Gertrude Stein at Radcliffe: Most Brilliant Women Student
"To live in the world of creation--to get in it and stay in it--to frequent it and to haunt it."--Henry James.
"I wanna be a lion," Gertrude Stein announced to her brother Leo. So she followed him to Cambridge, and, in 1893, registered at the "Harvard Annex." Gertrude Stein has since become legend. Not only did she define the rose, but she influenced such men as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway.
What manner of woman ignored the provincialism of the 1890's and went to college? Certainly not the timid, nor the average, nor the society conscious, nor the unambitious. Yet Gertrude, even among her brilliant and determined classmates, was somehow different. Later, when she wrote at great length about her life, she always skimmed over the Radcliffe period. "I knew the flexible Mass Stein for twenty years," says Miss Alice Roullier, a former art dealer. "She never mentioned her college days to me."
"She didn't like us and we didn't care for her," says one member of the administration.
Yet William James called her his "most brilliant woman student." And Gertrude Stein herself, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, remembers "enjoying her life" and "liking it all." The apparent contradiction may arise from the complexity of her mind, from the habit she had of speaking just any old thought. Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, recently told an anecdote which bears this out. Apparently Miss Stein and friend Alice B. Toklas went to a dinner party where the conversation turned into a Gertrude monlogue. As the guests were leaving. Miss Toklas said, "Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her years to understand."
Gertrude's years began in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, February, 1874. The Steins, a prosperous middle-class couple of German-Jewish descent, planned to have five children. If two babies had not died at birth, Gertrude and her brother Leo might never have been born. From patriarch Daniel, Gertrude inherited an intense philosophical streak, a habit of starting what did not get finished, and the love of a good fight. The mother, whom Gertrude called "little" and "sweet" kept a diary reminiscent of her daughter's long-winded and oversimplified writing.
Gertrude's childhood, while not precisely happy or secure, was not unusual. The Steins took their children abroad for four years, where governesses and tutors worked to give them a European education. Miss Stein remembered having French bread with mutton soup for breakfast and always maintained that Paris got into her blood during that period.
Upon return to America, the family settled in Oakland, California, where the children became thoroughly westernized. Gertrude approved of California because she got "all anybody could want of joyous sweating, of rain and wind, of hunting, of cows and horses and dogs, of chopping wood, of making hay, of dreaming, of lying in a hollow all warm with the sun shining while the wind was howling, of knowing all poor kinds of queer people...."
Gertrude often went in for "poor kinds of queer people," preferring the neighborhood ragamuffins to children with governesses. Perhaps it was at this point in her life that Gertrude was happiest: eating, laughing loudly, crying, playing with little French boys, reading, reading. For this reason she never forgot how to be a child.
Her adolescence, on the other hand, was dismal. It began to matter that she outweighed her contemporaries. As W. G. Rogers says in his book, When you see this remember me Gertrude Stein in person, "The normal adolescent girl, busy with playmates, clothes, parties, school lessons, does not read Wordsworth, Scott, and other poets, a set of Shakespeare with notes, Burns, Congressional Records, encyclopedias; she does not absorb Shakespeare nor pore over Clarissa Harlowe, Fielding, Smollett, and a tremendous amount of history." Strangely, she already feared that there would not be enough books to fill her lifetime.
She described herself as an adolescent, dark skinned and sensuous, alone on a street corner listening to music. Overcome by frustration and melancholy, she muttered, "Books, books. Is there no end to it? Nothing to feed my own empty self but musty books?" Again the contradiction, again the complexity.
Part of this confusion arose from growing pains which separated her from her beloved Leo. Always, Gertrude reminisced, they had been "two together two" in what Leo called "a romance that began when we were toddlers." Because they had been so close, Gertrude felt lost when he went off to Harvard, off to a man's world. Perhaps if Daniel Stein had not died when Gertrude was seventeen, she would have stayed in California. As it was, she wrote, "Life without a father began a very pleasant one." After settling the estate, Bertha, Leo, and Gertrude moved permanently to Baltimore, where they lived with relatives, the Bachrachs. Life in Baltimore agreed with Gertrude. Later she wrote that she became "more humanized and less adolescent and less lonesome in the restful surroundings."
Says Miss Helen Bachrach, a cousin, "Gertrude was an exceedingly attractive buxom young woman of seventeen, quick thinking and speaking, original in ideas and manner, with a capacity of humor so deep that you found yourself laughing at every thing she found amusing, even yourself. Leo made you uncomfortable, you always felt he thought you were ridiculous...Everybody was attracted to Gertrude--men, women and children, our German maids, the Negro laundresses, even casual acquaintances she talked to on long walks we used to take in the country."
Nevertheless, she became restless and bored. Though her formal education had stopped after a year of high school, Gertrude Stein decided she was going to Harvard. Latin was required for entry, and Gertrude knew only German and French. The stories of how this titanic young woman came to be admitted do not agree. In any case, Radcliffe accepted her and she went to live in a Cambridge boarding house, which she described as "interesting and knowing a lot who I had never seen before."
But if Gertrude responded immediately to her challenge, she did complain often and loudly. "The intolerance of these New Englanders is overwhelming!" she exploded. "There is never a curve in all their vocabulary." A true Californian, she spoke of "the New England habit of self-repression, the intense self-consciousness, the morbid fear of letting one's self go."
Gertrude, of course, never worried about letting herself go. Someone made the remark that, like George Washington, whose birth month she shared, she was impulsive and slow-minded. It is easy to see her as she was then, hair pulled back in an untidy bun, skirt and blouse refusing to meet. Fernando Olivier, who lived with Picasso, described her thus: "Fat short, massive, beautiful head, strong with noble features, accentuated, regular, intelligent eyes seeing clearly, spiritually. Her mind clear and lucid. Masculine in her voice, in all her walk..." Her hands were all of one piece, rather than having articulate fingers. Though these extraordinarily made Gertrude Stein the rage of Paris later, little wonder that she did not delight the Harvard undergraduates.
Nevertheless, she delighted her professors. William James taught her philosophy and psychology. He was then, as Elisabeth Sprigge writes in her book, Gertrude Stein, Life and Work, "a bright-bearded exuberant man in his early fifties with neither the appearance nor the manner of a University professor.... James liked unusual people and appreciated this rollicking girl, this clever unusual pupil."
The famous story of the unwritten examination paper shows the quality of their relationship: "It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of final examinations and there was an examination in William James' course. She sad down with the examination paper before her and she just could not begin to work. "Dear Professor James,' she wrote at the top of her paper, 'I am sorry but really I don't feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today,' and left."
The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, "Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel exactly that way myself." And underneath it he gave her the highest mark in his course.
If James admired Gertrude, Gertrude worshipped him. "Is life worth living?" she asked. "Yes, a thousand times yes when the world still holds such spirits as Professor James." Probably, in all her life, he was the man she came closest to being in love with. "He is a man take him for what he is all in all."
On the other hand, the young psychologist Hugo Munsterberg, James' assistant, was the one who called Gertrude his ideal student. She participated animatedly in his seminars, as well as in those of George Santayana, who gave her new reading in the English philosophers. Other subjects she took included history, modern languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and zoology. "I came out of the nineteenth century," she wrote, "you had to be interested in evolution. I liked thinking.... I liked looking at everyone and talking and listening."
Miss Stein's earliest known writings were written in 1894-5 when she was taking English 22 under William Vaughn Moody. Rosalind S. Miller, in Gertrude Stein: Form and Intelligibility, described those early themes as "introspective," as more significant than the hackneyed conventional themes which ruin the eye and enfeeble the mind of the college English teachers." Mrs. Miller mentions Gertrude's sense of humor as being "Not sophomoric witticism, but rather the subtle understatement of which she was later to become master." It is interesting to note professional comments on the sides of the pages; such praise an "interesting," "extraordinary," is modified by "awkward," unidiomatic," wretched," incoherent."
As an undergraduate, Gertrude spent her leisure time in argument ("the air I breathe"), at the theatre and opera, and in taking long walks. To the end of her life, she liked walking; someone has said that she moved like a souped-up glacier, or like a mass of primordial mud. Though young ladies did not usually walk alone at night in those days, Gertrude knew she was safe. In fact, she promised to climb a tree at the approch of a masher--then drop on him and squash him!
At this period, Oscar Wilde wrote his Ballad of Reading Gaol. A great fan of the dandy Irishman, Gertrude could hardly bear that the author of such ethereal tales as "The Nightingale and the Rose" was in prison. Her writings show that she reacted wholeheartedly to literature; while Pembroke, by Mary Williams, made her feel soul-sick, Marius the Epicurean left her dissatisfied.
Meanwhile, Gertrude worked on psychological projects. She collaborated with Leon M. Solomons, a graduate student working on his doctorate in philosophy. Their first attempt, which was "connected with a tuning. Fork," failed because neither had an ear for music. Their second project, on fatigue, proved no more successful. Gertrude next tested motor automatism in the non-psychology, or "normal" student.
The first of Miss Stein's published works appeared in the Psychological Review, 1896. This report, entitled Normal Motor Automatism, was largely the work of co-author Solomons. "After all," she wrote, "I was an undergraduate and not a professional and as I am always very docile...." Though the article remained in obscurity for many years, critics returned to it after Miss Stein became known. The theory of the paper, that an action can be performed by a "second" or unconscious personality, related directly to her stream of consciousness method. However, even she realized that no one is capable of writing without the help of the conscious mind.
Two years later, during her last year at Radcliffe, she produced her own report: Cultivated Motor Automatism; a Study of Character in its Relation to Attention.
Gertrude's college days were broken up by summer holidays in Europe. Sometimes she went with Leo, sometimes with friends. By this time, Gertrude travelled on her own and had become completely independent. To a large extent, this happened because her older brother and guardian, Mike, got married. Sister-in-law Sarah Solomons feared that openmindedness which made Gertrude say, "The trouble with you girls from Smith is raw virginity!"
What kind of an adult was she? It is well known that Gertrude's men, friends were friends, that she had little or no romance. "The sex appeal of Stonehenge," quipped one acquaintance. Of her religion, Gertrude said, "I have the failing of my tribe. I believe in the sacred rites of conversations even when it is a monologue."
William James encouraged her to take a degree and go on to medical school. Probably out of respect for him, and out of no desire on her part, Gertrude applied to Johns Hopkins. In 1898, a year later than her class, she graduated magna cum laude. Then she went to live in Baltimore, went to annoy and embarass the young men students.
"We were born Bohemians," Gertrude wrote about Leo and herself. Accordingly, they moved into a house and proceeded to shock the southern neighbours with their wild western ways. On the walls were Japanese prints, on their furniture, footmarks. The brother and sister took pleasure in looking "ratty," Gertrude uncorseted and besandalled. In the laboratory she was sloppy, always stained and in a muddle.
She stuck it out for four years; the first two interested her. She enjoyed doing research on the brain, enjoyed writing a comparative study which Dr. Llewellys Barger incorporated in his book. However, the faculty and students criticized her constantly, and, by the third year, Gertrude was overwhelmingly bored. Says the Author's Journal: "There was a good deal of intrigue and struggle among the students that she liked, but the practice and theory of medicine did not interest her at all."
Gertrude never got her medical degree. Once having admitted boredom, she stopped studying. After final examinations, her professor suggested summer school. Replied Miss Stein, "I have so much inertia and so little initiative that very possibly if you had not kept me from taking my degree, I would have, well, not taken to the practice of medicine, but at any rate to pathological psychology and you don't know how little I like pathological psychology and how all medicine bores me."
No one is sure whether Gertrude regretted her brave words. Some critics maintain that she never recovered from the defeat. In any case, she left education behind at the age of twenty-six. In the spring of 1902 she joined Leo in England.
Leo always referred to Gertrude's early days as the best period of her life: the days before she caught what he called "the absurd notion of genius." Later, when she visited America in 1934, she had become a Lion. On her one-night stay in Cambridge, when she lectured to Harvard and Radcliffe, Miss Stein wrote:
"It was funny about Cambridge it was the one place that there was nothing there nothing that I recognized nothing. Considering that I had spent four years there it was sufficiently astonishing that there was nothing that I remembered at all.... I lost Cambridge then and there. That is funny."
The Lion never returned, not to Cambridge, nor to America