Gertrude Stein on Oakland

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was a pivotal figure in 20th century art and literature. During her lifetime she became a celebrity as a Paris salon hostess and an early collector of modern art. She wrote poetry, plays, novels, opera librettos, and autobiographies in a style that was polarizing in its modernity. Before attaining worldwide fame, Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland. 

February 3, 2024 marked Stein's 150th birthday. In honor of the day, the Oakland History Center hosted a birthday party where we read from her work, ate brownies, made buttons, had our fortunes told by Stein's writing, and just talked about Gertrude Stein. There was also a costume contest with people dressed as Alice B. Toklas, Ernest Hemingway, and one of Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone sculptures. Most of the people who came to the party were curious about Gertrude Stein. What did she say about Oakland? Where did she live? How did she make a living off of her truly strange writing?  

If you're also curious about these questions, or anything else about Gertrude Stein's life in Oakland, please come see the exhibit that's on display (through April 30) in the Oakland History Center. "Gertrude Stein's Oakland: when there was there and when it wasn't or was it" puts Stein's famous quote about Oakland (“there’s no there there”) into its proper context.

Preparing for the exhibit, I found quite a lot of writing about the "no there there" quote, and about what Stein really meant by it. Many of the articles explaining the quote seem to quote each other rather than going back to the source. After taking a closer look, I found that neither of the most common explanations of the quote were really backed up by Stein's writing. She wasn't insulting Oakland, but she also wasn't commenting on how much the city had changed after she was away for 30 years. I kept reading to find what else Stein said about Oakland, about her childhood, and about identity. It turns out she wrote a great deal on all of those topics, and often had pretty interesting things to say about them. Here's what she said about visiting the site of her childhood home in Everybody's Autobiography (which is also the source of the more infamous quote):

"It was funny when we went back one day when I was in America to see how East Oakland, that is Thirteenth Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street as it was then looked. The little houses on Thirteenth Avenue looked very much the same, a good many of them quite as neglected as I remembered them and the hill quite the same but the old Stratton house as they called it where we had lived was of course gone and had been built over with little houses, they looked as if they were the only new houses in all that region. When they used to ask me in America whether I had not found America changed I said no of course it had not changed what could it change to. The only thing that makes identity possible is no change but nevertheless there is no identity nobody really thinks they are the same as they remember."

You'll have to come see the exhibit to learn what else I found about Stein's time in Oakland. 

In the meantime, why not read some Gertrude Stein for yourself? The "no there there" quote is from Stein's Everybody's Autobiography, which is a memoir of her 1934-35 lecture tour of the United States. It's the sequel to one of her best-known works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is primarily about Stein and Toklas' life in Paris. Those two books are probably Stein's most accessible works, as their style is relatively conversational compared to her other writing. I would recommend both to anyone who's interested in Stein as a personality, or in her role as friend and hostess to famous artists like Picasso and Matisse. You'll find mentions of Stein's Oakland childhood in both books, too. If you want a taste of Stein's more experimental style, you could start with something short like Tender Buttons. Or, if you're up for a real challenge, go for something long like The Making of Americans, the fictionalized version of three generations of her family's history, including their life in Oakland. Stein herself called The Making of Americans one of the three "important things" written in her generation. The other two? Ulysses by James Joyce and Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. 

A "fortune" from Gertrude Stein's writing. Does this answer all of your questions about your life?