All Hail Gertrude Stein, There & Everywhere

All hail Gertrude Stein, who died on this day in 1946. Here’s a piece I wrote years ago about a sculpture whose name was inspired by the writer, poet, art collector and infamous salonista. The article was first published in The Wall Street Journal.

“There” sculpture in Oakland, photo courtesy of Our Oakland

Next, People Will Claim They Have Found the Lost Generation


Gertrude Stein once said of her hometown, Oakland, Calif., that “there is no there there.”

Well, now there is. “There,” a 20-foot-high aluminum work of art designed by San Francisco sculptor Roslyn Mazzilli, was airlifted by helicopter into place in a pond at a high-rise development in the heart of downtown Oakland.

Civic Pride

The $95,000 sculpture, commissioned by a real-estate developer to enliven a public plaza, seems to be doing its job. The sculpture, an assemblage of welded metal beams painted in five colors, has already unleashed civic pride. The Oakland Tribune printed a photo on its front page and a headline reading “So There?”

Ms. Stein made her famous remark after visiting Oakland in 1935, 43 years after leaving at age 18. At least, she seems to have said it. She wrote: “Anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, scholars disagree over what exactly Ms. Stein meant. Tom Dufour, reference librarian at the Oakland Public Library, contends, “It’s not clear if she’s talking about Oakland or her childhood.”

Ms. Mazzilli, who says she came up with the name while completing the sculpture’s paint job, thinks “she was actually saying it about East Oakland (another community), where she grew up, except that it’s been used in a negative sense against Oakland itself.”

A Place of Mind

Stein scholar Ulla Dydo, a Bronx Community College professor, says the famous words are neither simply about Oakland nor Ms. Stein’s childhood, but an abstract statement that “could be a place of mind. It has no sense of reality.”

Ms. Dydo hasn’t seen the sculpture, but doesn’t have a problem with its name. “I hope,” she adds, “it’s an abstract sculpture.”