The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933, is Gertrude Stein’s best-selling work and her most accessible. Consisting of seven chapters covering the first three decades of the twentieth century, the book is only incidentally about Toklas’s life. Its real subject, and narrator, is Stein herself, who reportedly had asked Toklas, her lifelong companion, for years to write her autobiography. When Toklas did not, Stein did. Stein published excerpts of the work in the Atlantic, which occasioned a response from behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner whose essay, ‘‘Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?’’ connected the style Stein employed in the book with her work on automatic writing in Harvard’s psychology laboratories a few decades before. Automatic writing, popularized by the surrealists in the 1920s, was writing that follows unconscious as well as conscious thought of the author. Stein’s writing certainly has some of that element in the Autobiography but on the whole she sticks to telling a story of her life and times in more or less chronological order. That life includes details of her relationships with artists and writers who would become some of the most famous of the twentieth century, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Max Jacob, and Sherwood Anderson. Stein’s book is modernist not only because she discusses modernist art and artists but because of how she represents her subject through indirection, paradox, repetition, and contradiction.
Did this raise a question for you?