An exploration of the lives and works of some two dozen American, English, and French women whose talent shaped the Paris expatriate experience in the early twentieth century.
Now available in a durable paperback edition, Shari Benstock's critically acclaimed, best-selling Women of the Left Bank is a fascinating exploration of the lives and works of some two dozen American, English, and French women whose talent shaped the Paris expatriate experience in the century's early years.
This ambitious historical, biographical, and critical study has taken its place among the foremost works of literary criticism. Maurice Beebe calls it "a distinguished contribution to modern literary history." Jane Marcus hails it as "the first serious literary history of the period and its women writers, making along the way no small contribution to our understanding of the relationships between women artists and their male counterparts, from Henry James to Hemingway, Joyce, Picasso, and Pound."
- Part I. Discoveries
- Women of the Left Bank
- Secret Passages: The Faubourg St. Germain
- Simultaneous Existences: Four Lives in St. Germain
- From the Left Bank to the Upper East Side: Janet Flanner's Letter from Paris
- Part II. Settlements
- Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: Rue de Fleurus
- Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier: Rue de l'Odéon
- Djuna Barnes: Rue St.-Romain
- Natalie Barney: Rue Jacob
- Part III. Crossroads
- H. D. and Bryher: En passant
- At the Sign of the Printing Press: The Role of Small Presses and Little Magazines
- Paris Transfer: The 1930s
- The City They Left
- Works Cited and Consulted
- Margaret Anderson
- Djuna Barnes
- Natalie Barney
- Sylvia Beach
- Kay Boyle
- Bryher (Winifred Ellerman)
- Caresse Crosby
- Nancy Cunard
- Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)
- Janet Flanner
- Jane Heap
- Maria Jolas
- Mina Loy
- Adrienne Monnier
- Anaïs Nin
- Jean Rhys
- Solita Solano
- Gertrude Stein
- Alice B. Toklas
- Renée Vivien
- Edith Wharton
These women were part of the artistic community that formed on the Paris Left Bank early in the twentieth century. Their literary contributions— which include major works of prose, poetry, drama, critical and journalistic essays, autobiographies, pensées, and memoirs—display wideranging interests and diverse talents. In addition to their own writing activities, several of these women set up bookshops, publishing houses, hand presses, little magazines, and artistic salons through which they advertised and marketed the products of literary Paris. While certain of them are less well remembered than others, each had a particular influence on the Paris cultural scene (and was influenced by it), and collectively theirs was a formidable energy and versatility.
This study examines the lives and works of these women in the Paris context. Of primary significance is the experience of being a woman in this time and place. The question that predicates this inquiry is not "What was it like to be part of literary Paris?"—a question compulsively asked by both the participants and the analysts of this period—but rather "What was it like to be a woman in literary Paris?" The women included in this study provide diverse answers to this question, their collective responses suggesting rich and complex experiences that illuminate heretofore overlooked aspects of the cultural setting in which Modernism developed.
Of particular interest are the ways in which the patriarchal social and political settings of Western culture affect the subject matter and methods of woman's writing and influence the creative process from which that writing is born. The expatriate Paris experience constructed itself in ways that both challenged and underwrote this patriarchal heritage; thus it is not possible to examine the living and working situations of female Modernists separate from those of their male colleagues or to investigate the founding principles of women's literary contributions to Modernism without questioning the assumptions in which male Modernist practice situated itself. That is, this study considers the issue of gender as an important (and all too often disregarded) element in defining the aesthetics and politics, the theory and practice, of what we now call Modernism.
Rarely has a time and place so captured the imagination as the Paris of these years. From our contemporary perspective, this period is set apart in the historical flux of the twentieth century, strangely removed from us and yet, curiously, still of interest. Our impressions of these years are marked as much by the sense of a self-indulgent hedonism as by the record of an intellectual fervor. These impressions derive from a variety of sources—from memoirs by the participants and hangers-on, from biographies and autobiographies of the great and near-great, from literary gossip disguised as academic treatise, from yellowed newspaper columns in the Paris editions of the New York Herald and the Chicago Tribune, and from Janet Flanner's "Letter from Paris" in the New Yorker and Eugene Jolas's editorials in transition magazine. In novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys, and in Gertrude Stein's autobiographies and her homage to the city, Paris France, such diverse figures as Josephine Baker and Kiki of Montparnasse mingle with Léon-Paul Fargue, Ezra Pound, and other Left Bank writers in startling ways.
We have romanticized those years, and so have those who lived through them. The few alive today who were part of that Paris life possess a fund of dim memories and stories too often told. The recent deaths of Djuna Barnes, Winifred Ellerman, Caroline Gordon, and Katherine Anne Porter or the publication of Morrill Cody's memoir, The Women of Montparnasse, perhaps took us by surprise, since we assumed all these people to be already dead. For lives so much a part of the Paris years, anachronistic later existences seem indeed displaced in time. In a recent letter to a friend, Maria Jolas (who with her husband, Eugene, founded transition magazine in 1916) ingenuously asked: "Did you not write, thinking I was dead? Well I'm not." Still, we feel perhaps that remnants of an age so removed from our own should be safely sealed by history, all the participants quietly at rest in Passy or Père Lachaise cemeteries. The collected letters of Alice B. Toklas, most written after the death of Gertrude Stein in 1946, are entitled Staying On Alone. They record the painful afterlife of a lover left behind, one whose future was to be constituted by memories of the past. Alice Toklas is no longer "staying on alone," but some few still are. Something more than the malingering appearance of aged expatriates who have outlived their era, however, disturbs our notions of the "pastness" of this age.
Uneasy with the assumed historicity of the Paris years, one may question the degree to which this chapter of our cultural development is closed. One suspects that our hesitation in closing the historical door on this period is due to a sense that the shock waves these years produced are still resounding through our culture. Perhaps we also feel even more strongly now the break that such events as the publication of Ulysses or the presentation of the Ballet Méchanique made with the nineteenth century, a period that in 1920 seemed further removed in time than the nearly seventy years that separate us from the end of World War I. The war constituted a rupture in the life that went before it, uprooting those nineteenth-century values that had tenaciously persisted into the twentieth century. It is hardly likely that—had there not been this war, had there not been the resultant economic decline in Europe, had the war not provided an introduction to the very existence of Europe—those dozens of Americans with bags in hand would have determinedly found their way to the Gare St. Lazare in search of the sophistication and freedom that Paris represented. All life in Paris during these years was influenced by this influx of expatriates who appropriated the city as their own, overlaid their American values on a culture that was hardly indifferent to the vitality of such a liberated breed. The generalizations are well known to us; terms like the "Lost Generation" or the "Jazz Age" are such worn cliches that their sources are often lost to present history. Indeed, the sources of that intellectual and artistic revolt remain obscure, although the conditions of its occurrence and its consequent effects are well known to the least literary among us. Paris of the twenties and thirties continues to be both aesthetically and anecdotally available, a circumstance that constrains the effort accurately to read its social and cultural backgrounds.
But recent interest in this era is spurred by something other than the accumulation of anecdotal evidence. Two incongruent factors have structured renewed interest in the period. First is the availability of the private papers, letters, and diaries of those present in Paris during these years; these form a record that, unlike published memoirs, documents the period from a less self-conscious and self-serving perspective. The women of this study were born between 1862 and 1903, the births of Edith Wharton and Anaïs Nin enclosing three generations, their arrivals in Paris separated by almost twenty-five years: Wharton settled in Paris in 1906 (living there part of every year until her permanent residence in 1912); Nin (who had been born in Paris) returned to her native city just prior to 1930. Wharton, who died at 75 (as did Sylvia Beach), was one of the shorter-lived of these women. Stein died at age 71 of cancer, but Natalie Barney lived to 96; Djuna Barnes, Katherine Anne Porter, and Alice B. Toklas to 90; Winifred Ellerman to 88; Margaret Anderson to 87; Janet Flanner and Caroline Gordon to 86; Mina Loy to 84. Maria Jolas, one of the few women of this group still living [in 1986], resides in Paris, aged 93. And while Kay Boyle—in her early eighties—may still publish her memoirs, her compatriots have been consigned to posterity, their estates settled, their papers catalogued in American libraries, their private record now available to a public still hungry for more information.
A new generation of readers and critics is already at work researching these materials. Prior to 1976, only two women in the group had been accorded full-length biographies: Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton. Since 1976, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Colette, Nancy Cunard, H. D., and Alice B. Toklas have become the subjects of biographical studies. The past five years have produced the first full-length examination of works by Djuna Barnes, H. D., Mina Loy, Anaïs Nin, Adrienne Monnier, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jean Rhys as well as the republication of many out-of-print works by these women. Critical and biographical investigations of several others are currently in progress.
New approaches to cultural history, most significant among them feminist criticism, have provided important alternative perspectives on the Modernist literary effort and have opened avenues of approach to the diverse lifestyles and literary contributions of expatriate women. Feminist criticism directed toward rediscovery and reevaluation of the work of women writers has already altered our view of Modernism as a literary movement. It has testified to female experience in the social and intellectual settings of modern history and has examined the modes of entrapnnent, betrayal, and exclusion suffered by women in the first decades of the twentieth century. It has exposed the absence of commentary on women's contributions to Modernism and has rewritten the history of individual women's lives and works within the Modernist context. Feminist critical practice points toward—indeed, calls for—reevaluation and redefinition of Modernism itself. Once women Modernists are placed beside their male colleagues, the hegemony of masculine heterosexual values that have for so long underwritten our definitions of Modernism is put into question. Modernism may then be seen to be a far more eclectic and richly diverse literary movement than has previously been assumed. Discovering important differences among the lives and writing of Modernist women may also suggest the heterogeneity of gender groups and shed light on differences among the lives and writings of male Modernists. Distinguishing the effects on literary practice of such determinants as social class, education, sexual orientation, and religious and political persuasion may also reveal the extent to which the women of the expatriate Modernist community shared a commonality of experience that often ignored such boundaries.
Feminist criticism, in the context of post-Modernist literary theory, provides a method of discovering both similarities and differences, commonalities and divergences of experience. It poses a question already asked by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: "What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are ... both overtly and covertly patriarchal?" (Madwoman, 45-46). Deconstructive critical theory suggests that patriarchal culture is coupled with Western thought, which is structured in terms of polarities (male-female, good-evil, speech-writing), in which the second term is, according to Barbara Johnson, "considered the negative, corrupt, undesirable version of the first" (Derrida, Dissemination, viii). Feminist critical theory reads the effects of patriarchal constraint on women; deconstructive practice measures those effects with particular attention to the equivalence of "writing" and "woman" as devalued items in a hierarchical scheme of values.
The combination of these critical methods would seem to offer a doubled reading perspective of particular value in examining the place of women writers in Western society, but it is precisely this mutual reinforcement of the doubled reading that for some weakens the critical value of these combined methodologies. It has been argued that the two practices always arrive at the same conclusions: that the patriarchy represses woman, entraps her, subjects her to its self-reinforcing images; that in the patriarchy woman exists under erasure, absent, dispossessed of identity. Such readings suggest that woman either apes patriarchal forms (in order to assure a special dispensation for herself under its law) or exists in reaction against the forms of patriarchal repression. Thus in Gilbert and Gubar's reading of the patriarchal psychosexual heritage (following the work of Harold Bloom), woman finds herself locked out of the societal power structure and locked into literary forms conceived by and written for men. She defines the space of her world in the prisonhouse man has constructed for her, the authority of her writing grounded in anger and madness. This reading ultimately discovers—and even valorizes—the effects of woman's oppression, her illness and unease the results of the patriarchal "sentence" that condemns her to silence. Women's stories are always the same story, the record of a seemingly eternal battle against constraint. In such interpretations, the presence of the patriarchy remains a consistent factor, always defining itself by the same attitudes, the same repressive practices, resistant to changes in history, politics, and culture. Deconstructive practice reads the effects of this "Western metaphysic," the power and presence of the patriarchy, in woman's devalued position, equivalent to the secondary place writing plays with respect to speech. Both woman and writing lack the "presence" that underwrites power in Western civilization, and each is defined by absence.
Stated in these ways, woman's plight seems overdetermined, the plot of her story too predictable, the modes of her actions and writing reductive. The authority of her experience rests in its sameness, its inability ever radically to alter its base in fact or to transform that circumstance in fiction. Woman is constantly defined as the debased "other" of the masculine norm. Yet one hopes that both feminist theory and deconstructive practice offer richer possibilities for reading women's history than this résumé suggests. Indeed, it is post-Modernist theory that has "deconstructed" the power of the Western metaphysic, that has dislodged the oppositional and hierarchical value systems that always make woman and writing derivative and demeaned. Deconstructive practice has plotted not only the differences between male and female, masculine and feminine, but the differences within each of these categories. Neither the biologically determined categories "male" and "female" nor the socially produced categories "masculine" and "feminine" are absolute—entirely consistent, even monolithic, within themselves. Each inhabits and is inhabited by its opposite. Here one discovers the difference within gender, within the experience of gender; here an alternative reading to woman's predetermined plot offers itself.
Female Expatriation: Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein
Natalie Clifford Barney would seem to represent in the extreme the common denominators of upbringing, education, social status, intellectual ambition, and even sexual preference common to many women of the expatriate community. She was upper middle class but financially independent, a product of private schooling, a veteran European traveler at a young age, culturally advantaged and intellectually determined. She inherited sizable fortunes from both her mother and father; her education with French governesses and in private boarding schools was impeccable; she lived in Europe at various times before settling there permanently in 1902; she aspired to be and became a writer of some stature; she was the most active and candid leshian of her day, sharing this sexual orientation with thirteen of the twenty-two women of this study. Barney never allowed herself to be consigned to the shadows of literary Paris. Indeed, her own writing may have suffered because of the prominent social role she played within the community, and commentaries on Barney have tended to focus on her life to the exclusion of her art. She was an exceedingly public figure, establishing in her home on the rue Jacob a famous literary salon that for over sixty years brought together French and Americans, intellectuals and artists. Through her salon Barney wielded considerable power among Left Bank writers, power often employed in the service of her commitment to feminist ideals, using the salon to introduce women writers and their work to each other and to the larger public.
There were important variations in individual circumstances and lifestyles among these expatriate women, but it is Natalie Barney who most often serves as the "type" for the expatriate female Modernist, a woman whose intellectual and sexual independence was secured by financial privilege and social distinction. The degree of financial security experienced by women of the expatriate community varied, however: some were born to exceeding wealth (Natalie Barney, Winifred Ellerman, and Nancy Cunard); some were comfortably middle class (Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Maria Jolas); some were often hard pressed to make ends meet (Jean Rhys and Djuna Barnes); and others held paying jobs, usually as journalists (Janet Flanner, Florence Gilliam, and Solita Solano). The range of economic circumstance was significantly greater among women expatriates than among their male compatriots. Except for Harry Crosby, who inherited wealth, the expatriate men of literary Paris were middle class and of modest means. Nearly all supported themselves by some kind of work other than writing literature. They were journalists, bankers, teachers, physicians, and insurance salesmen. F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course, made enough money from his writings to support himself rather well, but his case is unusual. Far more of these writers saw little financial reward from their experimental literary works. In general, the women of the expatriate community experienced greater financial freedom than the men, having arrived in Paris with small annuities or inheritances with which they purchased their freedom from America. For some of them, such support was the only form of income they were ever to know.
A few of these women came from prestigious upper-class families, but most of them came from solidly middle-class circumstances. Their fathers included prosperous businessmen (among them a railroad magnate and a publisher), a university professor, a Presbyterian minister, and two English shipping tycoons. Some of the daughters could trace family histories for several generations in American and English public life, however. Caresse Crosby—Mary Phelps Jacob Peabody before she married Harry Crosby—traced her family back one thousand years to the Isle of Wight. At least two of these women had artistically significant maternal heritages: Kay Boyle's maternal aunt painted the portrait of Susan B. Anthony that inspired the 1936 commemorative postage stamp in her honor, and Alice Pike Barney was an accomplished painter who studied in Paris with Whistler and Duran. While not all of these expatriates were privately educated, they all received similar educations—studying music, painting, or literature. (Kay Boyle differed from the majority in studying architecture.) Some of these women were graduates of the most elite New England finishing schools, while at least two of them, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, received erratic educations, shifting between schools in America and Europe as families traveled. Many of these women shared marked similarities in family backgrounds, in cultural and intellectual aspirations, and in political and even religious attitudes (Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas were Jewish, and Winifred Ellerman reported to Robert McAlmon that her father, John Ellerman, was probably Jewish) as well as a homogeneity of childhood experience. In addition, these women appeared to share a common factor in expatriating: they wanted to escape America and to find in Europe the necessary cultural, sexual, and personal freedom to explore their creative intuitions.
Within the broad outlines of this pattern, the individual reactions to essentially conservative bourgeois upbringings varied considerably, as did the personal motivations for choosing to live in Paris. For homosexual women, the reasons for living abroad, the circle of friends developed there, and the integration of personal and professional lives were often influenced by sexual choices. In some cases, the private lives of these women reflected patterns established by the heterosexual world in which they lived. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, for instance, established a long-standing union that in many ways mirrored heterosexual marriages, coinciding—except in the choice of a female rather than a male partner— with the conventions of their upper-middle-class upbringings. Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood, however, established lesbian relationships whose only common feature was an explicit rebellion against the heterosexual norm. Only one made a public issue of her lesbianism. Candidly and openly promiscuous (indeed, committed to an ethics of promiscuity), Natalie Barney also maintained a decorous literary salon at which she served tea and cakes. The sharp contrast between Barney's public image as the leader of a lesbian community and her roles as poet and patron of the arts throws into relief the less obvious disjunction between private life and public convention evidenced in the lives of other lesbian women during these years.
Natalie Barney's place among women in the literary community has been viewed almost entirely as a function of her sexual orientation. In the gossipy biographies and memoirs of her life, Barney's lesbianism is the crucial factor, that which unites her art and life and explains her relationships with both men and women. Only very recently have feminist critics begun to reexamine the premises on which such accounts of Barney's life situate themselves, placing Barney at the center of a community of women committed to producing serious art. Barney's own writing, previously dismissed as derivative love poetry for a coterie of lesbian women, has begun to receive serious attention as critical examination plots the relation between form and content in these writings, between the shape of Barney's life and the subjects of her literary vision. Lillian Faderman notes, however, that "what is generally passed over... is the extent to which [Barney's] circle functioned as a support group for lesbians to permit them to create a self-image which literature and society denied them" (Surpassing the Love of Men, 369). This literary and social self-image, as we shall see, was often a destructive and homophobic one (resting on the work of such sexologists as Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and others). The image of lesbians in both literature and life was constructed around notions of illness, perversion, inversion, and paranoia. Natalie Barney dedicated her life to revising this prevailing image.
These interpretations of homosexual character traits among women of the Paris community still persist, even among leshian feminist critics who rightly insist on the need for reexamination of the women in this time and place. Not only did Barney's salon operate as a support group for leshian women; Barney herself spent a lifetime trying to revise the public and private images held by the larger community and lesbian women themselves. She provided a role model in her own behavior, she wrote poetry in the tradition of Sappho (a tradition that had been systematically suppressed over the more than two thousand years separating Barney from Lesbos), she made a pioneer effort to rewrite lesbian history and experience, to deny that guilt, self-recrimination, drug abuse, suicide, unhappiness, and psychological torment were part and parcel of the lesbian's commitment to an alternative life. While Barney welcomed to her home women of all kinds (including writers, artists, musicians, and dancers, as well as music hall performers and courtesans), never discriminating on the grounds of social class or religious, political, or sexual persuasions, Barney herself objected to modes of lesbian behavior that seemed to confirm the scientific theories then prevalent. In particular, she objected to any form of dress or behavior that suggested homosexual women were really men trapped in women's bodies. Therefore, she objected to cross-dressing, to the anger, self-indulgence, and self-pity that marked the behavior of many of her friends, and to the need to mime the male in dress, speech, and demeanor.
Barney may not have realized the extent to which such forms of behavior were determined by the attitudes of a parent culture that despised evidence of sexual difference, defining it as perversion, but she fought against the effects of such attitudes with extraordinary energy. For reasons discussed at greater length below, Barney remained untouched by the prescriptions of the parent culture, her life marked in every aspect as different from the lesbian image ordained by society: that is, Natalie Barney's life was significantly (and purposely) different from the lives of lesbians of her time, different most apparently from the lives of her many lovers. Importantly, the educational process Barney undertook directed itself to women and men of all sexual orientations. Although she organized a community of women in Paris (perhaps an effort to recreate Lesbos), she clearly saw the danger of forming separatist groups and made her salon an eclectic, international, and multisexual meeting place.
Important distinctions between Barney's experience and that of other women who formed her group remain unobserved, however. Crucial differences of social class and economic status are overlooked; Barney's feminism is rarely acknowledged to extend beyond the context of her lesbianism; if recognized at all, her contributions to restructuring the lesbian self-image are usually limited to the effort to rebuild Lesbos in Paris. Barney is still viewed, even by feminist critics, as the representative Paris lesbian, as though all lesbian women of the time lived out the effects of their sexual orientation in the same way, regardless of social class, religious heritage, intellectual interests, or political persuasion. The difference of sexual orientation continues to be read as sameness within the group, much as it was in Paris during these years; the expatriate community itself made a definite distinction between "the girls"—as lesbian women were referred to outside their hearing—and their heterosexual compatriots, especially those whose lives abroad reflected the conventions of middle-class life in America.6 We assume differences in the living circumstances between heterosexual and homosexual Paris women, but we must also be attentive to differences within these two groups. For members of each group the question so frequently asked back home—"Why Paris?"—often had special significance.
Gertrude Stein reacted strongly against the American puritanism of the early years of this century and frequently addressed the issue of her residence abroad. Her stated reasons for preferring life in Europe concerned her writing: "America is the mother of the twentieth century civilization, but she is now early Victorian," claimed Stein in a questionnaire for transition magazine. For Stein, America was provincial, restrictive, and belonged—like Queen Victoria—to another century. Stated differently, "a parent's place is never the place to work in." Gertrude Stein found in Paris the place where she wanted to work; although her literary subject was often America, she felt the need to be distanced from it in order to write about it, believing that a writer looking at his own civilization should have "the contrast of another culture before him." (The use of masculine pronouns in this description has telling importance: Stein saw serious writing as a male activity, one to which she made claim by playing the role of the male, by seeing only male Modernists as her colleagues and competitors.) Finally, she hinted at an attitude of constraint, of forfeiture, in American culture: "It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important." The latter statement suggests a whole subterrain of resistance to having things "taken away" that Stein shared with many of her compatriots, especially women. The expatriates resented the moral and psychological restraints of America—evidenced in prohibition laws and a staunch middle-class Protestantism inherent in the work ethic—and wished for the freedom of self-determination that was provided by Europe.
Among the expatriate women of Paris was a black American writer and journal editor, Jessie Fauset, whose reasons for expatriation reveal the narrow limits of American life during these years: "I like Paris because I find something here, something of integrity, which I seem to have strangely lost in my own country. It is simplest of all to say that I like to live among people and surroundings where I am not always conscious of 'thou shall not.' I am colored and wish to be known as colored, but sometimes I have felt that my growth as a writer has been hampered in my own country. And so—but only temporarily—I have fled from it" (Paris Tribune, 1 February 1923). What Jessie Fauset experienced as a black woman in America was confirmed by Josephine Baker, another woman who discovered that "the French treated black people just the way they do anyone else" (Cody, Women of Montparnasse, 33). These women felt, to greater or lesser degrees, the continued reminders that certain forms of behavior were expected of them and certain modes of personal and professional conduct were unavailable to them: "in order to offset criticism, the refined colored woman must not laugh too loudly, she must not stare—in general she must stiffen her self-control even though she can no longer humanly contain herself" (Paris Tribune, 1 February 1923). One was more in need of a "stiffened self-control" in America than in Paris, where life was economically, psychologically, and politically easier.
Gertrude Stein's expatriation from America constituted an escape from a life that, rather than being constricted, seemed directionless. Even before she left America for the last time, Stein knew herself to be seeking a purposeful life; and she knew that writing was somehow a part of that purpose. Paris provided a creative stimulus not available anywhere in America, not even in New York (a city Stein hated). Prior to her arrival in Paris, she had apparently established a pattern of dependence on her brother Leo, allowing his decisions—and frequent indecision—to direct her actions. (In fact, Leo had established a prior and even more powerful dependence on his sister.) In 1903, Leo decided to take up an artistic career in Paris, and Gertrude, trying to extricate herself from a disastrously unhappy first love affair with an American woman, followed him to 27, rue de Fleurus, where they set up housekeeping. It was here that she began writing in earnest. She had found both a place and a subject that suited her. Taking her own biography as her artistic subject matter, she analyzed two important factors in her own personal development: the effects of her national identity as an American and the consequences of her sexual orientation toward women.
While it is true that Stein's most autobiographical and sexually explicit works were not published until after her death, making her lesbianism clear and her relationship with Alice B. Toklas specifically detailed, Paris nurtured the writing of these works. In October 1903, she completed Q.E.D. (later published as Things as They Are, 1950), a novella that explores an unhappy lesbian relationship; it is based on Stein's similar experience just prior to her arrival in Europe earlier that year, while she was still living in Baltimore. Exploration of such relationships occupied her at various times in her writing career, particularly in the early years of the Paris experience and in the formative years of her relationship with Toklas. Stein's own biography and the experiences of her daily life are everywhere available in her writing because for Stein everything in her adult life became a subject for and was subjected to her art. So when she speaks of her own experience living in Europe, of the need to distance herself from America in order to write about it, she is also suggesting the need to distance the facts of her personal life in such a way that she can reapproach them through her writing.
Paris offered Stein the privacy and personal freedom to live and write as she pleased, and it provided this valuable freedom for other members of the expatriate community as well. It was only in France that Stein was able to develop a "personal life" in which she could express her sexuality. The American experience with lesbian sexuality had led to painful selfdoubts and psychological isolation. In the months prior to her arrival in Europe, she had essentially avoided the personal, directing her energies away from herself, becoming ever more lonely. James R. Mellow comments in his biography of Stein that her early life in San Francisco and her years at Radcliffe and later as a medical student at Johns Hopkins record a young woman's efforts to find friendship and emotional security: "Aside from the companionship of Leo, her adolescent years in California had been interior and introspective.... In Baltimore, confronted with the large and busy Stein and Keyser clans, she began 'to lose her lonesomeness.' But she felt a certain strangeness, after the 'rather desperate inner life' she had been leading in California, on moving into the'cheerful life' of her numerous uncles and aunts" (Charmed Circle, 42). There is little in Mellow's portrait of Stein's psychological development to suggest the egoridden determination of her adult years. In fact, the ego seems underdeveloped, and there is an obvious lack of purpose and direction to her life in these early years. A definite change of personality occurred after her arrival in Paris, perhaps born of her efforts to shed the protective shell Leo had provided for so long and to achieve a measure of independence. Initially, however, Paris offered a place in which Stein could fill the emptiness of her life.
This space was filled most obviously, and very quickly, with the dozens of people from various cultures who wanted a glimpse of the art work that Gertrude and Leo Stein were beginning to collect. Although in these early Paris years Gertrude was less in the forefront of the aesthetic discussions that took place on the rue de Fleurus than Leo, she is remembered, as is Natalie Barney, as the head of an important artistic salon. The two salons could not have had less in common: Barney's was formal, old-fashioned, almost stuffy, while the Steins' was casual, unassuming, and open to virtually anyone. Nor could these two women have seen their place in the Paris community less similarly. Natalie Barney never used her salon to further her own career as a writer, nor did she set herself up as the center of the salon. Her purpose was to bring people together, to foster the work of other artists (many of whom were women), and to embrace the cultural life of the Left Bank community. Barney's was a feminist effort that would eventually become an endeavor on behalf of lesbian literature and art. Gertrude Stein's role was quite different. She very soon displaced her brother as the spokesperson on art and literature, placing herself at the center of the Saturday evenings at home, gathering the men around her while consigning the "wives" to other rooms, where they entertained themselves or were entertained by Alice Toklas. Stein began promoting herself as the resident genius of the Left Bank. The Paris setting was soon important because Gertrude Stein was there—and she amply filled the space she had created for herself.
Stein's adopted status among the men of this community reveals much about her artistic aims and psychological motivations. She instinctively realized that these men were creatively productive and intellectually powerful. As such, they were her colleagues, her rivals, and—as in the cases of Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson—her disciples. Stein wanted a place among the men of this community, and she accepted the implicit patriarchal belief that women were isolated and domesticated precisely because they were weak and nonintellectual. Stein was not able to escape the fate she feared. In fact, the militant and fiercely independent strategy she adopted ensured the very isolation she had come to Paris to escape. Stein's Paris years record her struggle to prove that she was stronger, more talented, and intellectually superior to the men. She purposely defined her literary project as separate from Modernism and superior to it; eventually, she accepted as callers to 27, rue de Fleurus, only those who swore absolute loyalty to her, men who agreed to become followers in her literary school. To understand Stein's place in Paris, then, one must understand her position among male Modernists. Specifically, it is necessary to examine the conspicuous competition and often brutal hostility that Stein felt for Joyce, an expatriate whose reasons for being in Paris were not really so different from her own. Stein thought of herself as a genius and regularly proclaimed herself to be one. Although less vocal on the subject, Joyce clearly also saw himself as a genius and set out to be the most important writer of the twentieth century.
When Joyce arrived in Paris to embark on a career as a medical student at the Ecole de Médecine in 1903, Gertrude Stein had just arrived in Paris, having given up the prospects of a career in medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Joyce also quickly abandoned his efforts in order to take up literary ventures; by the time of his return to Paris in 1920, he had published poetry, a collection of short stories, a play, and an important first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By 1920, Gertrude Stein had published a collection of short stories, a volume of poetry, and some word portraits (much of her writing during these years, however, remained unpublished at the time). She had become in the intervening seventeen years a defender and explicator of her own experimental literary forms, something of an expert on avant-garde painting, and a well-respected if not often read writer of the Left Bank. The period of her great public renown was still ahead of her, as was Joyce's, reaching its zenith in the next two decades, after the publication of The Making of Americans and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But the Left Bank community already belonged to her: she discovered it, founded it, cultivated it, and enjoyed whatever measure of la gloire it provided her. By now, Paris was her "hometown," and she jealously guarded her home territory. In Ulysses, whose publication in Paris in 1922 was, according to Janet Flanner, the great literary event of the decade, a young Stephen Dedalus—just returned from the Left Bank—comments to his Dublin contemporaries: "You suspect... that I may be important because I belong to the faubourg St. Patrice called Ireland for short.... But I suspect ... that Ireland must be important because it belongs to me" (Ulysses, 645). Whether the faubourg St. Germain belonged to Stein or to Joyce in the twenties and thirties was of crucial importance to Gertrude Stein. While she worried constantly about her position among the expatriates, Joyce abstracted himself from such local concern, more worried about whether Dubliners were adequately aware of his achievements.
By 1920, Gertrude Stein had been in Paris so long that hardly anyone remembered when she had not been there. She had sunk roots deep into the city. But despite the fact that she was a public figure—written about, talked about—she kept very much to herself. Writing in remembrance of those years, Matthew Josephson comments that "Gertrude Stein in all her years in Paris lived within her own walls so to speak" (Ford, Left Bank Revisited, xxiii). He seems to mean by this that she showed little interest in the French writing of the period (indeed, she read little in French, claiming that it was a language to be spoken) and that she mixed rarely with French artists and intellectuals. It is true that she showed little interest in literary experimentalism other than her own and that her relationships with other writers were often stormy, since she cast herself as a teacher among apprentices. But a long-standing relationship with Picasso developed from her quite genuine interest in modern art. This relationship had its difficulties too, as the two strong egos worked out their aesthetic premises in conversation with each other over many years. Here, however, the friendship appeared to rest on neutral ground: since Picasso and Stein worked in different media, there was no inherent competition and they met on equal terms. Stein acknowledged and supported Picasso's genius, while he often said to her "expliquez-moi cela," giving Stein her lead. Like her brother, she loved to explain, and Picasso's methods and hers actually seemed almost equivalent to her at a certain point in her career. She once commented: "Well, Pablo is doing abstract portraits in painting. I am trying to do abstract portraits in my medium, words" (Charmed Circle, 202).
But Stein chose carefully those with whom she shared her views, and the scene of such exchanges was nearly always her home, where she felt comfortable among her paintings and manuscripts. She was rarely, if ever, seen in Montparnasse cafes; she seldom attended the literary occasions arranged by others. The one time she appeared at someone else's salon, she attended an evening in her own honor, arranged by Natalie Barney. An evening at Shakespeare and Company at which Edith Sitwell was asked to honor Stein by reading Stein's work nearly foundered when Sitwell began reading her own work. By the early 1920s, Stein's relationship with Shakespeare and Company was severely strained, because Stein could not understand or forgive Sylvia Beach for her support of James Joyce. In the early years when both Stein and Joyce were frequent visitors to the rue de l'Odéon, they managed never to encounter one another. Stein and Toklas stopped visiting the bookshop, transferring their membershp to the American Library on the Right Bank when it became known that Beach would publish Joyce's Ulysses. Later, after Beach broke wth Joyce, Stein renewed her friendship with Shakespeare and Company.
It is not surprising, then, that Stein and Joyce did not meet until 1930— and then only once. The accounts of the meeting vary, Sylvia Beach and Alice B. Toklas offering separate versions. Beach claims to have introduced them at the home of sculptor Jo Davidson, where she watched them "shake hands quite peacefully" (Shakespeare and Company, 32). Toklas says they met at the home of Eugene and Maria Jolas and that Joyce commented to Stein, ''how strange that we share the same quartier and have ever met," to which Stein doubtfully replied, "yes" (Ellmann, James Joyce, 529; Charmed Circle, 300). Stein scems to have brooded over the fact that Joyce never took the opportunity to meet her, feeling that her position as the literary experimentalist was the more senior: "Joyce is good. He is a good writer. Let's not say anything about that. But who started the whole thing? My first great book, The Making of Americans, was published in 1905. That was long before the birth of Ulysses."
Implicit in this defense against Joyce is anger at his intrusion on territory that Stein considered her own: she was his elder, the precursor, and assumed it to be his duty to call upon her. Whatever Joyce thought of Stein (whose work he had not read, just as she probably had not read his) was carefully hidden by his consummate concern with his own writing. Although they were both published in the same little magazines, the Little Review, transition, and This Quarter, Joyce remained aloofly disinterested in Stein's work, as he was in the work of any other writer except himself. Like Stein, he fought tenaciously to have his writing published; although he never published it himself at his own expense, as Stein did, he suffered tremendous difficulties in finding publishers. Stein and Joyce shared a total commitment to their artistic ventures, enormous confidence in their own abilities, and egos sufficient to support years of hard work with little recognition or recompense. Also, their writing compulsively reexamined cultures they had left behind: the locus of Stein's writing was always America just as Joyce's was always Ireland. She was escaping a Protestant cultural ethic, as he was escaping a Catholic puritanism. Even their lifestyles, especially during the Paris years, were similarly bourgeois. In some sense, it matters little that hers was a homosexual union and his a heterosexual one, or that he had twenty addresses in as many years and she had one for nearly forty. The settings were similar; both were served by spouses who protected the time and energies of their mates, who preserved an intimate and private home life, who allowed these two writers to work quietly within their own walls. Their lives were exceedingly private, almost secret. They were not personally available to the public at large and were rarely seen except by close friends. Their "public" images were shadows of the real lives that were spent at home, at work.
Critics have had a particularly difficult time assessing Stein, because much about her personality, behavior, and mental attitude is uncongenial even to those who admire her creative work."' She presents particular problems for feminist critics because, although an important woman in twentieth-century literature and culture, she remained absolutely uninterested in supporting the work of other women or even in acknowledging herself as one of them. As a lesbian, her relationship with Alice Toklas duplicated the imbalance apparent in many heterosexual unions to the extent that Natalie Barney was shocked on feminist grounds by Stein's treatment of Toklas. In a review of the links between lesbianism and the cultural tradition, Blanche Wiesen Cook describes the Stein-Toklas marriage: ''Heterosexist society is little threatened by a relationship that appeared so culturally determined. Stein wrote and slept while Toklas cooked, embroidered, and typed. Few feminist principles are evident there to challenge the ruling scheme of things. Then there is the matter of Stein's politics. And her politics, though not simple, seem on balance simply impoverished. She was not a radical feminist. She was Jewish and anti-semitic, lesbian and contemptuous of women, ignorant about economics and hostile toward socialism" ("'Women Alone Stir My Imagination,"' 730). But heterosexist society was threatened by this relationship, one of the best known of its kind in the Paris community (indeed, a "model" for what heterosexuals thought lesbian alliances were like), and the extent to which heterosexuals saw their own relationships mirrored in it is of central concern to this study. The indictment that Cook makes of Stein, however, extends beyond what some may consider the narrow boundaries of "feminism." It assumes in Stein an impoverished humanity.
It is important to situate Stein among the women writers of this community, even though she would argue against such an alignment. While this study focuses on how expatriate women thought of themselves as women Modernists, for Stein the question may be: to what extent did she think of herself as a male, and how did that self-perception affect her writing? Evidence from both her personal life and her writing suggests that she saw herself playing roles traditionally assigned to men, adopting a male persona against the feminine weakness to which her womanhood apparently consigned her. This psychological tactic has most often been read in the context of her sexual orientation (commentators note that she employed the male pronoun in her relationship with Toklas, for instance). But the implications of Stein's alliance with the masculine are more complex and more extensive than have so far been suggested. An examination of Stein's use of the adopted masculine identity sheds light not only on the ways she lived her lesbianism but on the ways in which she wrote about that experience. A careful analysis of this living/writing experience unsettles expectations about Stein's relation to women writers of the community and her place among the male Modernists. It also upsets conventional notions of the heterosexual woman writer's experience as distinct from that of the homosexual woman, revealing the extent to which Stein's presence threatened attitudes about lesbian behavior among both homosexual and heterosexual women.
Women's contributions to the Modernist literary movement have been doubly suppressed by history, either forgotten by the standard literary hlstories of this time or rendered inconsequential by memoirs and literary biographies. Gertrude Stein, the best known of these women, was more important in her historical context than her place in literary history suggests. Hugh Ford has commented, "Although Miss Stein continues to hold a formidable place in accounts of the Paris years, and will obviously continue to do so, she was but one of many talented American exiles of her sex who collectively comprised an extraordinary group of entertainers, artists, and writers" (Left Bank Revisited, 45). Until very recently, when her writings were recovered by feminist critics, Gertrude Stein's literary reputation rested on anecdotal (and often incorrect) information about her life in Paris. Before feminist deconstructive practice provided a means of discussing Stein's writing, her works remained unread, beyond the comprehension of devoted scholars and of little interest to literary raconteurs. Considered the doyenne of literary Paris, Stein was a formidable presence in the expatriate community. But she was also a laughingstock, the butt of jokes that mocked her looks, her lifestyle, her relationships with her brother and with Alice B. Toklas, even her art collection; the term doyenne, one suspects, was as often applied in disparagement as in praise. One cannot resist the conclusion, then, that Stein's struggle to be taken seriously as a writer would have been less pronounced, her literary reputation more secure, her work more often read and taught had she been a man.
“Shari Benstock... weaves together, with great skill, the histories of an extraordinary group of talented women--publishers like Sylvia Beach, Caresse Crosby, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Heap, novelists Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton. She examines in some depth the writing produced by poets, journalists and novelists, thus combining literary criticism and social history in a seamless running narrative.... A valuable and intriguing book.”
National Public Radio
“Benstock has made visible the women of the Left Bank (1900-40) and in doing so has forced a redefinition of what literary modernism was, who was important in it, and how it is to be defined.... Modernism as we will understand it for a long time to come will be defined by Benstock's book...”
“cite>Women of the Left Bank is perhaps the most exciting book I’ve held in my hands all fall. It details and describes the lives (and relationships) of a community of women in Paris (1900-1940) that strongly parallels the feminist writing, publishing, thought-shaking community of our own times...”
Feminist Bookstore News
“... presents the women who left their enduring mark on the cultural milieu of a nation. Through their writings, including unpublished and newly available documentary sources of the period, Djuna Barnes, Nancy Cunard, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and others are revealed as significant in the development of modernism, imagism and other avant-garde movements in which they were overshadowed or ignored by their male counterparts.... Benstock tracks the sexually liberated lifestyles and the creative originality of these women with a wealth of documentation.”
“Superbly crafted, at once painstaking and daring, this book will make it impossible to consider Modernism henceforth apart from the important and problematic work of such American women as Gertrude Stein, H.D., Mina Loy, and Djuna Barnes, as well as the various contributions of Sylvia Beach, Natalie Barney, and others.... The book is an inspiration, setting a standard for literary history and feminist criticism that will be difficult to surpass”