At first glance, Three Lives seems to be three straightforward portraits of women living in the early twentieth century. The Good Anna” describes an exacting German house servant; Melanctha” explores the love affair of an African-American woman; and The Gentle Lena” narrates the fate of a patient German maid. Yet these are daring prose experiments that reflect Gertrude Stein’s revolt against the popular narrative style of realism. As she composed these works, Stein sought to emulate the aesthetic of the innovative painters Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse. She rejected the more traditionally literary emphasis on social order and plot, replacing these with a focus on language, tone, and description. The result is a simple yet stunning view of the lives of three distinct women.
Self-published in 1909, Three Lives catapulted Stein to the forefront of the influential American Modernist movement, which inspired such later novelists as Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac.
Jonathan Levin is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Fordham University, where he teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and culture. He is the author of The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism, as well as numerous essays and reviews.