The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Essay - Critical Context

Gertrude Stein

Critical Context

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—indeed, Stein’s work in general—is not for every reader. Readers who value linear thinking will find Stein’s writing annoying. Those, however, who enjoy divergent thinking, who revel in the wordplay of Lewis Carroll or J. R. R. Tolkien, will delight in reading much of Stein’s work and may even, in their later years, have the endurance to surmount the thousand pages of her ponderous The Making of Americans (1925), a novel that perplexes many scholars. This autobiography is certainly the best starting point for uninitiated young adult readers wanting to broach the work of Stein. Three Lives is probably the best Stein novel (if three sketches can be classified as a novel) to approach after the autobiography. The poetry collection Tender Buttons (1914) is delightful to read, and Stein’s Picasso (1938) is a brief and sensitive reminiscence and appreciation of this great artist, with whom Stein was friends for many years.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas evoked considerable interest when parts of it first appeared in The New Yorker. The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in 1934 published “Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” in the Atlantic Monthly, contending that Stein’s early work in psychology in Harvard’s laboratories motivated her writing directly and pointing out striking similarities between her work and the automatic writing that these experiments produced. The book also provided the impetus for a highly successful one-woman Broadway production, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein (1979), starring Pat Carroll.

Another Alice B. Toklas, one seen through eyes other than Stein’s, is presented in Linda Simon’s The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977). Toklas emerges from this study as a person willingly dominated by Stein’s strong personality, but by no means a weak, mindless person herself.