Stein, Anderson and Hemingway: Part Two

Sherwood Anderson had published Winesburg, Ohio by the time he introduced himself to Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1921. Stein, who had published only small editions of two works, Three Lives and Tender Buttons, was known primarily to other writers.

Anderson’s praise of Stein’s work endeared him to her, especially because Anderson was a major figure in American prose and Stein was struggling to make her work known. She was, at that time, writing her more than 900-page tome, The Making of Americans and collecting smaller pieces into what became Geography and Plays, published in 1922. Stein’s editor suggested that she ask Anderson to write an introduction to that book, which he did.

In return, Stein wrote a tribute to him in 1922, “Idem the Same: A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson.” You can hear Stein read it at:

The year before, 1921, young Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley Richardson, visited Stein and Toklas. Anderson had provided Hemingway with an introduction, not only to Stein but to Ezra Pound and others in the émigré community.

Hemingway came to Paris with experience as a journalist, which gave him the basis for his craft. As a young reporter for The Kansas City Star, he knew its style-sheet, which began: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” Hemingway said that, “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them.”

Ezra Pound became one of his mentors. In a letter to Lewis Galantiere, Hemingway wrote that Pound is “teaching me to write, and I’m teaching him to box.” What Pound undoubtedly taught him were the principles of a style of writing he called Imagism—a lean, spare style that dispenses with adjectives and adverbs and any other word not absolutely necessary to a direct presentation of the subject.

At the same time, Hemingway was getting advice from Stein, who was not fond of Pound. (He had broken one of her chairs by sitting on it.) In Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker described a conversation in which Stein, shortly after first meeting Hemingway, offered him criticism of one of his works-in-progress. According to Baker, “. . . she did not care for the novel. ‘There is a great deal of description in this,’ she said, ‘and not particularly good description. Begin over again and concentrate.’ Ernest picked up his ears.”

Later, in Spain, Hemingway wrote Stein and Toklas “. . . I’m trying to do the country like Cé́zanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit . . . but isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad, gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”

Years later, in A Moveable Feast , Hemingway wrote that Stein “had . . . discovered many truths about rhythms and the uses of words in repetition that were valid and valuable . . . . But she disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible . . .”
Of The Making of Americans, Hemingway wrote, “This book began magnificently, went on very well for a long way with great stretches of great brilliance, and then went on endlessly in repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket.” Stein began The Making of Americans in 1902 or 1903 (opinions differ), and completed it in 1911. Whether or not it ranks in quality alongside Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, it is, like them, a significant modernist experiment. Hemingway proofread the manuscript and arranged for its publication in the transatlantic review in 1924.

The Making of Americans is not an obscure work. Consider its third and fourth paragraphs: “It has always seemed to me a rare privilege, this, of being an American, a real American, one whose tradition it has taken scarcely sixty years to create. We need only realize our parents, remember our grandparents and know ourselves and our history is complete.” “The old people in the new world, the new people made out of the old, that is the story that I mean to tell, for that is what really is and what I really know.”

Stein was a writer of many styles, and the language of The Making of Americans has no similarity to her experiments in pure sound, such as “Idem the Same.” As noted in part one, Stein’s earliest sound experiment, Tender Buttons, inspired Anderson to begin his own, unpublished experiments. His explorations, together with the prose of Three Lives, opened something within Anderson that found fit expression for his sensibility.

Each of the seminal works of the three writers—Three Lives, Tender Buttons, Winesburg, Oho, and In Our Time—has its distinctive rhythm and style. What the books have in common is their authors’ deliberate choice to work with a limited vocabulary. With their simple words, critic Edmund Wilson wrote, the three writers could convey “profound emotions and complex states of mind.”

Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker wrote that in1925, when Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Christian Gauss discussed their respective influences, “Hemingway named Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio as his first pattern.”

Baker also reported that in 1935 Hemingway listed sixteen books that he would rather read for the first time than receive one million dollars annually. Of the sixteen, only two books were American—Winesburg, Ohio and Huckleberry Finn.

When In Our Time was published, the first edition came with a blurb from Anderson on the dust jacket. Hemingway bristled. He did not want the association. At least two reviewers found similarities between the writing of the two men. Hemingway’s story, “My Old Man,” one wrote, was clearly influenced by Anderson’s racetrack stories. “By this time,” Baker wrote, “Ernest was sick of being compared to Anderson.”

An interesting distinction between the two writers lies in Hemingway’s treatment of a theme Anderson handled in Winesburg—that of a woman who gives herself to a man. “Up in Michigan” is a very early story and written from a woman’s point of view, something Hemingway never again attempted.

The man takes the woman for a walk. They sit and he touches her under her dress; she tells him to stop. “She was frightened but she wanted it. She had to have it but it frightened her.” He does not stop and he hurts her. Afterwards, he falls asleep and she works out from under him and kisses him on the cheek. When he does not respond, she cries. “She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone.” Then: “Liz took off her coat and leaned over and covered him with it. She tucked it around him neatly and carefully.”

Like all early Hemingway it is written in an almost clinical manner. We don’t care about Liz, because she is not fully alive. This is partly due to Hemingway’s youth, and partly a result of his artistic vision, which at the time focused on the essential exterior of things. But most of all it is because Hemingway has no sympathy for the woman.

For whom did Hemingway have sympathy? In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner quotes Pound as saying, “ . . . Hem . . .never knew one human being from another . . . and never much cared.” Anderson, on the contrary, had a deep interest in people, in what they thought and felt. One of the early stories in Winesburg contains an episode that I believe formed the germ of “Up in Michigan.”

In “Mother,” a young woman seeks out the company of traveling salesmen and goes for walks with them. “She did not blame the men who walked with her and later she did not blame Tom Willard. It was always the same, beginning with kisses and ending, after strange wild emotions, with peace and then sobbing repentance. When she sobbed she put her hand upon the face of the man and had always the same thought. Even though he were large and bearded she thought he had become suddenly a little boy. She wondered why he did not sob also.”

Wanting to distance himself from Anderson, Hemingway wrote The Torrents of Spring, a parody of Anderson’s style and vision. Anderson, mind you, had gotten Hemingway a contract for In Our Time with his publisher, Boni and Liverwright. To break his contract, which included future works, and to further distance himself from Anderson, Hemingway offered the firm The Torrents of Spring. The firm naturally declined the book and the contract was severed.

Stein responded by breaking with Hemingway. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein wrote: “Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson are very funny on the subject of Hemingway. The last time that Sherwood was in Paris they often talked about him. Hemingway had been formed by the two of them and they were both a little proud and a little ashamed of the work of their minds.”

But with characteristic charity, Anderson never replied to Hemingway in kind. After his death in 1941, Anderson’s friends and fellow writers contributed essays to Homage to Sherwood Anderson. Stein contributed a piece in which she wrote, “Yes undoubtedly, Sherwood Anderson had a sweetness, and sweetness is rare. Once or twice somebody is sweet, but everything in Sherwood was made of sweetness.”

Theodore Dreiser wrote, “And so sometimes the things he wrote . . . had the value of a poetic prayer for the happiness and the well being of everything and everybody . . .”

New York music critic Paul Rosenfeld wrote, “… through the Chicagoan’s personality and his work a beautiful, extraordinarily humanizing force was active in American life.”

Anderson’s empathy and understanding of what lay beneath the surface in others (qualities he said he developed in the army) allowed him insight into people. Hemingway acknowledged this empathy in A Moveable Feast when he wrote, “ . . . I liked some of his short stories very much. They were simply written and sometimes beautifully written and he knew the people he was writing about and cared deeply for them.”

In a letter Thomas Wolfe wrote to Anderson in 1937 he commented, “I think you are one of the most important writers of this century, that you ploughed another deep furrow in the American earth, revealed to us another beauty that we knew was there but that no one else had spoken. I think of you with Whitman and with Twain—that is, with men who have seen America with a poet’s vision and with a poetic vision of life, which to my mind is the only way ultimately it can be seen.”


Of the three writers, Stein is the fountainhead. Through the influence her earliest published writings had on Anderson and Hemingway, Stein indirectly influenced countless other writers.
Today Stein is lionized by contemporary poets for her nonsensical writings, which are called “hermetic” by those who want to enshrine her reputation as a master. But “hermetic” is a misnomer: “hermetic” indicates that which has inner meaning, and much of Stein’s work has none. Her experiments with sound and her unexpected juxtapositions of words, however, have made her a writer’s writer.

Stein and Anderson preserved their friendship through letters and rare visits until Anderson’s death in 1941. By that time, Anderson’s literary reputation had faded, as Hemingway’s continued to rise. The irony is that Anderson is the much more sincere and honest writer. After Hemingway’s first brilliant short story collection, his work slowly fossilized. Hemingway’s characters do not speak as real people; they talk like Hemingway characters. The writer who was so consumed with “getting things right,” including atmosphere, sights, sounds and smells, did not create living characters.

To repeat what his friend Pound said, “ . . . Hem . . .never knew one human being from another . . . and never much cared.”

From an early age Hemingway carried deep wounds within him— his father’s suicide and his own war injuries, which, added to his alcoholism, surely account for his frequent spiteful behavior and nihilism. The nihilism reached unfettered expression in an essay cum story, “A Natural History of the Dead,” published in his 1933 story collection, Winner Take Nothing. Reading Hemingway from the perspective of his nihilism and self-disgust, his suicide makes sense.

Anderson, by contrast, was, as Paul Rosenfeld wrote, a powerful humanizing force in America. Anderson is now known to the reading public exclusively for Winesburg, Ohio, but two of his other books, his novel Poor White and his memoir, A Storyteller’s Story, need to be read. Like Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn, they are quintessential American works. His style is rooted in American speech and his overarching concern is with the American landscape.

His works are meditations on the transformation of the American character under the influence of the machine. He is not, as J.B. Priestley claimed, longing for a pre-industrial idyllic existence. Anderson had seen too much and lived too much to fall for that.

He, perhaps, was the first our of writers to make loneliness and the individual’s inability to connect with others a major theme in American literature, one that later became central with Thomas Wolfe. One wonders what course American culture might have taken had more writers had Anderson’s concerns and sensibility.

Stein, Anderson, and Hemingway: Part 1

Mention Gertrude Stein’s name to most people and they will reply with words like “obscure” and “silly.” Yet what people who make these associations do not know is that Gertrude Stein is the root of modernist American prose and her book Three Lives shaped many future styles. The sentences of Three Lives are unlike later sentences that Stein wrote. They have a seeming clumsiness, which is forceful. Their power influenced the works of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway.

Stein’s Three Lives came first, then Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, then Hemingway’s In Our Time. Together these works form a triumvirate of early modernist American prose, almost a school of writing. While Stein’s work remained obscure for many years, her influence was carried by the writings of Anderson and Hemingway.

To put things in order, let’s begin with dates. Stein was born in 1874, Anderson in 1876, and Hemingway in 1899. Stein was a major influence on Anderson, and Anderson and Stein together influenced Hemingway. Hemingway had another great influence, the poet Ezra Pound. I’ll mention him later.

Stein had written two short conventional novels before she wrote Three Lives in 1909, when she was thirty-five.

Anderson published two novels in 1916 and 1917 before he published his finest work, Winesburg, Ohio in 1919. Hemingway’s In Our Time appeared in 1925.

Anderson was in his mid-thirties by the time he began writing and moved to Chicago, where he became friends with members of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. It was probably in Chicago where Anderson read Stein’s first two published works, Three Lives and Tender Buttons, and read them both while writing Winesburg, Ohio.

In 1921 Anderson, by then a famous writer, visited France briefly. At Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, Anderson told Beach his enthusiasm for Gertrude Stein and Beach wrote him an introduction. The relatively unknown Stein and Anderson became friends for life.

That same year, Anderson met twenty-three-year-old Ernest Hemingway at a party in Oak Park. Hemingway and his new bride were intending to live in Rome, but Anderson advised the aspiring writer to head for Paris and wrote him an introduction to Stein.

Stein had written Three Lives in Paris while living with her brother Leo at 27 Rue de Fleurus, famous for the salons Stein and Leo and later Stein and Alice Toklas held there.
In A Moveable Feast, Stein’s one-time star pupil, Hemingway, recorded that when they first met “she had published three stories [Three Lives] that were intelligible to anyone. One of these stories, “Melanctha,” was very good . . .”

Stein claimed that “Melanctha” was “the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature.” Most likely she made that claim because she knew the language of “Melanctha” and the other two stories made the great departure.

One aspect of that departure came from the restricted vocabulary Stein used to write Three Lives. From Stein, Anderson and Hemingway learned to use simple, Anglo-Saxon words. Hemingway later said, “The old, simple words are the best” and Sherwood Anderson said, “My own vocabulary was small. I had no Latin and no Greek, no French. When I wanted to arrive at anything like delicate shades of meaning in my writing I had to do it with my own very limited vocabulary.”

A part of the impetus for Stein’s break with traditional structure came from what non-artists would consider an unlikely source. Gertrude and Leo Stein were early collectors of modern European art, and their collection included works by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Gris, Gauguin and Cézanne. Among their purchases was Cézanne’s portrait of his wife. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (which is actually a memoir), Stein wrote: “It was an important purchase because in looking and looking at this picture Gertrude Stein wrote Three Lives. She had begun not long before as an exercise in literature to translate Flaubert’s Trois Contes and then she had this Cézanne and she looked at it and under its stimulus she wrote Three Lives.”

Stein claimed that before Flaubert and Cézanne writers and painters had one central idea or theme and all other parts of their work were subordinated to it. This changed when “Cézanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and it impressed me enormously.” Stein tried to convey this in her writing.

There is much to be said for this claim. The recurrence of words and phrases and ideas in each of the three stories—one of the hallmarks of Stein’s style—renders to the whole a certain flatness. In the same way, Cézanne’s compositions, built of patches of color (each of nearly equal importance) gives to his works an overall effect of two-dimensionality.

In “The Good Anna,” the first of the stories in Three Lives, the servant Anna is a frugal woman, and we are reminded of that throughout the story’s 65 pages. “Save and you will always have the money you have saved, was all she could know.” Mrs. Lehtmann, Anna’s friend, “was diffuse and careless in her ways. . .” and Stein reminds us of that too.

Repetition can come in subtle ways, through synonyms and images. Stein taught Hemingway the value of repetition and a reading of the stories of In Our Time, particularly “The Big, Two-Hearted River,” shows him using repetition in very subtle ways. As in the poetry of archaic peoples, repetition adds force and depth to lines and sentences.

Stein had grown up in a family that employed German immigrant servants and knew how they spoke. She used German constructions in “Lena,” the final story in Three Lives. By accustoming us to German constructions, she twists them further. It is this “twisting,” or using words in new combinations—”Herman was getting really strong to struggle” and “with that always scolding”—that gives added strength to the writing in Three Lives.

I have not read how Stein developed this penchant for unusual constructions, but I think she gives us the key in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. There she informs us that her favorite writers were the Elizabethans, in particular the pamphleteer and playwright Robert Greene. English in Elizabeth’s time was without set syntax. All of English was in upheaval: not even names were spelled consistently. Out of this cauldron modern English was born.

I think Gertrude Stein saw that the English of her time was growing moribund, set in its ways, and therefore losing vitality. I think that her transfer of Elizabethan constructions and rhetorical devices was a conscious attempt to revitalize the language. It was not an experiment that either Anderson or Hemingway picked up.

Three Lives prodded me into thinking about words in combination, about new uses of words, and of unusual ways to express thoughts that we often smother in phrases worn smooth into near meaninglessness. Her work had the same effect on Sherwood Anderson.

Tender Buttons was Stein’s first experimental work of the kind that stamped her reputation as a writer of gibberish. There is much of Stein’s work that I find incomprehensible and pretentious, but Tender Buttons is not one. The work has no meaning but for writers it has significance. It is divided into three sections, “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms,” and each consists of a collection of “descriptions.”

Consider, for example, a paragraph titled, “A Drawing.” “The meaning of this is entirely and best to say the mark, best to say it best to show sudden places, best to make bitter, best to make the length tall and nothing broader, anything between the half.”

When Anderson read Tender Buttons he was led to create his own arbitrary word combinations to see the effects of their interactions. In A Story Teller’s Story, Anderson wrote: “How significant words had become to me! How it [Tender Buttons] had excited me! Here was something purely experimental and dealing with words separated from sense—in the ordinary meaning of the word sense—an approach I was sure poets were often compelled to make. Was it an approach that would help me? I decided to try it.”

Anderson wrote hundreds of pages of word exercises in the manner of Tender Buttons, and threw them away. During the time he was making these experiments, Anderson visited the studio of a friend, the painter Felix Russman. Russman took Anderson into his studio to show him his paints. “He laid them out on a table before me . . . I shifted the little pans of color about, laid one color against another. . . Suddenly there flashed into my consciousness, for perhaps the first time in my life, the secret inner world of the painters . . . the words used by the tale-teller were as the colors used by the painter.”