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:

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.


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.


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