The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Essay - Critical Evaluation

Gertrude Stein

Critical Evaluation

The title of this book is misleading. Alice B. Toklas did not write it. The book is more the autobiography or memoirs of Alice and Gertrude Stein, as written by Gertrude.

Gertrude wrote more than two dozen books and plays, but most people have read only The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and, perhaps, Three Lives. Of course, many can quote “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” frequently forgetting the fourth rose, and “pigeons on the grass alas.” As one of the preeminent authors of twentieth century American literature, she was the creator of a new literary style that had a profound influence on many younger novelists, poets, and dramatists.

Even though Gertrude’s writings at the time were known to only a small group of readers, the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made her an international celebrity. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a great success, even making the best-seller list. Following its publication she was persuaded to give lectures and readings throughout the United States, and she became one of the best-known writers of her day. Contributing to her renown was her association with the new school of contemporary painting in Paris—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and all the other modernists.

Two types of readers were attracted to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: the serious reader, who recognized it as a more accessible example of her unique literary style, and the general reader, who saw the book as a report on bohemian life in Paris. The latter took delight in a chatty, gossipy account of the lives of the more than four hundred people mentioned. Some of these people were to become famous artists of the twentieth century, others were well known at the time but soon faded into obscurity, while many belonged to neither group. Several people whose names appear in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas objected to Stein’s account of the Paris art scene and even wrote rejoinders trying to set the record straight.

The originality of Gertrude’s work can be observed in the way in which she transcribes banal daily speech, exactly as she hears it, into her literature. In her early study of psychology she observed that the brain does not always operate on a...

(The entire section is 958 words.)