30 Poets/30 Days: Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein reads her 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson”:

Read more about Stein, from the Poetry Foundation:

From the time she moved to France in 1903 until her death in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1946, American writer Gertrude Stein was a central figure in the Parisian art world. An advocate of the avant garde, Stein helped shape an artistic movement that demanded a novel form of expression and a conscious break with the past. The salon at 27 rue de Fleurus that she shared with Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong companion and secretary, became a gathering place for the “new moderns,” as the talented young artists supporting this movement came to be called. Among those whose careers she helped launch were painters Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso. What these creators achieved in the visual arts, Stein attempted in her writing. A bold experimenter and self-proclaimed genius, she rejected the linear, time-oriented writing characteristic of the nineteenth century for a spatial, process-oriented, specifically twentieth-century literature. The results were dense poems and fictions, often devoid of plot or dialogue, which yielded memorable phrases (“Rose is a rose is a rose”) but were not commercially successful books. In fact, her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir of Stein’s life written in the person of Toklas, was a standard narrative, conventionally composed.

Though commercial publishers slighted her experimental writings and critics dismissed them as incomprehensible, Stein’s theories did interest some of the most talented writers of the day. During the years between World War I and World War II, a steady stream of expatriate American and English writers, whom Stein dubbed “the Lost Generation,” found their way to her soirees. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson were among those exposed to her literary quest for what she called an “exact description of inner and outer reality.” Whether or not Stein influenced these and other major modern writers—including James Joyce, whose masterpiece of modernist writing, Ulysses, was composed after his exposure to Stein—remains an issue of some contention. Critics do agree, however, that whatever her influence, her own work, and particularly her experimental writing, is largely neglected. As Edmund Wilson noted in Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, “Most of us balk at her soporific rigmaroles, her echolaliac incantations, her half-witted-sounding catalogues of numbers; most of us read her less and less. Yet, remembering especially her early work, we are still always aware of her presence in the background of contemporary literature.”

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