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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

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Stein, Gertrude (1874-1946)  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  

The Making of Americans

Stein next turned her attention to The Making of Americans (pub. 1925), a massive project that chronicles, through the dual histories of the Hersland and Dehning families, her efforts to understand the dynamics and liberate herself from the influence of her paternalistic family and the constraints of the Victorian novel.

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In the course of the text, Stein uses an exhaustive analysis of the manifold components of character in the context of intergenerational conflict to define herself as an outsider; an original lesbian author who finally rejects the confines of the traditional family.

The people in the text are not unified subjects but rather conflicting aggregates of forces, encountering others whom they either repel, besiege, or submit to in an intricate field of gendered power relations.

Although she rarely depicts lesbianism openly in The Making of Americans, she places her narrative voice outside the family frame and addresses herself to the "Brothers Singular" who, like the author, are rejected by American society and who "flee before the disapproval of . . . all them who never any way can understand why such ways and not the others are so dear to us."

Stein thus indicates that her "singularity" as a lesbian impelled her voluntary expatriation to Paris, "an older world accustomed to take all manner of strange forms into its bosom."

At this stage of her career, however, her decision to present herself as a "singular" reveals her self-definition as an ungendered "original" and a possibly tainted anomaly. Her self-masculinization also corresponds to her reading of Otto Weininger's misogynistic and antisemitic treatise, Sex and Character (1906).

Weininger, a self-loathing Jewish homosexual who subsequently committed suicide, characterizes Jews as "effeminate" men, proclaims women incapable of selfhood and male genius but, significantly, argues that "female homosexuals," unlike other women, could achieve a quasi-masculine transcendence.

Obliged by necessity to define the meaning of modernist lesbian authorship in relative isolation, Stein found temporary consolation and self-affirmation in these dubious arguments. Hence, the early phase of her writing dramatizes the conflicts of a lesbian writer with strong bourgeois and male identification who gradually, over the course of her career, discovers the means to affirm both her sexuality and her gender.

Alice B. Toklas

This process of mature self-acceptance was facilitated by Alice B. Toklas, who first met Stein in 1909 while on a visit to Paris from her San Francisco home. Like Stein, Toklas was from a prosperous Jewish family and had had an unsuccessful romance with another woman.

During a three-year transition period, Toklas gradually exerted her predominance in Gertrude and Leo's domestic arrangements. This power struggle is explored in Two (1908-1912), a long early portrait of the conflict between sister and brother that chronicles Stein's liberation from Leo's censorious contempt for her writing and sexual orientation.

By 1912, Leo had moved from the apartment in 27, rue Fleurus and the two women had established themselves in what Stein referred to as the "daily island living" of an independent lesbian couple.

In Toklas, Stein not only found a loving and loyal domestic partner, but also a secretary (Toklas learned to type in order to transcribe the manuscript of The Making of Americans) and an audience who agreed with Stein's assessment of her own genius.

The Verbal Portraits

Accordingly, Stein gradually abandoned schematized character typology for verbal portraits that sought to free their subjects from larger systems of association as well as the constraints of temporal narration and conventional syntax and grammar.

Stein's early verbal portraits tend to focus on dynamic relations among groups, trios, or pairs of individuals, organized conceptually according to nationality ("Italians"), gender ("Many, Many Women"), or a dominant activity or trait.

For example, "Ada," included in Geography and Plays (1922), is Stein's early tribute to Alice Toklas. The portrait briefly recapitulates the story of Ada's "tender" separation from her paternal family and ends on a note of unqualified domestic felicity involving both the listening to and the telling of stories to "the other one," namely, Stein.

Here, as elsewhere in her work, Toklas serves as audience, muse, and collaborator in an artistic project that allows Stein to explore fully her creative identity.

The use of incremental repetition, the ungendered subject "one," and limited vocabulary characterize the portraits of this period, including the famous "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" (1922), which was based on a lesbian couple, Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars, who visited Stein and Toklas in Paris.

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