The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is Stein’s inventive memoir of how she and her Parisian friends must have looked to Alice B. Toklas. The book was an immediate success in the United States and has remained in print. More conventional than any of Stein’s previous books, it describes a crucial period in cultural history with a wit, charm, and mock-simplicity that disguised the book’s brilliant inventiveness.
The subject presented a challenge to Stein’s desire to live and write in a “continuous present.” Like Picasso, Stein was willing to copy anyone but herself. How, then, was she to produce an autobiography that would be free of her past and of the laws of conventional identity?
Stein’s answer was to write an “autobiography” of someone else and to construct a narrative of constant digression. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became the impersonation of an age as seen through the eyes of an ordinary American woman who arrived in Paris in 1907. The years before World War I are described with wit and delight, the war and its aftermath more darkly. Like much of Stein’s work, the writing hovers around a constant present by relying on the spoken word. The prose reads like dictation, as though Stein had merely transcribed the lilt and vocabulary of Toklas’s voice. Part Stein, part Toklas, the prose is purely American. With its delight in irreverent gossip, the narrative resembles a novel of social...
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