By Jeff Solomon
Gertrude Stein matriculated at age 19 and graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe five years later, in May 1898. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein shares a remarkable exam that she wrote for a favorite professor, William James:
“Dear Professor James,” she wrote at the top of her paper. “I am so sorry, but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day,” and left.
The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.” And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in the course.
Stein disregards the order of relations between herself, her professor, and the university. Yet Stein both has and eats her cake: her refusal to honor the university over her own emotional and bodily desires is mirrored by her professor and rewarded with the highest grade.[i]
Stein’s final exam became so notorious that the New York Times included it in her obituary, almost 50 years later. Although “The Refused Exam” charms on its own terms, its popularity as an anecdote stems from the synecdoche that reads Stein’s corpus and career through her embrace by James. By these lights, Stein is always refusing to take her exam, and the brilliance of her refusal always earns an A.
An unflattering variant configures Stein as a monster of confidence. She blithely transcribed whatever was in her head and was blindly acclaimed. Both understandings of Stein – the savant and the lucky fool – ignore her efforts for James, with whom she took a yearlong seminar in psychology. At his urging, she conducted research with a graduate student, Leon Solomons, and their research was published in the Harvard Psychological Review. Presumably a slacker would not have charmed so well. In truth, James was not charmed: Stein received a C for the semester that she refused to write the exam, rather than the As she earned her two other semesters with James.[ii]
Stein’s C did not keep her from medical school. She matriculated at Johns Hopkins in September 1897 at age 23, not because she wanted to be a doctor, but because, according to The Autobiography, James told her that a medical education was necessary for her to continue her research in psychology. Stein worked hardest at what interested her, which was original research into the function and development of the brain. Her work is quoted and referenced by her professor, Llewellys Barker, in The Nervous System and Its Constituent Neurones, an important work of early neuroscience.[iii]
Stein was considerably less successful at her classes, which bored her, and at clinical practice, which left her more concerned for her own health than that of her patients. The sexual harassment and anti-Semitism typical for that time and place did not help. Nor did her sexual and romantic relations with May Bookstaver, Stein’s first lover, who was already attached to another medical student, Mabel Haynes. Stein was unsuccessful as a romantic third party and never supplanted the alpha couple. She would lick her wounds in her first three mature narratives – Q.E.D. (written 1903), Fernhurst (written 1904), and, to an extent, Three Lives (written 1907).
Medical school itself was more easily abandoned. After five years, Stein pointedly left Johns Hopkins in 1901 without taking her degree. In The Autobiography, she makes her rejection acute via her thanks to a troublesome professor: “[I]f you had not kept me from taking my degree I would have, well, not taken to the practice of medicine, but at any rate to pathological psychology and you don’t know how little I like pathological psychology and how all medicine bores me.”[iv]
This speech may be fantastic on Stein’s part, but makes an admirable sequel to “The Refused Exam.” Again, Stein’s plain speaking repudiates a hierarchy, though this time her freshness does not earn an embrace, but saves her from an unwanted clinch. Whether or not the speech was given, Stein’s disgust with not only Johns Hopkins but also the academic establishment as a whole may be seen in her refusal to publish in the American Journal of Anatomy.
Here the trajectory of Stein’s graduate work becomes confusing. Stein was not allowed to graduate with her class, though her application for postgraduate study had already been accepted by the Massachusetts State Hospital for the Insane. Johns Hopkins offered Stein several options for finishing her degree, and she accepted the chance to dissect and make a model of an infant brain, and to write a lengthy paper on brain development: work that she had begun for Llewellys Barker. The model of the baby’s brain was a failure, but Barker sent Stein’s paper to the Journal of Anatomy. The article would both position Stein in her field and do service through the unglamorous task of filling in gaps and reconciling competing interpretations. In contemporary terms, she would be “part of the conversation.”[v]
If, that is, she were allowed to speak. At first, the journal rejected Stein’s article for being derivative and repetitive. When Barker protested that her work was both original and important, these objections were retracted. Regardless, Stein refused to pursue the minor revisions necessary for publication. If Stein had been willing to jump through a few more hoops (making jumps that were well within her range) and had better tolerated her mistreatment (as did other women, other Jews, and other unfavored scientists who did gain prestige), she would have won publication as well as her degree.[vi]
But Stein did not jump. More than 30 years later, she still told stories of how much she hated graduate school. Nonetheless, the work of Stein, like the work of most authors, was influenced by her education: in form, in content, and, most importantly, in rebellion. Her rejection of the academy was a dry run for her repudiation of the expectations of a writer’s career. This book explores her refusal to renounce, revise, or repress her sexuality, which – counterintuitively – allowed her to be celebrated while so many of her gay sisters were damned. Stein’s work heavily features homosexual content and a queer aesthetic, but she nonetheless became both a mass-market celebrity and, eventually, a respected and canonical writer. Somehow, she publicly profited from her homosexuality during homophobic times.
. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B ToklasAlice B. Toklas (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933).
. James Agee, “Stein’s Way,” TIME, September 11, 1933, 57–60; Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts, libretto, music by Virgil Thomson (New York: Random House, 1934).
. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933), 97–98.
. “Gertrude Stein Dies in France, 72,” New York Times, July 28, 1946. Stein’s grades are drawn from Linda Wagner-Martin, “Favored Strangers”: Gertrude Stein and Her Family (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 36. “Normal Motor Automatism” (1896) may be found in Gertrude Stein and Leon M. Solomons, Motor Automatism (New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1969).
. Stein, The Autobiography, 98. Llewellys F. Barker cites Stein in The Nervous System and Its Constituent Neurones (New York: Appleton, 1899), 721, 725, 875.
. The Autobiography, 102.
. See Wagner-Martin 51–52.
. Florence Sabin, a Jewish woman who was at Johns Hopkins the year before Stein, became a noted chemist. See Brenda Wineapple, Brother/Sister: Gertrude and Leo Stein (New York: Putnam, 1996): 127.
[i]. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933), 97–98.
[ii]. “Gertrude Stein Dies in France, 72,” New York Times, July 28, 1946. Stein’s grades are drawn from Linda Wagner-Martin, “Favored Strangers”: Gertrude Stein and Her Family (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 36. “Normal Motor Automatism” (1896) may be found in Gertrude Stein and Leon M. Solomons, Motor Automatism (New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1969).
[iii]. Stein, The Autobiography, 98. Llewellys F. Barker cites Stein in The Nervous System and Its Constituent Neurones (New York: Appleton, 1899), 721, 725, 875.
[iv]. The Autobiography, 102.
[v]. See Wagner-Martin 51–52.
[vi]. Florence Sabin, a Jewish woman who was at Johns Hopkins the year before Stein, became a noted chemist. See Brenda Wineapple, Brother/Sister: Gertrude and Leo Stein (New York: Putnam, 1996): 127.