The Inimitable Style of Gertrude Stein
Sixty-nine years ago today, as the first crop of baby boomers was being born, iconic American expatriate Gertrude Stein died in Paris. Her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, was at her deathbed.
In one of their last conversations, Toklas later wrote in her autobiography, Stein asked about the meaning of life: “What is the answer?” she inquired.
When Toklas failed to reply, Stein laughed and said, “In that case, what is the question?”
Born in Pennsylvania in 1874, Stein had lived in Paris as a girl before her parents brought her back to the United States. She lived in San Francisco and across the bay in Oakland as a young woman before gravitating to Baltimore, where she had relatives, and then to France after the turn of the century.
It was in Paris that she made her reputation. A famed wit, hostess, and avant-garde writer, she collected artists more than art. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were friends and frequent visitors, and after World War I, she and Alice Toklas expanded their salon-type dinners to include a cohort of restless young American writers that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos.
It was to Hemingway, supposedly, that Stein said, “You are all a lost generation.”
Other than the “lost generation” line, Gertrude Stein’s most famous quote is probably her put-down of a teeming California city. Many decades before Jerry Brown resuscitated his political career by becoming mayor of Oakland, Stein dismissed the place by saying simply: “There is no there there.”
Actually, that five-word description -- and three of them are the same word -- come at the end of a longer, punctuation-less sentence. These days, one must type it carefully, or the spellcheck function on the computer will correct it for you -- the consecutive “theres” being confusing to an intelligence of the artificial kind.
Gertrude Stein’s brainpower was the opposite of artificial. Her deathbed conversation with Alice B. Toklas? She was witty that way all the time.
Oakland wasn’t the only place subject to the Stein wit. She was dismissive of entire regions of the U.S., notably the Midwest. Referring to her pal Ernest Hemingway, she once said, “Anyone who marries three girls from St. Louis hasn’t learned much.” (For the record, Hadley Richardson and Martha Gellhorn were both St. Louis natives, but Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife, was Iowa-born. But you get the point).
As for that lack of a comma in the Oakland put-down, it wasn’t an accident, either. That was Stein’s signature style.
Its effect could be subversive. It could make mundane prose seem more complex than it really was, as New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik noted a couple of years ago. Here, for instance, is Stein’s original observation about the French:
“It is nice in France they adapt themselves to everything slowly they change completely but all the time they know that they are as they were.”
Merely inserting a period after the first five words and a long dash after the next six, as Gopnik observed, makes the writing seem less eccentric, not to mention less original: “It is nice in France. They adapt themselves to everything slowly -- they change completely but, all the time, they know that they are as they were.”
Yet, it was this prose style (“I like words of one syllable,” Stein explained) that helped give rise to one of the most famous artists who frequented her Paris salon. I mean Hemingway, of course.
It was in “The Sun Also Rises” that Hemingway first used the “lost generation” line. In Stein’s own book, “Everybody’s Autobiography,” she adds some context of her own:
“It was this hotel-keeper who said what is said I said in this way,” she wrote. “He said that every man becomes civilized between eighteen and twenty-five. If he does not go through a civilizing experience at that time in his life he will not be a civilized man. And the men who went to war at eighteen missed the period of civilizing, and they could never be civilized. They were a lost generation.”
Gertrude Stein enjoys periodic comebacks in the world of arts and letters. Some of her politics are current, some less so. Time has not, however, diminished the wisdom of some of her quips. I can’t listen to Donald Trump speak without thinking of Stein’s admonition about the pursuit of wealth: “I do want to get rich,” she said, “but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.”
Another poignant Stein line, recited by expats everywhere, is this one: “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”