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At first glance, Three Lives seems to be three straightforward portraits of women living in the early twentieth century. “The Good Anna” describes an exacting German house servant; “Melanctha” explores the love affair of an African-American woman; and “The Gentle Lena” narrates the fate of a patient German maid. Yet these are daring prose experiments that reflect Gertrude Stein’s revolt against the popular narrative style of realism. As she composed these works, Stein sought to emulate the aesthetic of the innovative painters Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse. She rejected the more traditionally literary emphasis on social order and plot, replacing these with a focus on language, tone, and description. The result is a simple yet stunning view of the lives of three distinct women.
Self-published in 1909, Three Lives catapulted Stein to the forefront of the influential American Modernist movement, which inspired such later novelists as Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac.
Jonathan Levin is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Fordham University, where he teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and culture. He is the author of The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism, as well as numerous essays and reviews.
From Jonathan Levin’s Introduction to Three Lives
Though at times challenging and enigmatic, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives remains a delight to read. Unlike many of the other great works of literary modernism, its difficulties are not of the sort to be resolved by an encyclopedic knowledge of literary history or the ability to piece together the seemingly scrambled pieces of a fragmented narrative. Stein’s prose is refreshingly direct, almost to the point of self-parody. Indeed, this style is so simple and straightforward that it challenges most readers’ expectations. Anyone reading Three Lives for the plot quickly realizes that while Stein provides her reader with plenty of plot, that plot is often overshadowed by the prose style itself, especially in the volume’s longest and most widely read tale, “Melanctha.” Stein clearly takes pleasure in words, almost in the way that a seven-year-old might, endlessly repeating a word, and variously inflecting it, to the point that it is effectively emptied of all meaning. Relying mostly on simple, often monosyllabic words, Stein wields language much as the modern painters she admired and collected were wielding paint, suggesting form through a radically simplified use of line and color. “I certainly do think you would have told me,” Jeff Campbell says to Melanctha Herbert at one point in “Melanctha,” “I certainly do think I could make you feel it right to tell me. I certainly do think all I did wrong was to let Jane Harden tell me. I certainly do know I never did wrong, to learn what she told me. I certainly know very well, Melanctha, if I had come here to you, you would have told it all to me, Melanctha.”
By combining and repeating such simple words and phrases, Stein helped reinvent the English language for the twentieth century. Much as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso helped people understand how the eye constructs its field of vision, so Stein helped readers understand how words construct a field of meaning. In both cases, modern art serves to remind its audience that what the eye or ear beholds as a natural and given reality is itself the product of much active construction on the part of the beholder. The satisfyingly realistic look or sound of things is simply a style that has achieved such compelling force that it has come to look like the absence of style altogether. Modern art, by contrast, invariably looks highly stylized, a reflection of modern artists’ conviction that art should aim for something more than mere imitation or an illusion of reality. Indeed, modern art would challenge the conventions that governed imitation and the production of such illusions as perspective and verisimilitude in order to foreground the artifice that gives the world its aura of felt reality.
Three Lives was written during the height of Stein’s excited discovery of modern art. Only a few years earlier, she had moved to Paris, where with her brother Leo, an art collector and critic, she quickly established her famous salon in their home at 27 rue de Fleurus. From around the time Stein wrote Three Lives until the outbreak of World War I, the salon hosted first by Leo and Gertrude Stein and then, after Leo left in 1913 for Italy, by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, was one of the very best places to go in Paris to see the new art. With such regulars as Picasso and Matisse, the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as the ever-voluble Leo Stein himself, it was also the place to go to engage in lively conversation about the new aesthetic style. The Steins’ residence at 27 rue de Fleurus would for many years continue to attract a wide audience, drawn both to the art in the Steins’ collection and to the brilliant literary celebrity that Stein herself would eventually become. By the spring of 1905, when Stein began writing Three Lives, Leo and Gertrude Stein were already purchasing small drawings and paintings by such artists as Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and they had only recently decided to invest what was for them a considerable sum in a large portrait by an obscure Provençale artist, Paul Cézanne.
Leo Stein was an early champion of Cézanne. In a letter to Mabel Weeks, he would link Cézanne to Renoir, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas as one of the “Big Four” of the contemporary art world (Mellow, Charmed Circle, pp. 62–65; see “For Further Reading”). Gertrude and Leo acquired the large portrait by Cézanne soon after Cézanne’s triumphant (and controversial) exhibition in the 1904 Salon d’Automne, which, then in its second year, had quickly become one of the leading annual exhibitions of the new art in Paris. It was at the notorious 1905 Salon d’Automne, at which Cézanne also exhibited, that a group of painters including Matisse was dubbed the Fauves, or the “wild beasts,” a phrase first used pejoratively to denigrate the seemingly barbaric appearance of the work exhibited by this group of painters. Stein herself suggested a link between the portrait of Madame Cézanne, which hung above her writing table, and her composition of Three Lives, a link succinctly described by James Mellow in his account of Stein’s life in Paris:
The portrait of Madame Cézanne is one of the monumental examples of the artist’s method, each exacting, carefully negotiated plane—from the suave reds of the armchair and the gray blues of the sitter’s jacket to the vaguely figured wallpaper of the background—having been structured into existence, seeming to fix the subject for all eternity. So it was with Gertrude’s repetitive sentences, each one building up, phrase by phrase, the substance of her characters” (p. 71).
Posted October 19, 2013
It all started when I was a little girl. I was born as a regular human. One night when three I was left alone In the forest. My parents forgotten about me. One wandered for a long time not knowing where I was going. All of a sudden I heard a snarl. I stopped scared. I said softly,"Momma? Is that you?" All of sudden as like response I was knocked down to the ground. I screamed but was cut off short when a hard blow landed on my throat. I was stunned but not for long when I realised I had bite mark on my shoulder. The pain seared through my body. I screamed again. This time the wolf sat there watching me with cold blue eyes as I screamed and cried in pain. My body started to twitch. My eye sight blurred my ears tingled my mouth felt weird. Suddenly the pain was gone. The only thing I could hear was my rapid breathing. But something was different. I saw to hind legs in front of me. I looked at my side wondering If I was still alive. I looked over to see the wolf still sitting there looking at me only it's tongue was sticking out and it's lips pulled back. I realised it was happy. Only I noticed my vision was much more clear. My hearing was sharp. I rolled over and got up only to feel four legs instead of two. That's when I realised what had happend. The wolf had bit me...and made me become a wolf.***
15 years later in CA,valencia...***
"Well I'm off to my new house with my friend Abby dad." I could hear shuffling going on in my room. What on earth could my dad possibly be doing in there? I quietly snuck up the stairs before I quietly opened the door. I saw my father sitting on my old old bed looking around the room. I could feel a wave of sadness wash over me. I realized my dad was sad." Dad. Don't be upset. I will be ok on my own. Besides I have abby I have dawson and derick. I will visit you once and every while dad." I walked over to him and sat on the bed. I put a hand on my dad's shoulder. He turned to face me and I saw tears strolling down his cheeks." Ohh dad." I hugged him hard before kissing him on the cheek. I grabbed the last box saying good-bye to my father before putting it in my car. I got in and sighed." So did it go like I expected it?" There goes Abby. Abby been my best friend ever since elementary school. Now here we are together still friends and moving in together...with two other boys. It took me a while to firgure out that it wasn't going to be that bad living with boys. I turned on the car engine before backing out of my dad's driveway and starting my route to the house. I mean I lived with my dad for a long time. I stopped my dawson and derick's parents house. They added there box's in my car almost crushing abby and my things. I chuckled as abby groaned. She hated it when her stuff was crushed. When Abby found out that I was a werewolf she kept asking me to make her one. I kept telling her no. But i was annoyed. Finally I let her be one. But ahe told dawson and derick also. They asked and I made them one as well. My wolf was not dangerous but was very fiesty for some reason. Abby's wolf a dark brown wolf with blue green eyes was very attractive. Dawson and derick's wolves were the same. Black with amber eyes and blue eyes. As i knew the house was under my name meaning I will be the one taking care of it. As I turned on snakerocks road. I realized being on my own wasn't goig to be bad at all. As soon as I parked the car in the driveway I sighed. Welcome to your new house. Try to live it well while I still can.-Jade
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Posted March 2, 2011
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