Gertrude Stein and Automatic Writing

Gertrude Stein and Automatic Writing

Students reading Gertrude Stein’s early fiction—Three Lives (1909) and (if it counts as fiction) Tender Buttons (1914)—have a hard time not only understanding it but appreciating it. Context is necessary, and Stein provides it herself in a wonderful way. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein briefly mentions her undergraduate experiments in automatic writing under the direction of Hugo Münsterberg (73). The results of the experiments were published in the Harvard Psychological Review, and they are worth reading, because “the method of writing to be afterwards developed in Three Lives and Making of Americans already shows itself” (73). But exactly what links automatic writing to Stein’s work is not fully clear.  As Steven Meyer explains, it was not simply the case that Stein herself did automatic writing. There is a strong connection but Stein’s work was very much “conscious and the product of a rational mind” (227). So what, then, is the connection, and how does the psychological context shape or justify Stein’s project as a writer? 

Students find this interdisciplinary question engaging, especially if they have the chance to read Stein’s original publications and to engage with critical opinions on this subject. I suggest instructors begin with selections from Tender Buttons—Stein’s most provocative version of potentially automatic writing—along with the sections of the Autobiography in which Stein describes her Harvard career. (Note that both texts along with “Melanctha” are collected in Selected Writings.) Then turn to the two Psychological Review articles (available online through the American Psychological Association and elsewhere). Ask if Tender Buttons shows Stein simply writing automatically and ask about the implications of the different ways of answering this question. Is writing invalid if it is automatic?  Can automatic writing be a part of an authentic writing practice? Must it be? If Stein is not simply writing automatically, how is that approach functioning as a part of her practice as a modernist writer?

Answers to these questions make a good framework for beginning to read “Melanctha.” They also help set up further questions—for example, about the novella’s approach to race and its relation to the visual arts. What view of racial difference would be implied in Stein’s decision to write a woman like Melanctha automatically, if that is indeed what she has done? How would the automatic aesthetic relate to others with which Stein was associated—most notably, the aesthetic of cubism? Finally there is the larger question of modernism and its relation to psychology. How does Stein’s interest in primary psychological process help her contribute to modernist innovation?


Jesse Matz, Kenyon College


Works Cited

Meyer, Steven. Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

Solomons, Leon M, and Gertrude Stein. “Normal Motor Automatism.” Psychological Review 3 (1896): 492-512.

Stein, Gertrude. “Cultivated Motor Automatism: A Study of Character in Its Relation to Attention.” Psychological Review 5 (1898): 295-306.

—.  The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Vintage, 1962.

Thursday, 06/02/2022 - 17:06

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