This week, I’ve been reading a lot of Gertrude Stein. The avant garde writer and art collector was memorably portrayed by Kathy Bates in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which introduced her to another generation of readers. Stein, a wealthy expatriate in Paris, hosted a salon that attracted the young luminaries of the Jazz Age: Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and many others, who cited her as a mentor. She also wrote experimental stories and memoirs, like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
While many struggle to comprehend Stein’s dense style, I find that it gains fascination with repeated reading. Start with these books, articles, and recordings.
On Your Kindle
Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, edited by Carl Van Vechten
My favorite part of this collection might be Stein’s literary portraits of the artists she knew, Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne. Stein attempts to construct her sentences to better match the path-breaking artistic style of the painters she describes; recreating the Cubism of Picasso in prose, she writes of the Spanish artist: “One whom some were certainly following was one working and certainly was one bringing something out of himself then and was one who had been all of his living had been one having something coming out of him.”
On Your Smartphone
Stein’s unconventional writing style has often baffled readers, as exemplified by this 1912 rejection letter from a displeased publisher. But as the included audio clip demonstrates, her work has a fascinating auditory quality. Using alliteration and repetition, Stein’s sentences trip along, revealing quirky and poetic nuances. Listen to Stein read her own work aloud here, or check out the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound record project for even more.
On a Podcast
Many who met Stein remarked on the strength of her personality, which alienated some and enchanted others. Stein was controversial within her own community of Paris-based artists and writers, as revealed in this NPR story. But her patronage of Matisse and Picasso left her with one of the world’s most impressive art collections. Still exhibited today, it is not to be missed.
Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey
I never learned how to diagram sentences as a student, but this book has me eager to learn more about the lost art. Burns Florey’s history of sentence diagramming features a surprising Stein cameo. Among the first generation of Americans taught to diagram sentences, Stein was intrigued by their underlying structure: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.”
Photo courtesy of Francisco Osorio.