expectations from the perspective of a male academic. The story, based on a real affair at Bryn Mawr College, a female institution, includes strong female characters. Philip Redfern, a main character of Stein’s account, articulates one confusing aspect of the changing attitude toward women: “He puzzled over the fact that he must give up his chair to and be careful of little girls while at the same time he was taught that the little girl was quite as strong as he and quite as able to use liberty and to perfect action.” Redfern recalls learning this information from his mother, a female influencing the next generation of gender expectations.
In later novels, such as Stein’s first critically acclaimed work Three Lives (1906), female wisdom is given even more priority. Stein writes about the relationship between employer Mrs. Lehntman and employee Anna, claiming that their decision to spend more time with each other than with men increased their wisdom. Stein insinuated wisdom to mean both sexual and worldly understanding, revealing her views on female education and expectations.