Gertrude Stein: Time and Place in “The Autobiography”

As I wait for the bus on the sidewalk outside the Queen Anne-style building of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, I picture Gertrude Stein walking by that very spot to her research laboratory more than a century ago. Maybe a speck of dust that grazed her shoes in 1901 is now stuck to mine. I am fascinated by how time and place intersect. A building may be in ruins and a name may change with the passage of time, but the physical sites remain. Reading about a particular place in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (the non-sequential autobiography of Gertrude Stein disguised as that of her lifetime companion), I imagine what the characters might have experienced and seen at a specific moment in history. How are the places similar or different today? Here, I have selected archival photographs of places in which significant events of the autobiography occurred:

Pittsburgh
The confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where the Ohio River forms in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 1890. From Getty Images. Photograph by Fotosearch.

1874, West Allegheny (Pittsburgh), PA – Stein was born.

 

San Francisco
Part of an eleven-frame panorama of San Francisco, California, 1877. From Getty Images. Photograph by Eadweard Muybridge.

1877, San Francisco, CA – Toklas was born.

 

Radcliffe College
View of Radcliffe Yard, 1900-1908. From the Radcliffe Archives.

1893, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA – Stein met William James and wrote her first published work, which appeared in the Harvard Psychological Review and featured “experiments in automatic writing” later developed in Three Lives and Making of Americans.

 

Johns Hopkins
Postcard of Johns Hopkins Hospital, c. 1900. From the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. Public Domain.

1900-1902, Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore, MD – Stein enrolled at the Medical School, but left after two years without a degree.

 

Paris
Eiffel Tower as viewed from a balloon, c. 1900. From Getty Images. Photograph by Buyenlarge.

1903, Paris, France – Stein and her brother moved into the apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Between 1905 and 1906, Picasso painted Stein’s portrait in ninety sittings. Toklas arrived in Paris in 1907.

 

Petite Palais
Le Petit Palais in Paris, c. 1898. From Getty Images. Photograph by Roger Viollet.

1905, Le Petit Palais, Paris, France – Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau was exhibited at the inaugural autumn salon. Stein purchased the painting and soon became an important collector of Matisse’s works.

 

London WW1
London crowds in the street on the day WWI was declared, August 4, 1914. From the Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

1914, London, England – Hoping to persuade an English publisher to publish Stein’s work, Stein and Toklas travelled to London in July. They ended up staying in the English countryside with Dr. Alfred Whitehead and his family for six weeks due to the outbreak of World War I.

 

Perpignan WW1
View of the Castillet in Perpignan, c. 1900. From Getty Images.

1916, Perpignan, France – Stein and Toklas, volunteering for the American Fund for French Wounded, drove supplies to French hospitals near the Spanish frontier.

A Timeline of Gertrude Stein: a biography of major points in her life, as told through the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

In creating this timeline of Gertrude Stein’s life, I chose to focus on pivotal places, publications, and people with whom she developed relationships. Putting these major events in her life into chronological order helped me make sense of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and made it easier to see where and when scenes occurred.  In order to figure out some of the dates for events, I had to do some math and count the number of summers that had passed since so much of her novel based on seasons or calculate the year based off ages and birth dates. I also researched many of the events she mentions so this timeline goes beyond the information presented to us in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

One of my focuses is on her education at both Radcliffe and Hopkins as to show how well educated she was – Alice Toklas obviously was not the only one who would regard Stein as a genius. Her professors were also convinced that she had great potential and most wanted to pass her even though she didn’t put in much effort, and in one case, even refused to take an exam. I thought it was important to include this event, as she was one class away from earning her MD. Instead she happily refused the offer to finish the class and chose not to become a doctor (which seemed very boring to her). She certainly followed through on that and lived a fairly glamorous and exciting life as she used the money from her trust fund to buy art with her brother and her life took a thrilling twist. With Leo, she met numerous famous artists in Paris and developed great friendships with Matisse, Picasso, and the like. This is a key component of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as it gives an insight  into her celebrity – like  life and the gossip surrounding such big-name artists. For this reason, her relationships with Matisse and Picasso are included. The most important relationship, however, is of course her relationship with Alice, so their first meeting and when they moved in together are included. The photos show the longevity and closeness of the their relationship.

1874 – Gertrude stein is born in West Allgenhy, Pennsylvannia (but grows up in Oakland, California)

Map of Allegheny, Pennsylvannia via Wikipedia commons, Public Domain
Map of Allegheny, Pennsylvania via Wikipedia commons, Public Domain.

1877 – Alice B. Toklas is born in San Francisco.

1893-1897– Stein attends Radcliffe College (attached to Harvard University) to study psychology under William James.

Photograph of Gertrude Stein taken at Radcliffe with Harvard Students, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Gertrude Stein at Radcliffe with Harvard Students. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1900-1903 – Stein’s last two years at Hopkins – where she loses interest in medicine, flunks, and is actually grateful because she doesn’t want to study medicine anymore.

Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins, c. 1892, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins, c. 1892, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins, c. 1892. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1902 – Leo Stein (her brother) moves to London and she comes with him

1903 – Stein moves to Paris and lives at rue de Fleurus. Here, almost immediately, she begins to write her first short novel (which she forgets about for several years).

Rue de Fleurus, c. 1912, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Rue de Fleurus, c. 1912, Photograph by Man Ray. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1904 – Gertrude and Leo decide to start an art collection using their trust fund. They buy paintings by Matisse and Picasso.

-Winter: Gertrude goes to Vollard’s and is introduced to Cezannes (and his nudes).

Portrait of Vollard by Picasso from Edward Greene Collection of Portrait Engravings from the Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Vollard. Edward Greene Collection of Portrait Engravings from the Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

-Spring: Stien buys Cezannes’ portrait of a woman (which later influenced Stein to write Three Lives.

-Autumn: Stein attends the first Autumn Salon and soon Stein meets Matisse.

During this time, their apartment is turning into a salon, where people can come and visit their art collection and their social lives appear to include many famous artists.

Photograph of Alice B. Toklas and Picasso from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, c. 1920-1934, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Alice B. Toklas and Picasso. c. 1920-1934.  Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, c. 1920-1934, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Letter to Gertrude Stein and Leo Stein from Pablo Picasso, c. 1910,
Letter to Gertrude Stein and Leo Stein from Pablo Picasso, c. 1910. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1905 – Picasso begins his portrait of Stein (calculated if he began the portrait at age 24, given Picasso’s birth at 1881). She has over 90 sittings with him in order to complete this portrait.  They become very close friends during this time.

Photograph of the Portrait of Gertrude Stein at the MOMA's installation, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Portrait of Gertrude Stein at the MOMA’s installation. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

-During this time, Stein also writes Three Lives (which is not published until two years later).

Letter to Gertrude Stein from Pablo Picasso, c. 1906, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Letter to Gertrude Stein from Pablo Picasso, c. 1906, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Letter to Gertrude Stein from Pablo Picasso, c. 1906, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Letter to Gertrude Stein from Pablo Picasso, c. 1906. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1907 – September 8th – Alice B. Toklas arrives and meets Gertrude.

1910 – Alice B. Toklas moves into Gertrude’s apartment in rue de Fleurus, marking the beginning of their relationship.

Photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on a Patio in Berchtesgaden, c. 1940 from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Photo illustrates their long relationship
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on a patio in Berchtesgaden, c. 1940-46. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Photo illustrates their long relationship.

1911 – Stein meets Mabel Dodge who promotes Gertrude in the United States.

Later, Stein writes The Potrait of Mabel Dodge and privately publishes copies.

-Summer: Meets with John Lane about Three Lives and The Making of Americans.

Photo of Mabel Dodge Luhan, April 12 1934, Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins, c. 1892, from Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Mabel Dodge Luhan, April 12 1934, Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins, c. 1892. Photographer unknown. Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan, c. 1929-1930, from Gertrude Stein, from Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan, c. 1929-1930, Gertrude Stein. From Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1913 – Stein plans and helps to publicize Armory Show (the first avant-garde art show in America), but divides her collection with Leo.

Autograph Postcard signed 1913 January 26th, to Mademoiselle and Monsieur Stien, London, c. 1913, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Autographed Postcard signed 1913 January 26th, to Mademoiselle and Monsieur Stien, London, c. 1913. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1914 – The Great War begins.

-Kahnweiler’s gallery is auctioned off by the French Government and “the old gang” meets up. His collection basically contains all cubist pictures from the past 3 years before the war.

-Stein and Toklas spend 3 months in England during the war.

1916 – Alice and Gertrude volunteer by driving supplies to French hospitals.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with their Ford truck used to deliver supplies, "Auntie" Photograph, c. 1918 Courtesy Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven via Yale University Library
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with their Ford truck used to deliver supplies, “Auntie”
Photographer unkown, c. 1918
Courtesy Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers
Yale Collection of American Literature
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven via National Portrait Gallery

1925 – Stein finally publishes The Making of Americans even though she worked on it years ago.

Photograph of Gertrude Stein in her salon, writing, c. 1920, Creator: Man Ray, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Gertrude Stein in her salon, writing, c. 1920, Photograph by Man Ray, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

1926 – Stein gives a lecture at Cambridge and Oxford.

Stein's tour route, October 1934–May 1935 Lohnes & Wright Courtesy University of California Press, Berkeley via National Portrait Gallery
Stein’s tour route, October 1934–May 1935
Lohnes & Wright
Courtesy University of California Press, Berkeley via National Portrait Gallery

1933 – Publishes “The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas.”

Manuscript Notebook: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.
Manuscript Notebook: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Photography by Man Ray. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

Seeing the Autobiography through “The Autobiography”.

It seems inherent to the genre that an autobiography should be personal. We assume it will open windows into the life of the author, cool breezes of introspection blowing in. However, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has a decidedly large scope. The text drifts amongst the great minds of the twentieth century. In the midst of scenes populated by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway, it becomes easy to forget the work’s autobiographical nature. The air of the chapters may begin to feel stagnant as we search for refreshingly intimate moments between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Upon inspection, we find there are in fact windows of affection through which readers may begin to see the personal in an autobiography that is decidedly and paradoxically distant. These small moments illuminate the autobiography in a lovely light, casting it in such a way that readers may begin to see the autobiography through “The Autobiography”.

Below is a sequence of many of these small intimate moments as they appear in the work. They offer insight into a twenty-five year romance that spanned the profound and the mundane. Gertrude and Alice cried at the first World War, and disagreed on food temperatures. It is these restrained sentences that bring the text domestic warmth. It is these sentences that show Gertrude’s love not only for the elite art scene, but for her partner as well.

  1. Page 102: Alice tears up photographs taken of cathedral towns by the photographer Rönnebeck.

“We thanked him (Rönnebeck) and thought no more about it. Later when during the war I found them, I tore them in a rage.”

  1. Page 112: Alice and Gertrude discuss the differences in the temperature they like their food. One particular evening is discussed in which Alice waits to eat so that she may read the first portrait called Ada in Geography and Plays.

    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927, Photographer unknown via the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers  Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library New Haven.
    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers,
    Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

“Here I want to show you something, she said. No I said it has to be eaten hot. No, she said, you have to see this first. Gertrude Stein never likes her food hot and I do like mine hot, we never agree about this.”

  1. Page 118: Alice and Gertrude attend bullfights in Spain, and while Alice is at first repulsed, Gertrude helps her enjoy the spectacle.

“We went to bullfights. At first they upset me and Gertrude Stein used to tell me, now look, now don’t look, until finally I was able to look all the time.”

  1. Page 138: Alice insists that Gertrude use the device “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

    Wax seal for embossing envelopes reading: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" in a circle around a central rose graphic, Leuchars & Son Geffroy Suode Paris via Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers  Yale Collection of American Literature
    Wax seal for embossing envelopes reading: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in a circle around a central rose graphic, Leuchars & Son Geffroy Suode Paris. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beineke Library.

“Speaking of the device of rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, it was I who found it in one of Gertrude Stein’s manuscripts and insisted upon putting it as a device on the letter paper, on the table linen and anywhere that she would permit that I would put it. I am very pleased with myself for having done so.”

  1. Page 149: Alice and Gertrude weep together as the Germans approach the Paris.

    German soldiers, World War One, September 1914. German Army, via Wikimedia Commons/ public domain.
    German soldiers, World War One, September 1914. Photograph by German Army, Via Wikimedia Commons/ public domain.

“The germans were getting nearer and nearer Paris and the last day Gertrude Stein could not leave her room, she sat and mourned. She loved Paris, she thought neither of manuscripts nor of pictures, she thought only of Paris and she was desolate. I came up to her room, I called out, it is alright Paris is saved, the germans are in retreat. She turned away and said, don’t tell me these things. But it is true, I said, it is true. And then we wept together.”

  1. Page 162: Alice describes waking Gertrude up in the mornings

    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927, Photographer unknown via Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers  Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library New Haven.
    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers,Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

“… and I had often to wake her up very early. She and Cook used to write the most lugubrious letters to each other about the unpleasantness of sunrises met suddenly.”

  1. Page 176: Alice and Gertrude become close to Abel, their Godson in the war. However, they both lose track of him, as if losing a relation.

“Some time later he wrote and said that the family were moving into a different department and he gave me his new address. By some error the address did not rich him and we lost him.”

  1. Page 198: It is revealed the Gertrude’s favorite photograph of her is a snapshot taken by Alice.

“One day she told him (Man Ray) that she liked his photographs of her better than any that had ever been taken except one snap shot I had taken of her recently.”

  1. Page 242: Alice becomes Gertrude’s publisher and works to make sure her pieces are in bookstores.

    Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition, photographer unknown via the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature
    Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

“I now myself began to think about publishing the work of Gertrude Stein. I asked her to invent a name for my edition and she laughed and said, call it Plain Edition. And Plain Edition it is.”

  1. Page 252: It is explained that Gertrude is the true author of Alice’s autobiography- the ultimate intimate gesture.

    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in wallpapered room, by Sir Cecil Beaton via the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s London, England
    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in wallpapered room, by
    Sir Cecil Beaton. Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s,
    London, England.

“About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.”

The Life of Stein in a Timeline

I created my timeline keeping in mind some of the significant events that occurred in Gertrude Stein’s life (such as where she was born and where she moved throughout her life), while also trying to choose events that reveal more about her character or give insight into what may have shaped her writing. I included her time spent with William James in order to demonstrate how he and his teachings in the field of psychology influenced her train of thought and writing. Also, her prestigious education at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute shows her exploration of the sciences during the most formative years of her life. Another integral event in her life that I included was the permanent settlement of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein at rue de Fleurus. This marks the point in Gertrude’s life when Alice “officially” became her life-long companion and partner in supporting the careers of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gertrude and her relationship with her brother Leo also helped jump start and shape her pursual of the arts. After purchasing her first Cezanne, she begins to write her famous work Three Lives. Three Lives is comprised of three different short stories; one of these that we read in class is called “Melanctha,” a story about a young girl’s internal struggle with finding her place in the world, while she deals with issues relating to love, race, and abandonment. Lastly, another important piece of my timeline is the inclusion of Gertrude’s first portrait of Ada. This portrait is the first of many, in which Gertrude explores the inner workings of a human mind using the power of repetition and rhythm.

Timeline of Events:

1) Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in a twin house with several siblings, then moved to Vienna, Paris, and then back to the states.

1357725
Stein, Gertrude, Gertrude Stein and her brothers (1906). From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

2) When her parents died, she and her siblings moved to the East Coast. She wrote about Radcliffe in her first story.

3) She worked with Professor William James at Harvard while she was at Radcliffe, on a series of experiments in automatic writing. The result was her first publication, an article in the Harvard Psychological Review. James inspired her to enter Johns Hopkins Medical School. This gave her experience in the sciences.

1357723
Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins (1892). Photograph by Unknown photographer. From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

4) Gertrude and her brother buy a big Cezanne, and it inspires her to write Three Lives.

5) She repeatedly says that her only language is English, and when she moves to Paris being surrounded by French allowed her to have English to herself.

6) Gertrude poses for Pablo Picasso’s painting about 90 times. She collects and promotes both Picasso’s and Matisse’s paintings.

1015906 (1)
Gertrude Stein and Picasso (1922). Photograph by Unknown photographer. From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

7) Alice Toklas moves to Paris and develops a friendship with Picasso and Fernande Olivier.

pablos alice
Pablo, Picasso, Woman with a Fringe (Alice B. Toklas) (New York, Arts Rights Society, 1908). From Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, National Portrait Gallery.

8) 1910- Gertrude Stein first starts writing portraits. It all begins with a portrait called Ada.

9 ) 1910- Alice B. Toklas permanently moves into the Rue de Fleurus.

studio of gertrude
Gertrude Stein’s atelier, 27 rue de Fleurus (1910). Photograph by Unknown photographer. From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

10)  During the war, Alice and Gertrude take on a military god-son and become very attached to Abel.

hitler gertrude
Gertrude Stein with soldiers on Hitler’s balcony at Berchtesgaden (June, 1945). From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

A Life in Writing: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Although the title of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas suggests the story focuses on Alice herself, the book is actually centered on the events of Gertrude Stein’s life, as perceived through Alice’s imagined perspective. The free-flowing narrative rarely fixes on major events – rather, it wanders from story to story, exploring the range of Stein’s relationships with the many people whose lives she touched. However, there is an important frame to this seemingly fluid history; Stein is always sure to mention when a new writing project begins.

By beginning her exploration of the early Paris years with the statement “Gertrude Stein was just seeing through the press Three Lives,” and by ending the entire narrative with her proclamation that she will write Alice’s biography, “and she has and this is it,” Stein situates all of her life experiences in terms of their relation to her writing (6/252). Reading through the various anecdotes and character sketches, we are able to witness the progression of her writing career, from her first written work for a school competition to the political plays she was inspired to write from her experiences during the war. By placing these works within the narrative, Stein gives us new contexts in which to read her stories, plays, and portraits, providing us with important insights into the ways in which her writings were influenced and shaped by her life experience.

Timeline:

  • Three Lives published, around the time Alice moves to Paris (1907) pg. 6
Three Lives
Cover of Three Lives [1945]Crossett Library. Photo by Alvin Lustig via Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
  • Began The Making of Americans, “her great work” (1906) pg. 57
  • First writing for a school competition (age 8) pg. 75
  • Began portrait writing (1908) pg. 113
  • Began to write plays (1914) pg. 132
What Happened a Play
Gertrude Stein, “What Happened: A Play,” [1913]. Page from manuscript notebook from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  • Tender Buttons published, which “had an enormous influence on all young writers” (1914) pg. 156
Tender Buttons
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, [1910-12]. Page from manuscript notebook from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  • Writing poems inspired by her experience during the war;
    “The Deserter” was inspired by the landscape of the Rhône (The War) pg. 185
Rhone
Rhône Valley. Photo by Rob Alter via Flickr / CC BY 2.0
  • Political plays, inspired by the political upheaval of the war (The War) pg. 189
  • Elucidation, “her first effort to state her problems of expression and her attempts to answer them” (1919) pg. 209
  • “Composition as Explanation,” first college lecture at Cambridge University (1926) pg. 233
Comp as Expl
Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation” Title Page. (London: Hogarth Press, 1926). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Laura Ewen.
  • The Making of Americans published in French (1932) pg. 250
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932) pg. 252
Autobiography
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, [1932]. Page from manuscript notebook from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

An Archive of Ribaldries

H.L. Mencken, “Sage of Baltimore,” stylist, editor, newspaperman, and unapologetic critic who would say something far wittier off the cuff than you and I could ever concoct.

FullSizeRender
Front Cover. A Menken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Ali Cox.

Mencken’s Chrestomathy boasts “his own selection of his choicest writings” with the alleged motive to make some of his unobtainable, out of print writings, obtainable. With options from an archive of well over five million published words (which Mencken humbly shares on the third page of his preface), one must assume that the selection of works as well as the arrangement into a single volume is indicative of his values, his understanding of his life’s work, and perhaps even his character (though I’m sure this assumption has Mencken rolling in his grave).

“No moral man—that is, moral in the YMCA sense—has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading…”  (H.L. Mencken, “Art and Sex”, Chrestomathy, pg. 61).

If Mencken’s words are even the least bit representative of his personal dogmas, I can safely postulate he was a man who believed in very little (aside from himself, that is) and his goal in life was nothing more than to be remembered, to not be glossed over in the study of literature long after he was covered with dirt. How he was to be remembered, I believe he did with utmost intent, and I believe he succeeded. Full of ribaldry and unapologetic criticism, his publications judge almost every aspect of society, and thus I applaud him for his unprejudiced way of being prejudiced.

FullSizeRender-1
Table of Contents. A Menken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Ali Cox.

If we examine the Table of Contents to Mencken’s Chrestomathy, we see he has ordered his writings categorically into books. Starting with I. Homo Sapiens, he progresses onward through human development to II Types of Men, and then of course, after men comes III Women. He continues onto Book IV, Religion, and then so on and so forth through the critical elements of human society to XX Quackery, XXI The Human Body, and XXII Utopian Flights. Then, toward the end of his volume, he begins to present surprisingly serious works. In the books XXIV Criticism, XXV Literature, and XXVI Literati, we gain a clearer picture of the genius behind the curtain of bigotries, and see Mencken as an unequivocally talented critic. Why he put this specific order together, I can only speculate. It is clearly a forward progression through society, perhaps from what he finds most vulgar to most tolerable. Or, perhaps, he assumed only an intelligent customer would make it to the end of the compilation, where they could appreciate his more serious work. I would put my money on the former.

“Thus I incline to suspect that some of the planets may swarm with life, just as the earth does, and that it is just as useless and obscene as it is here.” (H.L. Mencken, “The Universe”, Chrestomathy, pg. 339).

Perhaps Mencken’s Chrestomathy does precisely what he intended, in that it remains, however offensive and full of ribaldries, in the minds of scholars and students alike as a specimen of some of the greatest critical works, both comic and severe, to be compiled in the same volume.

“I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.” (H.L. Mencken, Chrestomathy, viii).

Further Reading:

Mencken Catalog: https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/multi_search?q=h.+l.+Mencken&search_field=&utf8=✓

The Mencken Society: http://www.mencken.org/wordpress/

H.L. Mencken Internet Archives: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Mencken%2C+H.+L.+(Henry+Louis)%2C+1880-1956%22