‘The Refused Exam’ and The Education of Gertrude Stein

By Jeff Solomon
The Seattle Lesbian

Solomon_So coverGertrude Stein matriculated at age 19 and graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe five years later, in May 1898. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein shares a remarkable exam that she wrote for a favorite professor, William James:

“Dear Professor James,” she wrote at the top of her paper. “I am so sorry, but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day,” and left.

The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.” And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in the course.

Stein disregards the order of relations between herself, her professor, and the university. Yet Stein both has and eats her cake: her refusal to honor the university over her own emotional and bodily desires is mirrored by her professor and rewarded with the highest grade.

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