Gertrude Stein gets rejected in style; her style

Courtesy of Letters of Note, check out this brilliant rejection letter sent by editor Arthur C. Fifield to Gertrude Stein of “a rose is a rose is a rose” fame in 1912:

Gertrude Stein rejection letter

Given the 1912 date, I suspect Mr. Fifield was so spiritedly rejecting Stein’s second book, Portrait of Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia.* Her first book was 1909’s Three Lives, a trilogy of novellas. It had been fairly successful and Stein was already well-known for her and her brother Leo’s impressive art collection of Matisses, Picassos, Gauguins, Braques, Cézannes, Renoirs, Toulouse-Lautrecs, and her Saturday evening salons which many of her favorite artists attended religiously along with the rest of bohemian turn of the century Paris.

Her fame and earlier publishing success weren’t enough to make Stein’s repetitious, abstract, stream of consciousness style in Portrait of Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia appeal to publishers. Everyone she sent the manuscript to rejected it. Ultimately it made it into print thanks only to Mabel Dodge herself who privately published 300 copies, all of which are now hugely valuable collector’s pieces.

Mabel Dodge Luhan was an heiress and art patron who between 1905 and 1912 held court at Villa Curonia, a Renaissance estate outside of Florence that had been built by the Medici family in the 15th century. She met Gertrude Stein in 1911 and they became friends. She loved Stein’s writing, appreciating the music in the cadences and rhythms that seem to have failed to impress poor Mr. Fifield.

Mabel encouraged her writing and invited her to stay at Villa Curonia many times. “Please come down here soon,” Mabel wrote Gertrude in 1913. “The house is full of pianists, painters, pederasts, prostitutes, and peasants. Great material.”

"Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," Cubo-FuturiEst painting by Marcel Duchamp that caused a huge ruckus at the Armory ShowShe was tickled pink when Gertrude composed a word portrait of her and her beautiful home during one of her many stays at Villa Curonia, so when publishers rejected the manuscript, Mabel Dodge stepped up to the plate. She distributed those 300 copies at the 1913 New York Armory Show, aka the International Exhibition of Modern Art — the first exhibit of modernist art in the United States, which of course scandalized art critics and public — and they would make her famous.

* EDIT: I was wrong. I double checked the dates and Stein didn’t write Portrait until October of 1912. The manuscript Fifield rejected must have been The Making of Americans, a novel Stein worked on in bursts between 1903 and 1911. It would remain unpublished until a small French press published a 500 copy run in 1925. Mabel loved it, though. She thought it was revolutionary and brilliant. In a 1911 letter to Stein, Dodge wrote about The Making of Americans:

To me it is one of the most remarkable things I have ever read. There are things hammered out of consciousness into black & white that have never been expressed before — so far as I know. States of being put into words, the “noumenon” captured — as few have done it. To name a thing is practically to create it & this is what your work is — real creation… your palette is such a simple one — the primary colors in word painting & you express every shade known & unknown with them. It is as new & strange & big as the post-impressionists in their way &, I am perfectly convinced, it is the forerunner of a whole epoch of new form & expression …. I feel it will alter reality as we know it, & help us to get at Truth instead of away from it as “literature” so sadly often does.

12 thoughts on “Gertrude Stein gets rejected in style; her style

  1. I am no scholar of modern literature, but I can tell bad writing when I see it.

    Gertrude Stein was a fantastic patron of her cultural salon every saturday night – she fed young artists and provided established art work on her walls and tables for the young artists to learn from. She bought from Picasso etc when no one else would. She encouraged her cousins to buy works, directly from the various artists around Paris.

    But she couldn’t write to save herself.

    1. Well, you know, gustibus non est disputandum and all that. It’s not a style that I am able to get into on the page, but I have heard some interesting readings/performances of her work using multiple voices to create an offset echoing effect. The Cubist references come through much more clearly when read out loud.

      1. From “The Making of Americans”:

        “It happens very often that a man has it in him, that a man does something, that he does it very often that he does many things, when he is a young man when he is an old man, when he is an older man. One of such of these kind of them had a little boy and this one, the little son wanted to make a collection of butterflies and beetles and it was all exciting to him and it was all arranged then and then the father said to the son you are certain this is not a cruel thing that you are wanting to be doing, killing things to make collections of them, and the son was very disturbed then and they talked about it together the two of them and more and more they talked about it then and then at last the boy was convinced it was a cruel thing and he said he would not do it and his father said the little boy was a noble boy to give up pleasure when it was a cruel one. The boy went to bed then and then the father when he got up in the early morning saw a wonderfully beautiful moth in the room and he caught him and he killed him and he pinned him and he woke up his son then and showed it to him and he said to him see what a good father I am to have caught and killed this one, the boy was all mixed up inside him and then he said he would go on with his collecting and that was all there was then of discussing and this is a little description of something that happened once and it is very interesting.”

        (from this site:

  2. This note is fabulous. Her book may be expensive now, but the writing is still awful. But glad she promoted the Impressionists. She did have a great eye for painting.

  3. Interesting woman, horrible writer. I painstakingly read, “Three Lives.” One of the worst books ever read. Will never read anything else this author has written. Why is this woman so famous for her writing?

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