Gertrude Stein’s controversial and experimental Three Lives (1909) took Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales (1877) as a point of departure. After beginning a translation of “A Simple Heart”—which, famously, has a servant as its protagonist—Stein wrote “The Good Anna,” drawing on the life of her own servant in Baltimore, Lena Lebender. To this she added “The Gentle Lena” and “Melanctha.” Increasingly innovative in style, these stories raise questions of class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and religion. In “Melanctha,” the most troubling of the three stories, Stein transposes the contours of an unhappy lesbian affair that she had in Baltimore, before moving to Paris, onto working-class and middle-class black heterosexual characters. In her book about Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, wittily entitled Two Lives (2007), Janet Malcolm examines questions of biographical and autobiographical truth raised by Stein’s work:
Stein often spoke of the members of her real and fictional families as if they were one. And even the most hermetic of her writings are works of submerged autobiography. The key of “I” will not unlock the door to their meaning—you need a crowbar for that—but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion.
A new and first book by Lisa Cohen, who teaches at Wesleyan University, is similarly focused on probing the conventions, revelations and obfuscations of “life writing.” Cohen makes Three Lives her subtitle; her title is All We Know, an oxymoronic declaration of comprehensiveness and incompletion.
The three lives Cohen writes about—those of Esther Murphy (1897–1962), Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968) and Madge Garland (1898–1990)—are ones that have become obscure. These three women were known to each other, connected through networks of friends and lovers, and were “commentators on one another’s lives.” All three married “but were committed primarily to other women.” Cohen explains that while superficial similarities and coincidences might have made it “logical” to write about these three lives together, in fact she was driven to do so by a deeper sense of the biographical challenges they pose. Collectively, they strike her as “a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality, and triviality.” Quoting Virginia Woolf’s essay “Lives of the Obscure,” Cohen acknowledges the attraction of the biographical heroism Woolf wryly mocked: “one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost…waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom.” Cohen flirts with the idea of herself as a life-writing lady with a lamp, before clearly acknowledging that none of her subjects thought themselves in need of rescue.
Esther Murphy, born in Manhattan to a wealthy Irish-American business family, was the younger sister of Gerald Murphy, one of the inspirations for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. “There has never been an American tragedy,” Fitzgerald claimed in 1927. “There have only been great failures.” Juxtaposing this remark with Stein’s assertion that “I am certain that what makes American success is American failure,” Cohen describes Esther Murphy’s life as “A Perfect Failure.”