Gertrude Stein at Radcliffe: Most Brilliant Women Student

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.