Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein; drawing by David Levine

Beginning with her own The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 and Everybody’s Autobiography in 1937, there have been longer and shorter versions of Gertrude Stein’s biography, in greater or less detail, over lo! these forty years and they still keep coming. In 1957 there was Gertrude Stein, Her Life and Work, by Elizabeth Sprigge, in 1959 The Third Rose, Gertrude Stein and Her World, by John Malcolm Brinnin, and in 1963 What Is Remembered, by Alice B. Toklas. Last year there were four biographies of Gertrude Stein for children. And now, on the hundredth anniversary of her birth, there is the largest and most elaborate of them all, by the art critic and historian James R. Mellow.

No doubt the new information in later books which most changes the color of the story is that Gertrude Stein was a lesbian. Since the death of Alice B. Toklas in 1967, biographers and memorialists are free to make as much or as little of that fact as they please. So are critics, who can interpret a great deal of Gertrude Stein’s work as more or less camouflaged accounts of lesbianism. I find all this depressing and diminishing.

An early story of hers, Things as They Are, which is overtly lesbian and largely autobiographical, gets more attention than I think it deserves, because of the content. When I was writing about it.* in sporadic consultation with Miss Toklas, I treated it, briefly, as a formal exercise, of interest only because it leads up to the much more important story, Melanctha. That way of treating it was in part discretion or good manners but also true to what I thought of the story, and still think. Now everybody knows better and believes what escaped me entirely, that Melanctha itself, though a heterosexual story, is covertly about lesbianism still. Allowing that an unhappy affair of her own was a major source for her knowledge of the passions in the story, and for the intricate conflict of temperaments described, one may recognize other sources, such as Flaubert or her psychological studies at Harvard, and see the resultant story as a drama of universals, with nothing specifically lesbian about it.

One interest from one biography or memoir to the next is the differing point of view of the narrator. After writing about herself from the point of view of Alice B. Toklas and then from the point of view of “everybody,” as a public figure, Gertrude Stein has been described and her story told variously by friends and enemies, poets and journalists, professors and at least one composer. Charmed Circle is by a man whose primary interest is in painting and painters. It could have been a history of the Stein collection of paintings, or of her life with painting and many painters, and it does include a good deal of both, much more than usual. Mr. Mellow’s visual imagination is so strong that he conceives the story as a very large canvas crowded with many figures, not primarily in a temporal or dramatic mode, and that is appropriate enough to Gertrude Stein’s own sense of things, which was far more a matter of seeing than of hearing, remembering, or even of doing.

His long narrative does move steadily onward at the leisurely pace and with the blandness of an old-fashioned novel, taking its time to develop incidental topics, like the surprisingly impulsive temperament of Juan Gris or the tragicomic attempt of Leo Stein to be a painter. Considering the terrible accumulation of material he has had to deal with it is wonderful how the proliferation of topics and anecdotes on the side does not destroy the main shape of the story but enriches it. In many ways the work is a triumph, and ought to be definitive, but it has its shortcomings, some serious and some not.

Mr. Mellow, very well named, is one of the most amiable people around, and that affects his work in several ways. He takes note of but cannot very well re-create the ferocity of the literary and artistic quarrels in the story, or the great excitement of radically new works when they first appeared. It may or may not be the historian’s job to cool everything off and see it objectively, in perspective, but if he does the original sense of any fact gets rather bent. For example, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Gertrude Stein has some hopeful remarks about Picabia as the creator of the “vibrant line” and some sharp remarks about the Surrealists as vulgarizers and their assumption that the vibrant line was already created. Mr. Mellow calls these observations “somewhat stilted.” So they are, by now, but in 1933 they were fighting words, not even “somewhat” stilted.

Mr. Mellow’s own prose is anything but stilted. It is easy and ordinary, except that often, especially when he is on his dearest subject, painting, it can rise to a beautiful eloquence. In describing Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein he places it at the end of the Rose Period and says, “With its brown and somber coloring, its tawny hints of rose in the flesh colors and in the background, the painting represented the autumn of that style.” In literary matters he is less certain, speaking at one point of the “glacier-like” progress of The Making of Americans and shortly afterward of its “torrential prose.”


There are many small bothers of that kind and some mistakes in vocabulary, like “querulous” for quarrelsome, but on the whole the book makes very pleasant and untroubled reading. The main difficulty, which he has largely and admirably overcome, is getting the facts at least approximately straight. Gertrude Stein had a way of embellishing her accounts of fact with imagination and flights of fancy, and Alice, though less gifted in that respect, had what I once had to tell her was a creative memory. And out of courtesy or persuasion she would vary a story slightly to suit a different listener or correspondent. The many other witnesses to what happened may be more or less reliable, depending, but how is one to know? Mr. Mellow’s vast research and collation of sources has come out with a very likely story, though inevitably with a few errors.

He consistently presents Gertrude Stein as large. The fact that she was small, five feet two inches in height, is available, in Virgil Thomson’s autobiography, which Mr. Mellow must have read. What is interesting is that the effect of massiveness, along with a suggestion of monumental stature, in the many paintings and statues and photographs of her, perfectly overpowers the fact of her small size, especially for a mind so occupied with art as Mr. Mellow’s. Though not in history, in legend she remains large, incorrigibly.

Mr. Mellow says that after her return to Paris in December, 1944, Gertrude Stein had an “unexpected reconciliation” with Hemingway. That is one side of the story, Hemingway’s, as recorded in a letter. Her own side of the story, which I know only second hand, through Joseph Barry, to whom she told it, differs very sharply. Her version, perhaps too good and too polished to be entirely true, is that Hemingway did propose a reconciliation: “I am old and rich. Let’s stop fighting.” To which she replied, “I am not old. I am not rich. Let’s go on fighting.” What is the historian to make of that?

As a biographer Mellow can afford to forego any extended or penetrating criticism of Gertrude Stein’s work, especially since that job has already been rather thoroughly done by Richard Bridgman in Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970). In so far as Mr. Mellow does get into criticism he varies little from Mr. Bridgman’s reasonable and schoolbound point of view.

Something one may very roughly call the avant-garde goes on having its own interest in the writings themselves. The Something Else Press has been reissuing a good many of them, in both the easy and the difficult styles, notably the complete version of The Making of Americans, Lucy Church Amiably, and G. M. P.. The Black Sparrow Press, which in 1971 put out A Primer for Understanding Gertrude Stein, has put out two volumes of previously scattered pieces, the first rather ineptly entitled Reflection On The Atomic Bomb and the second, which has more to do with war, economics, and America than with writing, How Writing Is Written. In spite of the titles and a pretty awful portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pierre Tal-Coat on the covers, the collections are excellent and very welcome.

Robert Haas, the editor, has distributed the pieces, representing numerous “periods” of Gertrude Stein’s style from 1913 to 1946, into ten sections through the two volumes, and the sections are put together under both such plain rubrics as Portraits and Appreciations and Plays, and such fancy ones as Literary Music and Disembodied Movement, each making a varied but cohesive stretch of reading. Each volume has a short preface by Dr. Haas and each section has a little introduction by him. Avoiding both the protracted critical essay and the running commentary, this system allows the texts, once introduced, to speak freely for themselves.

Dr. Haas has been devoted to Gertrude Stein’s work since the Thirties, and was in correspondence with her about the project of the Primer. He is both familiar with her work and sympathetic with her more extreme experiments and theories, which leave Mr. Bridgman and Mr. Mellow cold or bored, so perhaps after all he should write a whole book. It could avoid the excesses of my old book, since by now there is far less reason for apologetics and polemic. His little introductions serve their immediate purpose very well but, having to be brief, they are sometimes cryptic and scrappy. He speaks of “the qualitative differences between writing for the self (entity) and writing for the other (identity).” He means something quite simple and reasonable by that, but his formulation is elliptical to the point of nonsense. Allowing himself a few more sentences, in a book, he could make it as clear as day, and cogent.


The distinction is an important one, for Gertrude Stein’s work in general and for these collections in particular. Much of her early work, the work for which she is best known, was based on a direct relation of her mind to its object, essentially not an interpretation of the object to an audience, or any audience but herself. Then, suddenly, with the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she had an audience, and a large one to be reckoned with.

From then on she often wrote in the person of the public figure Gertrude Stein directly to an audience, not as a human mind forgetting its identity in dealing with its objects in the absence of an audience. She wrote a good deal about the difference, which bothered her greatly. She thought the works she wrote as an “entity”—to use that terminology—superior to those she wrote as an “identity,” that is, the perfectly intelligible and even journalistic works, but the latter have improved in the course of time, shedding their news value and appearing as permanently vital literature, so that one may now, unless one is militantly engaged in the avant-garde, even prefer them to the works which were once an innovation but have now lapsed into literary history, or can so appear. Fortunately, there is an abundance of both kinds in these volumes, though the second volume contains more works in the vulgar style and may make better reading.

In 1935 she gave a lecture, “How Writing Is Written,” for the boys of Choate School. Though it is for young boys, and thus very simple and sensible to suit its audience, it is a fine description of her work, especially of its variable situation in time.

The world can accept me now because there is coming out of your generation somebody they don’t like, and therefore they accept me because I am sufficiently past in having been contemporary so they don’t have to dislike me. So thirty years from now I shall be accepted. And the same thing will happen again…. The original person has to have in him a certain element of ugliness…the statement made that it is ugly—the statement made against me for the last twenty years. And they are quite right, because it is ugly. But the essence of that ugliness is the thing which will always make it beautiful. I myself think it is much more interesting when it seems ugly, because in it you see the element of the fight. The literature of one hundred years ago is perfectly easy to see, because the sediment of ugliness has settled down and you get the solemnity of its beauty. But to a person of my temperament, it is much more amusing when it has the vitality of the struggle.

One amusement in reading this wide range of pieces is checking that out, whether a piece that once was ugly is now beautiful or not, and if it is still ugly, whether or not the vitality of the struggle still seems to be in it, and this goes for the popular works as well as the self-contained works. For one small example of the latter kind, which has a pattern of meanings inside itself but refers to no particular context outside itself:

Kisses can kiss us
A duck a hen and fishes, followed by wishes.
Happy little pair.

That was written in 1921 and can hardly startle a reader of modern poetry now, but does he find the infantile word-play of the first line charming or repellent, ugly as it must have been at first? I find it still repellent, though I recognize that infantilism, like primitivism in painting, was a good device for inducing a state of innocence or unconditional directness toward the subject or the medium, or the medium taken as the subject. The rest of the poem I find beautiful—if too skillful to be quite innocent—in the delicately changeable phrasing and syntax, but especially in the expression of the last line, assuming the “pair” refers back to the rhyming words “fishes” and “wishes.”

That affectionate address to two words getting along together happily, though with no apparent connection except sound and sequence, would be typical of Gertrude Stein, who said of her sentence “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” that in it she addressed and caressed a noun. She had an extravagant affection not only for words and grammar but for the world at large and almost anything that turned up in it. It was part of her strong personal attraction, that complete attention and welcome to anything in front of her. Combined with her courage and liking for a fight and a determination not to be bored, it made her life a full one, with endless adventures, large and small, and not a few mistakes. But as she said, foolish mistakes are not a bore. Perhaps that life, which she led so actively, is after all her greatest and most interesting creation, though she did not like to think so.

When her work turns out beautiful, the beauty can no doubt have a “solemnity” as she calls it, but as often as not it has an elation, even a gaiety, which comes from the same passion for the world that went into her life. The caroling quality of the following passage, which is not explicitly about anything in particular, can still be accounted for by an important episode in her life:

If to feel it at first, if they feel it at first, if they feel it at first if he feels it first, if he feels it first, if at first, if first, if first and if at first. If at first and if at first. If at first and feel it and feel it first and at first.

A reader with a weakness for identifying things—that is, any reader—can find on the same page of this lyrical essay (“Made a Mile Away”) a list of names, Pablo Georges Juan André, which are the first names of the first Cubists. She of course knew them at the beginning of the movement and shared their excitement over being the first. This may be nice to know, or a nuisance. Strictly, the passage ought to stand by itself, a sort of hymn to the joy of a beginning, but not of that beginning in particular. The question is, do you like it abstract or concrete and identifiable? What is not in question is that such abstract passages, proceeding as they do by repetition with slight variations, rephrasings and regroupings, lend themselves remarkably well to musical setting, and it is through her operas that this rather abstruse style is currently reaching a much larger public than one would have thought possible.

There is a late style, directly popular but with all the syntactical finesse acquired in the earlier experiments with abstraction, and often the sustained lyricism, right in the midst of prose or narrative. A good example of this style is a long narrative essay on Raoul Dufy, which I once thought haphazard and clumsy in its organization but which now strikes me as a wonder of harmony, almost too adroit in its conciliation of disparate themes. Among its many beauties is this sentence in passing:

You have to really love what is to have pleasure and Dufy does really love what is and we have the pleasure.

That is exactly true of Dufy and very largely true also of Gertrude Stein. We may not be always in what she calls “a continuous state of pleasure” from her many varied works, but many of us do have the pleasure, and the source of it is certainly in her really having loved what is.

This Issue

May 30, 1974