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When Gertrude Stein refused to take William James’s philosophy final (and still got an A).

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February 4, 2022, 12:27pm

This week we’re celebrating the 148th birthday of Gertrude Stein, experimental novelist and poet—and by extension, we’re celebrating Stein’s penchant for bending rules and subverting the expected, which started early in her career. Case in point: when she refused to take a final exam set by William James—yes, that William James.

After high school, Stein attended Radcliffe—despite not knowing Latin, which was required of all students—and studied philosophy and psychology under William James. James had a reputation among his students for having a good sense of humor and being an eccentric; he asked his students to draw from their own lives and opinions in class, as opposed to just studying. According to Elisabeth Sprigge in Gertrude Stein, Life and Work, James “liked unusual people and appreciated [Stein,] this rollicking girl, this clever unusual pupil.” For her part, Stein wrote, “Is life worth living? Yes, a thousand times yes when the world still holds such spirits as Professor James.”

James and Stein grew close. She worked under him on his experiments on “normal and induced motor automatism”; his explorations of stream of consciousness and the significance of repetitive speech would lay the groundwork for Stein’s later preoccupations. Their relationship was so good that when she chose not to take a final exam in one of his courses, he didn’t even care.

Why did she opt out of the final exam? Just because she didn’t feel like taking it. Apparently, she had been going to the opera every night and in the afternoon and the weather had been beautiful. Not really ideal final exam conditions.

The day of the test, in the exam room, Stein wrote on her paper: “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” Then she left (!). Incredibly, the next day a postal card arrived from James that said, “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.” Then James gave her the highest grade in the course. I guess hard work (in general) pays off (in relaxation later).

[“Making Sense: Decoding Gertrude Stein”; Gertrude Stein and William James; Lapham’s Quarterly; Writing Psychology Over: Gertrude Stein and William James; The Crimson]

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