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Three Lives [Mass Market Paperback]

Gertrude Stein
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Book Description

Dec 31 2002 Enriched Classics (Simon & Schuster)
The first published work of fiction by legendary author and poet Gertrude Stein, Three Lives is a collection of two short stories and a novella focusing on the bleak existence that faced immigrant and minority women in turn-of-the-century America.

Each impoverished woman must labor as a domestic worker to survive, and all three protagonists have their own tales of hardship. "The Good Anna" tells the story of a young German servant who must decide between loyalty to her employer and love. In "The Gentle Lena," another German servant girl marries the wrong man, and finds herself trapped as a wife and mother. And the introspective "Melanctha" examines the tragic life of a mulatto woman and those she loved.

Pocket Books' Enriched Classics present the great works of world literature enriched for the contemporary reader. This edition of Three Lives has been prepared by Brenda Wineapple, professor of Modern Literary and Historical Studies at Union College. It includes her introduction, a selection of critical excerpts, and suggestions for further reading, as well as a unique visual essay of period illustrations and photographs.


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About the Author

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American-Jewish writer, poet and art collector who spent most of her life in France. While living in Paris, Gertrude began writing for publication. Her earliest writings were mainly retellings of her college experiences. Her first critically acclaimed publication was Three Lives. Sherwood Anderson in his public introduction to Stein's 1922 publication of Geography and Plays wrote: "For me the work of Gertrude Stein consists in a rebuilding, an entirely new recasting of life, in the city of words. Here is one artist who has been able to accept ridicule, who has even forgone the privilege of writing the great American novel, uplifting our English speaking stage, and wearing the bays of the great poets to go live among the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From Three Lives

The Good Anna

PART I

The tradesmen of Bridgepoint learned to dread the sound of "Miss Mathilda," for with that name the good Anna always conquered.

The strictest of the one price stores found that they could give things for a little less, when the good Anna had fully said that "Miss Mathilda" could not pay so much and that she could buy it cheaper "by Lindheims."

Lindheims was Anna's favorite store, for there they had bargain days, when flour and sugar were sold for a quarter of a cent less for a pound, and there the heads of the departments were all her friends and always managed to give her the bargain prices, even on other days.

Anna led an arduous and troubled life.

Anna managed the whole little house for Miss Mathilda. It was a funny little house, one of a whole row of all the same kind that made a close pile like a row of dominoes that a child knocks over, for they were built along a street which at this point came down a steep hill. They were funny little houses, two stories high, with red brick fronts and long white steps.

This one little house was always very full with Miss Mathilda, an under servant, stray dogs and cats and Anna's voice that scolded, managed, grumbled all day long.

"Sallie! can't I leave you alone a minute but you must run to the door to see the butcher boy come down the street and there is Miss Mathilda calling for her shoes. Can I do everything while you go around always thinking about nothing at all? If I ain't after you every minute you would be forgetting all the time, and I take all this pains, and when you come to me you was as ragged as a buzzard and as dirty as a dog. Go and find Miss Mathilda her shoes where you put them this morning."

"Peter!", -- her voice rose higher, -- "Peter!", -- Peter was the youngest and the favorite dog, -- "Peter, if you don't leave Baby alone," -- Baby was an old, blind terrier that Anna had loved for many years, -- "Peter if you don't leave Baby alone, I take a rawhide to you, you bad dog."

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline. The three regular dogs, the three that always lived with Anna, Peter and old Baby, and the fluffy little Rags, who was always jumping up into the air just to show that he was happy, together with the transients, the many stray ones that Anna always kept until she found them homes, were all under strict orders never to be bad one with the other.

A sad disgrace did once happen in the family. A little transient terrier for whom Anna had found a home suddenly produced a crop of pups. The new owners were certain that this Foxy had known no dog since she was in their care. The good Anna held to it stoutly that her Peter and her Rags were guiltless, and she made her statement with so much heat that Foxy's owners were at last convinced that these results were due to their neglect.

"You bad dog," Anna said to Peter that night, "you bad dog."

"Peter was the father of those pups," the good Anna explained to Miss Mathilda, "and they look just like him too, and poor little Foxy, they were so big that she could hardly have them, but Miss Mathilda, I would never let those people know that Peter was so bad."

Periods of evil thinking came very regularly to Peter and to Rags and to the visitors within their gates. At such times Anna would be very busy and scold hard, and then too she always took great care to seclude the bad dogs from each other whenever she had to leave the house. Sometimes just to see how good it was that she had made them, Anna would leave the room a little while and leave them all together, and then she would suddenly come back. Back would slink all the wicked-minded dogs at the sound of her hand upon the knob, and then they would sit desolate in their corners like a lot of disappointed children whose stolen sugar has been taken from them.

Innocent blind old Baby was the only one who preserved the dignity becoming in a dog.

You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life.

The good Anna was a small, spare, German woman, at this time about forty years of age. Her face was worn, her cheeks were thin, her mouth drawn and firm, and her light blue eyes were very bright. Sometimes they were full of lightning and sometimes full of humor, but they were always sharp and clear.

Her voice was a pleasant one, when she told the histories of bad Peter and of Baby and of little Rags. Her voice was a high and piercing one when she called to the teamsters and to the other wicked men, what she wanted that should come to them, when she saw them beat a horse or kick a dog. She did not belong to any society that could stop them and she told them so most frankly, but her strained voice and her glittering eyes, and her queer piercing German english first made them afraid and then ashamed. They all knew too, that all the policemen on the beat were her friends. These always respected and obeyed Miss Annie, as they called her, and promptly attended to all of her complaints.

For five years Anna managed the little house for Miss Mathilda. In these five years there were four different under servants.

The one that came first was a pretty, cheerful Irish girl. Anna took her with a doubting mind. Lizzie was an obedient, happy servant, and Anna began to have a little faith. This was not for long. The pretty, cheerful Lizzie disappeared one day without her notice and with all her baggage and returned no more.

This pretty, cheerful Lizzie was succeeded by a melancholy Molly.

Molly was born in America, of German parents. All her people had been long dead or gone away. Molly had always been alone. She was a tall, dark, sallow, thin-haired creature, and she was always troubled with a cough, and she had a bad temper, and always said ugly dreadful swear words.

Anna found all this very hard to bear, but she kept Molly a long time out of kindness. The kitchen was constantly a battle-ground. Anna scolded and Molly swore strange oaths, and then Miss Mathilda would shut her door hard to show that she could hear it all.

At last Anna had to give it up. "Please Miss Mathilda won't you speak to Molly," Anna said, "I can't do a thing with her. I scold her, and she don't seem to hear and then she swears so that she scares me. She loves you Miss Mathilda, and you scold her please once."

"But Anna," cried poor Miss Mathilda, "I don't want to," and that large, cheerful, but faint hearted woman looked all aghast at such a prospect. "But you must, please Miss Mathilda!" Anna said.

Miss Mathilda never wanted to do any scolding. "But you must please Miss Mathilda," Anna said.

Miss Mathilda every day put off the scolding, hoping always that Anna would learn to manage Molly better. It never did get better and at last Miss Mathilda saw that the scolding simply had to be.

It was agreed between the good Anna and her Miss Mathilda that Anna should be away when Molly would be scolded. The next evening that it was Anna's evening out, Miss Mathilda faced her task and went down into the kitchen.

Molly was sitting in the little kitchen leaning her elbows on the table. She was a tall, sallow girl, aged twenty-three, by nature slatternly and careless but trained by Anna into superficial neatness. Her drab striped cotton dress and gray black checked apron increased the length and sadness of her melancholy figure. "Oh, Lord!" groaned Miss Mathilda to herself as she approached her.

"Molly, I want to speak to you about your behaviour to Anna!", here Molly dropped her head still lower on her arms and began to cry.

"Oh! Oh!" groaned Miss Mathilda.

"It's all Miss Annie's fault, all of it," Molly said at last, in a trembling voice, "I do my best."

"I know Anna is often hard to please," began Miss Mathilda, with a twinge of mischief, and then she sobered herself to her task, "but you must remember, Molly, she means it for your good and she is really very kind to you."

"I don't want her kindness," Molly cried, "I wish you would tell me what to do, Miss Mathilda, and then I would be all right. I hate Miss Annie."

"This will never do Molly," Miss Mathilda said sternly, in her deepest, firmest tones, "Anna is the head of the kitchen and you must either obey her or leave."

"I don't want to leave you," whimpered melancholy Molly. "Well Molly then try and do better," answered Miss Mathilda, keeping a good stern front, and backing quickly from the kitchen.

"Oh! Oh!" groaned Miss Mathilda, as she went back up the stairs.

Miss Mathilda's attempt to make peace between the constantly contending women in the kitchen had no real effect. They were very soon as bitter as before.

At last it was decided that Molly was to go away. Molly went away to work in a factory in the town, and she went to live with an old woman in the slums, a very bad old woman Anna said.

Anna was never easy in her mind about the fate of Molly. Sometimes she would see or hear of her. Molly was not well, her cough was worse, and the old woman really was a bad one.

After a year of this unwholesome life, Molly was completely broken down. Anna then again took her in charge. She brought her from her work and from the woman where she lived, and put her in a hospital to stay till she was well. She found a place for her as nursemaid to a little girl out in the country, and Molly was at last established and content.

Molly had had, at first, no regular successor. In a few months it was going to be the summer and Miss Mathilda would be gone away, and old Katie would do very well to come in every day and help Anna with her work.

Old Katy was a heavy, ugly, short and rough old German woman, with a strange distorted German-english all her own. Anna was worn out now with her attempt to make the younger generation do all that it should and rough old Katy never answered back, and never wanted her own way. No scolding or abuse could make its mark on her uncouth and aged peasant hide. She said her "Yes, Miss Annie," when an answer had to come, and that was always all that she could say.

"Old Katy is just a rough old woman...


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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars obscurantism masquerading as avant-garde Oct. 13 2003
Format:Paperback
The trouble with the avant-garde is that they set themselves up to say that anyone who doesn't like what they do is, well, totally square. At the same time, those who convince themselves that they appreciate it in the correct way can lord it over the rest of us naifs.
After having heard about this book for years from a dear Stein-devotee pal, I gave it a try. I must say that, not only was I disappointed in the so-called language experimentation, but I was just plain bored. I did not find the characters interesting; I did not get taken into their world view by the stream-of-consciousness writing style that is Stein's trademark; I did not feel like I learned anything. What truly convinced my pal that I am an artistic philistine - and I guess I am in her measure - is that I vastly preferred The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which was written for a popular audience (this is, clearly written and not with all the obscure and in my view idioitic word play).
Oh well, this review will no doubt get many "unhelpful" votes, but then, at least I looked at it honestly and and naively and gave it the effort an avant-garde classic deserves. NOT RECOMMENDED.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Language as never before (or after) Aug. 6 2000
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
read the other reviews and youll be surprised by the violent reactions of people to this book. richard wright, black activist and author, praised this book as the "first true representation of an african-american in american literature" and yet another famous activist labeled it "senseless racist drivel"
What in the book provokes this controversy?
The question is complex. Though Stein in all three stories uses words like "black" and"german" as undeniable stereotypes, there is no denying that these categories get deconstructed by the narrative and the style.
If your read books for style, you cant go wrong here. Stein's experimental prose is poetry set to music, exploring all the auditory limits of the english language.
There are 3 stories, The Good Anna, Melanctha and The Gentle Lena.
The controversy is mainly about the second story. Not that the other stories dont have their issues. Eg: The Gentle Lena is probably one of the weirdest characters you will EVER see in fiction.
So, buy this book and treat yourself to some pleasure in the english language!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Turn off your TV. Oct. 22 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This is an important work of literature. The use of language to tell stories beyond what can typically be told in narrative was radical at the time. Students of early 20th Century American literature, students of gender studies, students of American studies should all be required to read it. Not an uplifting book and certainly not a book to recommend to your friends who spend more time watching TV and going to movies than reading.
There is a controversy surrounding the book's central character named Melanctha. It is unfortunate that television dominates culture in this era. It would seem that when a work of literature depicts a black person, a typical reader expects Cliff Huxtable to appear in one of his dandy sweaters to dispense advice to one of his children in DKNY clothing. Or readers of popular literature (books with bumpy covers) become offended when African American characters do not resemble one of Alice Walker's or Alex Haley's romanticized figures.
Melanctha is realistic. She is most likely a composite of many of the women with whom Stein came in contact while studying medicine in urban Baltimore. Melanctha's tragedy is that her intellect will go to waste because she is black and because she is a woman. Her sin (to some readers) seems to be that she talks like a black woman from Baltimore at that time would talk. So don't buy this book if you are offended by the way black people acted or German people acted (there is a story about German immigrants, as well) in Baltimore in the early 20th century.
If you are a fan of popular literature...Haley, Alice Walker, and the Cosby show are probably more up your alley. If you are interested in a very interesting experimental work from early 20th Century, by a woman who took her appreciation of post-impressionist art and tried to apply it to literature...this is it.
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