Stein’s Roses

Gertrude Stein died on this day in 1946. It is unlikely that Stein’s last words were those reported by Alice B. Toklas: “What is the answer?…. In that case, what is the question?” Most recollections have Stein posing her famous puzzlers not as she was dying but as she was being taken in for cancer surgery, several days previous. A different sort of ambiguity surrounds her other most famous line, about what a rose is. Stein said it so often, and in so many situations and variations, that there are encyclopedia entries on the subject. Here is how Paul Bowles, in a 1995-56 interview, counted and explained Stein’s roses:

Bowles: “Rose is a rose is a rose.” There are three. She knew some farmers between Bilignin and Belley. And they had a daughter; her name was Rose. And she used to go by and see them. And then she said at some point or Toklas said, “Rose is a rose,” meaning a lovely girl. And then I don’t know why the third one came in. Apparently she considered the sentence also to be a rose. Therefore “Rose is a rose is a rose.”

Interviewer: That’s interesting. But nevertheless there is a fourth rose.
Bowles: I never saw that. She had some stationery. On it it had a circle embossed in silver. There it had “Rose is a rose is a rose” in a circle—but not four.

But keeping one step ahead of precision was Stein’s stock-in-trade, or mission:

Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean no matter what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometime and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding any one. (Four in America)

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at