By Gertrude Stein
Publication Date: 10/1/24
In The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein sets out to tell "a history of a family's progress," radically reworking the traditional family saga novel to encompass her vision of personality and psychological relationships. As the history progresses over three generations, Stein also meditates on her own writing, on the making of The Making of Americans, and on America.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was born in Pittsburgh to a prosperous German-Jewish family. She was educated in France and the United States, worked under the pioneering psychologist William James, and later studied medicine. With her brother Leo she was an important patron of the arts, acquiring works by many contemporary artists, most famously Picasso, while her home became a popular meeting place for writers and painters from Matisse to Hemingway. Her books include Three Lives, Tender Buttons, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
“This sober, tender-hearted, very searching history of a family’s progress, comprehends in its picture of life which is distinctively American, a psychology which is universal.”—Marianne Moore, Dial
“The Making of Americans is the first announcement of what would be Stein’s greatest legacy—to reclaim the world of the nineteenth-century woman from such weird, smutty interlopers as Flaubert and, later, Joyce, and transform it into the most exalted ground of human potentiality available to us. . . . It is monumental, horribly flawed, and a joy to read if you just give up and drown in it.”—Matthew Stadler, The Stranger
“Indubitably the most monumental fiction to be given since the publication of Ulysses.”—Saturday Review of Literature
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop !” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop ! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
It is hard living down the tempers we are born with. We all begin well, for in our youth there is nothing we are more intolerant of than our own sins writ large in others and we fight them fiercely in ourselves; but we grow old and we see that these our sins are of all sins the really harmless ones to own, nay that they give a charm to any character, and so our struggle with them dies away.
It has always seemed to me a rare privilege, this, of being an American, a real American, one whose tradition it has taken scarcely sixty years to create. We need only realise our parents, remember our grandparents and know ourselves and our history is complete.
The old people in a new world, the new people made out of the old, that is the story that I mean to tell, for that is what really is and what I really know.
Some of the fathers we must realise so that we can tell our story really, were little boys then, and they came across the water with their parents, the grandparents we need only just remember. Some of these our fathers and our mothers, were not even made then, and the women, the young mothers, our grandmothers we perhaps just have seen once, carried these our fathers and our mothers into the new world inside them, those women of the old world strong to bear them. Some looked very weak and little women, but even these so weak and little, were strong always, to bear many children.
These certain men and women, our grandfathers and grandmothers, with their children born and unborn with them, some whose children were gone ahead to prepare a home to give them ; all countries were full of women who brought with them many children ; but only certain men and women and the children they had in them, to make many generations for them, will fill up this history for us of a family and its progress.
Many kinds of al these women were strong to bear many children.
One was very strong to bear them and then always she was very strong to lead them.
One was strong to bear them and then always she was strong to suffer with them.
One, a little gentle weary woman was strong to bear many children, and then always after she would sadly suffer for them, weeping for the sadness of all sinning, wearying for the rest she knew her death would bring them.
And then there was one sweet good woman, strong just to bear many children, and then she died away and left them, for that was all she knew then to do for them.
And these four women and the husbands they had with them and the children born and unborn in them will make up the history for us of a family and its progress.
Other kinds of men and women and the children they had with them, came at different times to know them ; some, poor things, who never found how they could make a living, some who dreamed while others fought a way to help them, some whose children went to pieces with them, some who thought and thought and then their children rose to greatness through them, and some of all these kinds of men and women and the children they had in them will help to make the history for us of this family and its progress.
These first four women, the grandmothers we need only just remember, mostly never saw each other. It was their children and grandchildren who, later, wandering over the new land, where they were seeking first, just to make a living, and then later, either to grow rich or to gain wisdom, met with one another and were married, and so together they made a family whose progress we are now soon to be watching.