Gertrude Stein and William James: Contacts - Judgements - Influences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1.0 Introduction

2.0 Contacts - from teaching to friendship

3.0 Judgments - “Yes, a thousand times yes

4.0 Influences and how “thought goes on

5.0 Conclusion

6.0 Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

William James, psychologist and philosopher, and Gertrude Stein, one of the most influential writers of modernism, shared more than just a teacher and student relationship. According to Gertrude Stein herself, William James was the most significant influence upon her of anyone at Harvard, and one of the most important influences of her whole life. James had an almost legendary ability to inspire students and he awakened Stein’s interest in human personality, which remained her dominant and prevailing interest.

In the first section of my work, I will give some impressions of James’s and Stein’s meetings throughout their lives. Over a period of several years James was Stein's teacher and made a profound and lasting impact on her. She participated eagerly in discussions and experiments on the subconscious, a topic of great interest to James. Connected to the first section about ‘Contacts’ is the following one on ‘Judgments’. Here I will try to outline some of Stein's subjective views upon her teacher and I will show James’s understanding of his highly independent student.

The remarkable influence that James had on Stein's writing will be the theme of the section about ‘Influences’. Stein's and James's ideas seem to correspond significantly. James’s theory of the stream of thought shall be especially considered here, for a lot of aspects of it were observed by Stein and modified and embodied into her own style. James in a way established a certain pattern of how consciousness works and enabled Stein to use it and develop it further. This led to an extraordinary style, which also influenced other writers of modernism, for instance Hemingway. My aim is to give some insights into similar thoughts and philosophy of James’s and Stein’s writing.

It is quite impossible to state the complete influence that James had on Stein's writings and this is not the intention of this work. This work shall rather give a justifiable impression of their similar theories and of James’s direct influence upon Stein. The signs of their interaction can be seen both in Stein’s personal statements and in her distinctive and innovative style, which will be the basis of my argumentation.

2.0 Contacts - from teaching to friendship

The lives of William James and Gertrude Stein touched in the period of her early studies in Radcliffe in 1893. In her freshman year, Stein took Psychology I, an introductory course, which was lectured by James and others. Here she read his book The Principles of Psychology, which influenced and shaped her later writings.

James was well known among his students as energetic and unconventional. He had "an inveterate sense of humor"[1]. As a pragmatist, he believed in knowledge gained from direct experience to be more valuable than from the knowledge about the subject. Therefore he challenged his students, asking them about their own thoughts and ideas. Stein also seemed to be won over by his extraordinary way of teaching and his philosophy. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes about herself through the eyes of Alice B. Toklas: "William James delighted her. His personality and his teaching and his way of amusing himself with himself and his students all pleased her."[2]

In her sophomore year, Stein took a course of laboratory experimentation taught by Hugo Münsterberg. She was an excellent student, which induced Münsterberg to write her: "... you were to me the ideal student, just as a female student ought to be."[3] Due to her success James invited her to take his seminar in her junior year, which included several psychological experiments. James was particularly interested in the phenomena of automatic writing. In the laboratory he aimed to find out whether automatic writing derives from the subconscious or from what he termed the "summer-land". Thus the subjects were tested under different conditions such as fatigue or distraction. Stein seemed to have a certain distrust of the unconscious and subconscious mind, which made her note some horror visions into one of her Radcliffe themes.

These experiments that were led by James revealed one noteworthy fact about Stein's writing which can in retrospect be seen as an allusion to her later style. While experimenting with Leon M. Solomons, Stein herself had been the subject. The outcome of this attempted "spontaneous" automatic writing resembled in a way her later developing repetitive style: "When he could not be the longest and thus to be, and thus to be, the strongest."[4] Decades later some critics however claimed that Stein's writing would be a sort of automatic writing from her student days. But Stein herself always intensely denied this accusation: She had not “been doing automatic writing, we always knew what we were doing.”[5] ('We' meaning Solomons and Stein herself.)

In her senior year at Radcliffe, James suggested to Stein further studies either in philosophy or psychology. He said: "Now for philosophy you have to have higher mathematics and I don’t gather that that has ever interested you. Now for psychology you must have a medical education."[6] That of course included hard work since she had never intended to take a degree and thus had not completed her entrance requirements. But with some struggle and tutoring Stein entered John Hopkins Medical School. So it was James who advised Stein to study medicine and then go into psychology. She did so but never finished her degree.

In 1908 William James and Gertrude Stein met in Paris, where she had been living since 1903. James kept up interest in Stein’s career and when she met him in his hotel he wanted to know all about her writings and the pictures she had told him about. They went to her house in the rue de Fleurus to see the pictures of her newly begun collection. At the sight of these rather strange figures and colors James said: "I told you, I always told you that you should keep your mind open."[7] This he used to say to his students during her Radcliffe time and this is what Gertrude Stein had kept in mind. Thus she had clearly taken his advice.

Stein's first book Three Lives was published in 1909 and she sent one copy of it to James, followed by a letter and a volume of Charles Péguy. James replied from Bad Nauheim, Germany. He was taking a rest cure at a sanatorium because he had been suffering of a serious heart condition.

In 1910 James wrote her back with a bad conscience about Three Lives:

"I read 30 or 40 Pages, and said "this is a fine new kind of realism - Gertrude Stein is great! I will go at it carefully when just the right mood comes." But apparently the right mood never came. I thought that I had put the book in my trunk, to finish over here, but I don't find it on unpacking. I promise you that it shall be read some time! You see what a swine I am to have pearls cast before him!"[8]

In this letter from May 25th James assured Stein of returning to London through Paris and pay Stein a visit. But dangerously ill he stayed only overnight and went on to London. On August 26th 1910 William James died of an acute enlargement of the heart in New Hampshire.

3.0 Judgments - “Yes, a thousand times yes

Respect, appreciation and friendship characterize Stein's and James’s relationship. She was absolutely fascinated of his teachings during her college time and proclaimed him as her "hero"[9]. James was convinced of Stein's career. He challenged her and she became one of his "favored students"[10].

James made a life long impression on Stein, he was her mentor. Shortly before her death she recalled the effect of his teachings on her and meditated on creative life:

"Everything must come into your scheme, otherwise you cannot achieve real simplicity. A great deal of this I owe to a great teacher, William James. He said, ‘Never reject anything. Nothing has been proved. If you reject anything, that is the beginning of the end as an intellectual.‘ He was my big influence when I was at college."[11]

During her college time Stein, together with other students, was involved in experiments of automatic writing conducted by James. One of the students presented his paper on these experiments and remarked that one subject did not respond at all to the testing. He asked to delete this record from his conclusion because in his opinion it falsified the results. Hearing that, James asked for the name of the student and found out that it was Stein's result. "Ah", he said "if Miss Stein gave no response I should say that it was as normal not to give a response as to give one."[12] And thus the result was not cut out. This decision shows James's respect towards Stein's actions and reactions.


[1] James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (London: Phaidon Press, 1974) 31.

[2] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (London: Penguin Group, 2001) 87.

[3] Mellow , Charmed Circle, 32.

[4] Mellow, Charmed Circle, 33.

[5] Mellow, Charmed Circle, 33.

[6] Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 88.

[7] Mellow, Charmed Circle, 146

[8] Donald Clifford Gallup, ed., The Flowers of Friendship; Letters written to Gertrude Stein (New York: Octagon Books, 1979) 50.

[9] Mellow, Charmed Circle, 34.

[10] Mellow, Charmed Circle, 40.

[11] Mellow, Charmed Circle, 34.

[12] Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 87.

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Gertrude Stein and William James: Contacts - Judgements - Influences
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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Gertrude, Stein, William, James, Contacts, Judgements, Influences
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Sylvi Burkhardt (Author), 2003, Gertrude Stein and William James: Contacts - Judgements - Influences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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