Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Alice is born in San Francisco, California. It is quite by accident that, shortly after the great San Francisco earthquake (April 18, 1906), Alice meets Michael and Sarah Stein, Gertrude’s older brother and his wife. They have just returned from Paris to tend to their real estate holdings damaged by the earthquake. Sarah brings with her three small paintings by Henri Matisse. She shows them to Alice and her friends, tells them about her exciting life in France, and invites them all to visit her in Paris. In less than a year Alice goes to Paris and meets Gertrude Stein.
Alice makes her first visit to the already-famous Saturday-evening dinners at 27 rue de Fleurus, home of Gertrude. Of great significance to Alice is what she sees and whom she meets. She gives an account of the apartment and the extensive art collection, including paintings by Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, with special attention given to Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein (which now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum). The list of the people in attendance on that and the many other Saturday evenings makes up a veritable who’s who of European art and American literature during the early decades of the twentieth century. The most important person Alice meets that first evening is Pablo Picasso, the artist for whom Gertrude Stein has the greatest affinity.
Alice’s experiences continue on the next day and include her first...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
Before I Came to Paris
At three pages, this is the shortest chapter in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein inhabits the persona and speech patterns of Toklas throughout the book. The perceptions of other characters and the recounting of events, however, belong to both Stein and Toklas. For continuity, the narrator of the book will be referred to as Toklas.
Toklas introduces herself and provides some details about her life, mentioning, importantly, that her life changed after the San Francisco earthquake, and she met Gertrude Stein. Saying that she has only met three geniuses in her life, Toklas writes, ‘‘The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead.’’
My Arrival in Paris
In this chapter, Toklas notes that Stein’s book, Three Lives, is about to be published and that the writer is deep into writing the history of her family’s life, The Americans. Toklas describes the house at 27, rue de Fleurus, where the two held their Saturday evening salons, and the numerous pictures that Stein and her brother Leo had collected, which ‘‘completely covered the white-washed walls right up to the top of the very high ceiling.’’ She also introduces and comments on characters such as Stein’s maid Helene; Alfy Maurer, a former tenant of the house; Pablo Picasso; his mistress, Fernande; and Henri Matisse. Toklas describes their atelier...
(The entire section is 1292 words.)