Gertrude Stein: A rose is a rose is a rose

Essays > Personalities

An essay by Marc and Bhagawati on the famous American avant-garde novelist, poet, playwright and art collector, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946).

Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein sitting on a sofa in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso, and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall (before 1910). When someone commented that Stein didn’t look like her portrait, Picasso replied, “She will.”

After spending her childhood in Vienna, Austria, and in Passy, France, she lived in Oakland, California, during her girlhood. William James, Stein’s mentor at Radcliffe, declared her his “most brilliant woman student,” and encouraged her to enrol at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1897 although Stein professed no interest in either the theory or practice of medicine.

Her tenure at Johns Hopkins was marked by challenge and stress. Men dominated the medical field, and the inclusion of women in the profession was not unreservedly or unanimously welcomed. Writing of this period in her life (Things As They Are, 1903) Stein often revealed herself as a depressed young woman dealing with a paternalistic culture, struggling to find her own identity, which she realized could not conform to the conventional female role. Her uncorseted physical appearance and eccentric mode of dress aroused comment and she was described as “Big and floppy and sandaled and not caring a damn.” According to Linda Wagner-Martin, Stein’s “controversial stance on women’s medicine caused problems with the male faculty” and contributed to her decision to leave without finishing her degree.

Embryology class Johns Hopkins, 1897
Embryology class Johns Hopkins, 1897

Asked to give a lecture to a group of Baltimore women in 1899, Stein gave a controversial speech titled “The Value of College Education for Women”, undoubtedly designed to provoke the largely middle-class audience. In the lecture Stein maintained:

“Average middle class woman [supported by] some male relative, a husband or father or brother,…[is] not worth her keep economically considered. [This economic dependence caused her to become] oversexed…adapting herself to the abnormal sex desire of the male…and becoming a creature that should have been first a human being and then a woman into one that is a woman first and always.”

It was at Johns Hopkins that Stein, purportedly still naïve about sexual matters, experienced an awakening of her latent sexuality. Sometime in 1899 or 1900, she became infatuated with Mary Bookstaver who was involved in a relationship with a medical student, Mabel Haynes. Witnessing the relationship between the two women served for Stein as her “erotic awakening.” The unhappy love triangle demoralized Stein, arguably contributing to her decision to abandon her medical studies. In 1902 Stein’s older brother Leo left for London, and Stein followed. The following year the two relocated to Paris, where Leo became an accomplished art critic.

In September 1907 Getrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas (1877–1967), merely a day after the latter had arrived from America. They immediately fell in love and this marked the beginning of a fairly unusual relationship for that era, which lasted for nearly four decades, ending in 1946 with Stein’s death.

Stein and Toklas, 1934
Stein and Toklas, 1934

Acting as Stein’s confidante, lover, cook, secretary, muse, editor, critic, and general organizer, Toklas remained a background figure, chiefly living in the shadow of Stein, until Stein published ‘memoirs’ of Toklas in 1933 under the mischievous title, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, actually Stein’s own autobiography and it became her best-selling book.

Together they hosted a salon in the home they shared that attracted expatriate American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Paul Bowles, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson; and avant-garde painters, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. She dubbed the expatriate Americans who visited her salon, ‘The Lost Generation’, a term Hemingway made widely known. Her literary and artistic judgments were revered, and her chance remarks could make or destroy reputations.

The sentence “A Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” was written by Gertrude Stein as part of the 1913 poem Sacred Emily, which appeared in her 1922 book Geography and Plays. Stein later used variations on the sentence in other writings, and “A rose is a rose is a rose” is among her most famous quotations, often interpreted as meaning “things are what they are.”

Stein's godchild Bumby - Hemingway's son
Stein’s godchild Bumby – Hemingway’s son, c. 1924

Osho mentioned this quotation in his discourses many times. On one occasion he said, “I was reading Gertrude Stein’s book. When she said in a poem, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose,’ it became world famous. She goes on that way with many things. She does not define. She does not say anything – ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ Nothing is defined; nothing is said really.

Somebody asked, ‘Why have you said this? We all know a rose is a rose is a rose. It makes no sense. It adds nothing to our knowledge.’

Stein said, ‘Because poets have been talking about roses for millennia – millions of poetries about roses, everybody has read them and sung them, and everybody has repeated – the word “rose” has lost its rosiness. It doesn’t say anything anymore. That’s why I had to repeat, “A rose is a rose is a rose” – so that you are awakened out of your sleep, so that you are shaken a little: “What is this woman saying? the absurdity of it! – a rose is a rose is a rose.” You may listen. Otherwise, rose – who listens? Everybody knows.’ And she said, ‘Repeating this I have brought the redness to the rose again.'” ¹

Gertrude Stein attempted to parallel the theories of Cubism, specifically in her focus on the illumination of the present moment (for which she often relied on the present perfect tense) and her use of slightly varied repetitions and extreme simplification and fragmentation. The best explanation of her theory of writing is found in the essay Composition as Explanation, which is based on lectures that she gave at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and was issued as a book in 1926. Among her works that were most thoroughly influenced by Cubism is Tender Buttons (1914), in which she commented on lesbian sexuality while carrying fragmentation and abstraction to an extreme.

Other books include Q.E.D. (1903), one of the earliest coming-out stories about a lesbian romantic affair involving several of Stein’s friends, Fernhurst, a fictional story about a love triangle, and Three Lives (1909), the stories of three working-class women, which has been called a minor masterpiece.

Stein in USA 1945
Stein in USA, 1945

The performance in the United States of her Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), which the composer Virgil Thomson had made into an opera, led to a triumphal American lecture tour in 1934–35. Thomson also wrote the music for her second opera, The Mother of Us All (published 1947), based on the life of feminist Susan B. Anthony.

The eccentric Stein was not modest in her self-estimation: “Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She became a legend in Paris, especially after surviving the German occupation of France and befriending the many young American servicemen who visited her. She wrote about these soldiers in Brewsie and Willie (1946).

Gertrude Stein died on July 27, 1946 at the age of 72 after surgery for stomach cancer at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

¹ Until You Die, Ch 10

Related discourse excerpt by Osho
Osho speaks on Gertrude Stein’s final moments before death

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