Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
For years, Gertrude Stein nagged Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong companion, to write her autobiography. When Toklas did not, Stein did it for her. The format of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is deceptively simple. Its seven chapters—ranging in length from the three pages of chapter 1, “Before I Came to Paris,” to the forty-nine pages of chapter 6, “The War” (World War I), or the fifty-nine pages of chapter 7, “After the War: 1919-1932”—detail the artistic development of Gertrude Stein and only incidentally the life of Alice B. Toklas.
When Toklas arrived in Paris in 1907, Stein, with an A.B. from Radcliffe College and a few courses short of a medical degree from The Johns Hopkins University, was already established there, as was her brother Leo. Toklas, spending her first day in Paris after her arrival from San Francisco, met Gertrude Stein and lived with her for the next thirty-nine years. The autobiography tells of how, when Toklas found herself in the presence of genius, little bells went off in her head. This happened only three times in her life, but the loudest ringing occurred on the day that she met Gertrude.
Stein’s mother died in 1888, her father in 1891. Leo and Gertrude attended Harvard and Radcliffe, respectively, traveling frequently in Europe on their small but sufficient inheritance. Leo, an artist, had relocated in Florence, Italy, in 1901. The next year, he moved to Paris. (The...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—indeed, Stein’s work in general—demonstrates that women have minds and are quite capable of functioning as independently as men. On an artistic and philosophical level, Stein identified more easily with men than she did with women.
Just as Stein was ahead of her time in entering medical school at an age when most American women of her class were settling into marriages that would make them second-class citizens, mere appendages of husbands who were deemed the important members of society, Stein was striking out courageously in new directions. Stein, nevertheless, needed Alice B. Toklas, who was to their enduring relationship what conventional, middle-class wives were to conventional marriages.
One of Toklas’ chief functions through the years of her relationship with Stein was to protect her from boring people, to occupy the wives of the interesting male artists and writers who clustered around her fascinating, brilliant mate. The autobiography makes clear that Stein did not appreciate artists’ wives.
Toklas was far from a silent partner in the relationship, but she acceded—publicly, at least—to Stein’s wishes. Toklas had a fine mind and a strong sense of herself. Her devotion to Stein was absolute. Toklas could be petty and jealous. She vetoed some of Stein’s friendships—most notably her friendship with Ernest Hemingway, perhaps because she sensed Hemingway’s wish...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
The format of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is deceptively simple. Its seven chapters—ranging in length from the three pages of chapter 1, “Before I Came to Paris,” to the forty-nine pages of chapter 6, “The War,” or the fifty-nine pages of chapter 7, “After the War: 19191932”—detail the artistic development of Gertrude Stein and only incidentally the life of Alice B. Toklas.
When Toklas came to Paris in 1907, Stein, a graduate of Radcliffe College and one course short of a medical degree from The Johns Hopkins University, had already established herself there, as had her older brother, Leo. Toklas, newly arrived from San Francisco, met Stein and lived with her for the next thirty-nine years.
Stein’s mother died in 1888, her father in 1891. Leo and Gertrude attended Harvard and Radcliffe respectively, traveling frequently in Europe on their small but sufficient inheritance. Leo, an artist, had relocated to Florence, Italy, in 1901, and the next year moved to Paris. Gertrude soon joined him, leaving medical school with the excuse that she was bored, thoroughly bored. In her day, it was rare for women to attend medical school; her not finishing, if viewed as regrettable, surprised no one.
In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein presents in detail the involvement that she and Toklas had with the art world that flourished in and around Paris between 1910 and 1930. Stein, when her trust...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Paris. France’s capital city, in which Gertrude Stein spent much of her adult life, including years of it lived with her companion Alice B. Toklas. Her book describes Paris at a time when many of the most important artists and writers of the era congregated in the city. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Paris was the center of the art world. There, Stein and Toklas were friends with, among others, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway, Tristan Tzara, and Man Ray. They witnessed the rise of such art movements as cubism and Dadaism. Stein’s own writing style was influenced by the developments in visual art that she witnessed, making this setting important not only to this autobiographical work but also to her works not set in Paris.
*Rue de Fleurus
*Rue de Fleurus (rew duh fluhr). Parisian street on which Stein and Toklas live. In the home’s large atelier, Stein displayed her collection of artworks and entertained on Saturday evenings. Because it provided a meeting place for the artists and writers of the time, this place, as well as the art collection which it housed, helped to shape and define the artistic movements of the time. At one particularly successful dinner party, Stein seated her artist friends facing their own works. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and no one noticed the seating arrangement until the end of the party.
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1920s–1930s and Literature
Stein’s book not only chronicles her relationships with various early twentieth-century artists and writers, but her writing itself exemplifies modernist ideas about composition and representation. Historians often date the onset of literary modernism to the end of World War I. Faith in God, self, nationhood, humanity, and reality was shaken as a result of the war, and writers frequently turned to thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Carl Jung, Sir James George Frazer, and Albert Einstein for ideas that framed the world in a new light. For example, T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland (1922), uses allusion and symbolism to represent a world that had literally and figuratively fallen to pieces. Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), employs a stream-of-consciousness narrative to prioritize subjective experience over the depiction of an objective world. Woolf, like other writers during this time, strove to show how time itself did not exist outside individuals, but rather in human consciousness, an idea popularized by philosopher Henri Bergson. Woolf, like William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying (1930) and Stein in Three Lives (1909), uses multiple narrators to explore particular themes and events. Other modernist literary works during this time include Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), e. e....
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Point of View
A story’s point of view refers to its mode of narration, that is, whose eyes the action is seen through and whose mind presents the information. Autobiographies, by definition, are written by the person the book is about. They are told in the first person and the narrator is a major character around which the action revolves. Stein complicates this convention by writing an autobiography about herself but told by Alice B. Toklas, as if Stein were Toklas. In fact, the fictional Toklas is a minor character in her own ‘‘autobiography.’’ Such a narrative trick underscores not only the fictional aspects of Stein’s book but by implication, of all autobiographies. Stein reveals her authorship of the book in the last paragraph:
About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as DeFoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.
The very idea of myth is usually opposed to certain notions of the real. By presenting details that later have been determined not to be factually accurate, Stein draws attention to the fictional quality of her writing and to the fact that she is more interested in the impression of the stories she tells rather than whether or not they actually...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: In 1933 President Roosevelt appoints Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. Perkins is the first woman cabinet member.
Today: The Bush administration has four women cabinet or cabinet-rank members including Christie Whitman (Environmental Protection Agency), Ann Veneman (Department of Agriculture), Gale Norton (Department of the Interior), and Elaine Chao (Department of Labor).
1930s: Tens of thousands of writers and artists leave Germany as Hitler moves to suppress modern art.
Today: The Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim group in control of Afghanistan, orders the destruction of all statues in the country, including two towering fifth-century images of Buddha, claiming the statues are offensive to Islam.
1930s: People involved in same sex romantic relationships are stigmatized, persecuted, and sometimes arrested. Most states have laws prohibiting sodomy.
Today: Same sex relationships are increasingly accepted by society, and many corporations provide benefits for domestic partners. Sixteen states still have laws prohibiting sodomy.
1930s: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas hits the bestseller’s list, as Americans seek diversions from the Great Depression.
Today: Americans turn to television and the Internet, seeking diversions from recent terrorism attacks.
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Topics for Further Study
Write a short account of your life from the point of view of someone close to you. Then do the same from your own point of view. What differences do you notice?
Rewrite the first three pages of Stein’s book, eliminating all digressions, and using conventional punctuation. What is gained and lost in your version?
If Stein’s ‘‘autobiography’’ were a painting, what would it look like? Try painting it, or write a paper describing the painting.
With your class, make a chart listing the ten people in Stein’s book you would most like to meet, ranging from most to least. Provide reasons for your choices and then compare your list with others in the class. What does this tell you about how you value people?
Compare Hemingway’s story of his relationship with Stein in A Moveable Feast with Stein’s in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Which is more credible and why?
With three other students in your class, design an ideal space where you would invite artists and writers to discuss their work. In what section of town would it be located? Would it be an apartment, a loft? What would it look like and whom would you invite? Present your design and responses to your class.
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In 1970 Perry Miller Adato directed When This You See, Remember Me, a documentary of Stein’s life. The film combines passages from her writings with vintage photographs, amateur film clips, her lyrics set to music, and brief excerpts from conversations with people who knew her in Paris, including Virgil Thomson, Genet, Maurice Grosser, Jacques Lipschitz, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, and Bennett Cerf.
In 1972 Caedmon released the audiocassette Gertrude Stein, in which Stein reads from The Making of Americans.
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What Do I Read Next?
Harold Bloom edited a 1986 collection of essays, Gertrude Stein, which includes Judith Saunders’s essay about Stein in Paris and Catherine Stimpson’s essay on Stein and feminist issues.
Randa Dubnick’s The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism (1984) examines the relationship between Stein’s writing and modern art.
Alice B. Toklas’s impressionistic memoir of life with Gertrude Stein, What Is Remembered (1963), provides amusing vignettes of the couple’s life in Paris.
In 1909 Stein published Three Lives, a series of three novellas. Three Lives has remained one of Stein’s most popular works.
Lyn Hejinian’s 1987 prose poem-autobiography My Life was deeply influenced by Stein’s philosophy of composition.
In A Moveable Feast (1961), Ernest Hemingway tells his side of the story about his estrangement from Stein.
James R. Mellow’s 1974 biography Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company recreates the world over which Stein ruled with a combination of social energy, intellectual curiosity, and dogged perseverance..
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Breslin, James E., ‘‘Gertrude Stein and the Problems of Autobiography,’’ in Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, edited by Michael J. Hoffman, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 149–60.
Bromfield, Louis, ‘‘Gertrude Stein: Experimenter with Words’’ in New York Herald-Tribune Books, September 3, 1933.
Curnutt, Kirk, ed., The Critical Response to Gertrude Stein, 2000, pp. 544–71.
Fay, Bernard, ‘‘A Rose Is a Rose,’’ in the Saturday Review of Literature, September 2, 1933.
Hoffman, Michael J., Gertrude Stein, Twayne, 1976, pp. 114–21.
Knickerbocker, William S., ‘‘Stunning Stein,’’ in Sewanee Review, 1933.
Skinner, B. F., ‘‘Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?’’ in Atlantic Monthly, January 1934, pp. 50–57.
Stein, Gertrude, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Vintage Books, 1960.
Steiner, Wendy, Exact Resemblance to Exact Resemblance: The Literary Portraiture of Gertrude Stein, Yale University Press, 1978.
Toklas, Alice B., What Is Remembered, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963.
Troy, William, ‘‘A Note on Gertrude Stein,’’ in the Nation, September 6, 1933.
Wickes, George, Americans in Paris, Paris Review-Doubleday, 1969.
Hobhouse, Janet, Everybody Who Was...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Views Series, this volume contains fifteen essays on Stein, a chronology, and a bibliography. The selection is astute, and, although there is no specific essay on
Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Bridgman offers one of the fullest analyses of the overall structure and style of Stein’s writing. The book is carefully conceived and clearly presented.
Greenfeld, Howard. Gertrude Stein: A Biography. New York: Crown, 1973. A brief introduction to Gertrude Stein, well suited for the general reader.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Random House, 1961. Hemingway gives his side of the story about his relationship with Gertrude Stein and about its fracture. His view is biased but fascinating. An interesting supplement to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
Hobhouse, Janet. Everyone Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. Offers a helpful catalog of the significant people who frequented 27 rue de Fleurus and of both Stein’s and Toklas’ opinions of them. Well illustrated.
Hoffman, Michael J. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A...
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