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The Making of Americans

The Making of Americans

The Making of Americans (1925) is a modernist novel by American author Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). A highly experimental work, the book lacks dialogue and has no straightforward plot. Most of the action focuses on the story of two families, the Dehnings and Herslands, as their second-generation grandchildren encounter each other at college in Bridgepoint. The novel explores ideas of identity and contains many elements of experimental modernism.

The Making of Americans Gertrude Stein StudySmarterFig. 1 - Although Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans in 1911, it was not published until 1925.

The Making of Americans: Summary

The Making of Americans traces the genealogy and progress of two families, the Dehnings and Herslands. Both families are descended from European immigrants who arrived in America during the second half of the 19th century. The novel is highly experimental and often lacks a coherent structure, taking the form of a random collection of scenes focused on the grandchildren of both families. At several stages throughout the book, Stein includes personal interjections using the first-person narrative to reflect on the nature of writing and her process.

While writing the novel, Gertrude Stein drew upon her relatives as inspiration for the Hersland family.

Most of the action focuses on the grandchildren of each family as they grow up and struggle to build happy lives in America. Stein contrasts the family's progress by comparing the grandparents' experience and hardworking first-generation as connected to the "Old World" they emigrated from, while the grandchildren are Americans who have grown up entirely in the "New World."

The Making of Americans Immigrants StudySmarterFig. 2 - The grandparents of the Dehning and Hersland families arrived as immigrants.

Both the Dehning and Hersland families settled in the town of Bridgepoint and enjoyed success. The Herslands soon locate to the Gossols, where the children Alfred, Martha, and David are born. Although their mother wants them to associate with the affluent locals in the town, the children form a close association with the poor rural families outside of town. Throughout the novel, each of the children leaves Gossols to return to Bridgepoint to attend college, where they encounter members of the Dehning family.

Why do the Hersland children reject the privilege and social status so prized by their mother?

Julia Dehning is named after her grandmother and strongly connects to the Old World. When she falls for Alfred Hersland, her father is wary of the young man. The couple are married but struggle to establish their own life or develop a deep bond. They both eventually fall in love with other people and drift apart. As with many characters in the book, Julia disappears for long stretches only to reappear as a background character in different scenes.

Which narrator is most relatable to the reader? Why?

The narration shifts to Alfred's sister, Martha Hersland. When Martha witnesses a man beating a woman with an umbrella, the traumatic incident spurs her to take control of her life and assert her independence. Martha leaves the family to enroll in college, where she meets a young man named Philip Redfern. The pair are married but, like Alfred and Julia, struggle to build a successful marriage. Racked by insecurity, Martha believes Philip is too good for her and tries to make herself more cultured and worldly for their travels. After Philip's exit, Martha returns to the family home.

The Making of Americans Couples StudySmarterFig. 3 - Many of the couples in the novel struggle to communicate effectively.

David Hersland, the family's youngest child, is full of potential. Brilliantly bright and focused, David also moved to Bridgepoint to attend college. He provides his sister Julia with advice and guidance through difficult times but tragically dies before reaching middle age.

How does Stein's use of repetition reflect the mistakes many of the characters make throughout the novel?

The Making of Americans: Characters

Here is a look at the most important characters from The Making of Americans.

Julia Dehning

Julia is Henry Dehning's daughter and was named after her paternal grandmother. She is determined to marry Alfred Hersland even though she knows he has designs on her father's fortune. Henry fears his success has spoiled his children and cut them off from their roots. This fear proves to be correct for Julia. After she marries Alfred and moves to Gossols, she feels cut off from the abundant living she'd grown up with in the Dehning household.

Martha Hersland

Martha grows up feeling disconnected from those around her and has no particular passion for anything. As a teenager, she is traumatized by seeing a man beat a woman in the street. Martha decides to attend college and gain an education to maintain her independence. However, after falling in love, she becomes racked by insecurity and is unable to face the reality of her husband's infidelity. Gertrude Stein based the character of Martha on her younger self to encapsulate the feelings of being out of place and lost in the world.

David Hersland

Named after his father, David Hersland is the youngest of the siblings. Since childhood, David has been a curious person who is constantly seeking answers. Having received private tuition, David excels at school and continues his quest for knowledge leads at college in Bridgepoint. David likes to question big ideas and explore essential concepts of life. Of the Hersland siblings, David best represents the family's best chance for progress, which makes his early death even more tragic.

The Making of Americans: Themes

Here is a look at the important themes in The Making of Americans.

Identity

One of the book's recurring themes is the idea of identity and what it means to be an American. One of the most striking contrasts in the book is the experiences felt by the immigrant grandparents/first-generation parents and their Americanized grandchildren.

Each of the families struggles with the tension of identity as the grandchildren are disconnected from the "Old World" from which their parents and grandparents immigrated. When he immigrated to America with his parents, Julia's father, Henry Dehning, was a child. He had to work hard and sacrifice to achieve his wealth. While Henry views his material success as an intricate part of being an American, he also worries that it may have spoiled his children.

The Making of Americans Money StudySmarterFig. 4 - Henry Dehning fears his success has spoiled his children.

The grandchildren have grown up in a rapidly modernizing America, vastly different from the small rural communities of their forbearers. The Hersland grandchildren sense the shallowness of materialism and find a connection with the poor rural people who live on the outskirts of town.

Stein did not see this clash of identities between the generations as irreconcilable. The novel is subtitled "Being a History of a Family's Progress," reflecting the idea that the problems faced by the grandchildren are part of a growing process in the journey to becoming American. Stein does not view the journey of Americanizing as a complete separation from the families' roots in the "Old World," but rather that people carry parts of their lineage and that the new contains elements of the old.

The Making of Americans: Analysis

Stein experiments with style throughout the book. While the opening section is stylistically similar to much of the established writing of the late 19th century, Stein soon breaks with convention by interpreting the narrator to speak to the reader directly in first person narrative, imploring them to forgive the book's style and be patient with the characters. This breaking with convention is just one of the novel's modernist characteristics.

Modernism emerged in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Significant cultural and social shifts saw the emergence of the individual. Many writers attempted to capture this change in their works. Modernist works experiment with form and technique to question established beliefs and ways of thinking.

The Making of Americans bypasses many of the foundational elements of literature; for example, it contains no dialogue. It also lacks traditional chapter divisions, with some sections named for characters while others go without titles. There is no straightforward plot, as the narrator focuses on long passages of description rather than action.

The book's style depends heavily on repetition. The paragraphs are sometimes circular in logic, and the narrator often repeats already established points and ideas. This technique is occasionally frustrating and reflects the real-life frustration felt by people continually making mistakes and repeating them.

With The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein experimented with style and content in an attempt to tell a story about "everyone who ever existed, is, or ever will be." 1 By trying to encompass so much, Stein was challenging many of the conventions of writing which had dominated the novel for centuries. In the essay "The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans," Stein states "that the twentieth century was the century not of sentences as was the eighteenth not of phrases as was the nineteenth but of paragraphs...in The Making of Americans, I did this thing; I made a paragraph so much a whole thing that it included in itself as a whole thing a whole sentence." 2

Many critics and academics have labeled The Making of Americans impossible to read, with some comparing its massive size and dense text to Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce(1882-1941). Influential American poet John Ashberry(1927-2017) admits that for years he pretended to have read the book but was never able to make it past page 30. When he finally read it, he said, "I would like to do it again, although I've aIready read it about three or four times, since I had to read every sentence, I think, at least that many times." 3

The Making of Americans Hemingway StudySmarterFig. 5 - Ernest Hemingway became an early champion of Stein's experimental novel.

Gertrude Stein knew that the novel's chaotic mixture of styles might make it difficult for readers to enjoy. In the text, she admits to feeling lost in trying to transmit her ideas to the reader:

I mean that I am feeling something, I mean that I mean something and I mean that not any one is thinking, is feeling, is saying, is certain of that thing, I mean that not any one can be saying, thinking, feeling, not any one can be certain of that thing"1

The book contains several self-reflective passages which present her doubts and fears about the novel's style and rambling narration. Stein shared early sections of the book with friends, most of whom shared many of the author's doubts. Although Stein completed most of the novel between 1903 and 1911, it wasn't published until 1924 when Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) convinced Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) to publish sections of the work in The Transatlantic Review, an influential literary magazine based in Paris.

Clocking in at 900+ pages, The Making of Americans is considered an essential work of the Modernist movement but has remained unread and unstudied by many academics and critics. Some fresh perspectives on the book have redefined Stein's effort as an attempt to create a unique form of American writing that would help American authors emerge from the shadow of European literature.

The Making of Americans: Quotes

Here are some meaningful quotes from The Making of Americans.

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..." -(Section 1, "The Dehnings and the Herslands")

Many characters fight with their loved ones and significant others. Throughout the book, Stein sees this tension resulting from the shared family characteristics that characters hate to see reflected by themselves.

Repeating is the whole of living and by repeating comes understanding, and understanding is to some the most important part of living." - (Section 3, "Mrs. Hersland and the Hersland Children")

Stein uses repetition throughout the novel to reflect the idea that traits and characteristics repeat throughout family generations and people in general. Though it can often be frustrating, repetition is necessary for understanding and growth.

The Making of Americans - Key takeaways

  • The Making of Americans is a modernist novel by Gertrude Stein.
  • A highly experimental work, the novel lacks a straightforward plot and focuses on the grandchildren of the Dehning and Hersland families.
  • The novel explores ideas of identity and the emergence of an American character.
  • Stein used many elements of experimental modernism, including her interjections and observations in the prose.
  • The book is over 900 pages and is considered difficult to read by many academics and critics.

1 Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, 1935.

2 Gertrude Stein, "The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans," "1935.

3 Janet Malcolm, "Someone Says Yes to It; Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and 'The Making of Americans," The New Yorker, 2005.


References

  1. Fig. 1 - Gertrude Stein by Samuel Johnson Woolf, National Portrait Gallery, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gertrude_Stein_by_Samuel_Johnson_Woolf,_1934,_charcoal_and_chalk_on_paper,_from_the_National_Portrait_Gallery_-_NPG-8700246B_2.jpg
  2. Fig. 2 - Ellis Island, N.Y. - immigrants from "Princess Irene" form George Grantham Bain Collection: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ellis_Island,_N.Y._-_immigrants_from_%22Princess_Irene%22_LCCN2001704429.jpg

Frequently Asked Questions about The Making of Americans

Most editions of The Making of Americans are around 900+ pages. 

The Making of Americans has no clear plot but focuses on the grandchildren of Dehning and Hersland families as they struggle to find their identity. 

Gertrude Stein wrote the book between 1903 and 1911, though it was finally published in 1935. 

The Making of Americans deals with themes of identity and the creation of American identity. 

The Making of Americans contains many elements of modernist fiction, including repetition and author interjection. 

Final The Making of Americans Quiz

Question

The Making of Americans is an example of ___________.

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Answer

Modernism 

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Question

Excerpts of The Making of Americans first appeared in which magazine? 

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Answer

The Transatlantic Review

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Question

Both the Dehning and Hersland families originally settle in the town of _________. 

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Answer

Bridgepoint 

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Question

Gertrude Stein used her younger self as inspiration for the character of __________. 

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Answer

Martha Hersland 

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Question

All of the grandchildren enjoy happy marriages. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Which character dies tragically before reaching middle age? 

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Answer

David Hersland 

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Question

The Making of Americans is Gertrude Stein's most popular book.

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Answer

False

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Question

Who is the youngest Hersland sibling?

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Answer

David

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Question

Henry Dehning immigrated to America as a child. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which American writer was an early proponent of Stein's novel? 

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Answer

Ernest Hemingway

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