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Three Lives (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) Paperback – May 1, 1990


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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (May 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140181849
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140181845
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.2 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #812,547 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

Consists of three character studies of women; "The Good Anna"--a kind but domineering German servingwoman; "Melanctha"--an uneducated but sensitive black girl; "The Gentle Lena"--a pathetically feebleminded young German maid. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.

About the Author

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, to an affluent Jewish family, spent her early childhood in Vienna and Paris, and later grew up in Oakland, California. At Radcliffe College she studied under William James, who remained her lifelong friend, and then went to Johns Hopkins to study medicine. Abandoning her studies, she moved to Paris with her brother Leo in 1903. At 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein lived with Alice B. Toklas, who would remain her companion for forty years. Not only was she an innovator in literature and a supporter of modern poetry and art, she was the friend and mentor of those who visited her at her now-famous home: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Guillaume Appollinaire. Her first important book was Three Lives (1909), then Tender Buttons (1914), followed by her magnum opus, The Making of Americans (1925), and the book which became a huge popular success, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Just before her death at the age of 72 on July 27, 1946, she asked Alice Toklas from her hospital bed, “What is the answer?” Getting no answer, she then asked, “In that case, what is the question?”


Ann Charters is the editor of The Portable Sixties Reader, The Portable Jack Kerouac, two volumes of Jack Kerouac's Selected Letters, and Beat Down to Your Soul. She teaches at the University of Connecticut.

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By K. A. Mera on April 7, 1999
Format: Paperback
Stein's Three Lives, first published in 1909, is one of the easier books of her in terms of language. The third story in it, "Melanctha", which is an adaption of her earlier "Q.E.D.", has caused much controversy, mainly due to its racist remarks and stereotypical representations of African - Americans. It is what lies beyond this, however, that distinguishes "Melanctha" from 19th C novels and renders it one of the most important works within the Modernist canon. In her typical style of a "continuous present" and her free usage of a pseudo-vernacular she describes the relationship of Melanctha, a mulatta, with Dr. Jefferson Campbell, also a mulatto. Their struggle "to understand" is a battle of different modes of perception and thus connects the book to Stein's most important teacher, William James. Despite its racist depiction of African Americans, this book is a must for all interested in the beginning of Modernism presented by Gertrude Stein.
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Format: Paperback
This is not a great novella or a set of great short stories but it is a very fascinating use of prose to create drama and intense feelings. Readers expecting to discover another Tolstoy will be very disappointed. Her writing style is very unusual but she does not write great novels. Hemingway and Katherine Porter claim that she influenced their work. She probably did; but, she is a writer's writer presenting unusual structure and prose. She is not a great novelist.

Stein published 26 books starting with this collection of three stories in 1909. This is her first book and she self published only 500 hard copies. She had to fight with the publisher to get it published her way. He wanted to make it more conventional. It was not written as a novel aimed at wide popular sales. She was seeking a smaller and a more critical audience.

When it was written, she had left Baltimore and was living in Paris on money inherited from her father. She had the luxury of being able to do whatever she wanted. As a result, she bought paintings and wrote experimental fiction.

This is a collection of three short stories. This particular book has an excellent introduction by Professor Ann Charters plus it has Q.E.D., which is another very brief collection of short stories and under 50 pages.

What is she doing here? She uses very simple characters, stereotypes really, as a vehicle to try out her experimental prose. It is not stream of consciousness - that was made famous by Joyce a few years later - but rather it is repetition of blocks of prose to create mood. She got the idea of repetition from painters who use repetitive brush strokes to create paintings. It sounds like an odd ball idea but it is original and effective.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 22, 1999
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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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 6, 2000
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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