The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Summary

Gertrude Stein


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 vernissage—a preview of an art exhibition—where she is further introduced to the art and artists of Paris. The third instance of Alice’s introduction is a walk with Gertrude through various artists’ studios in Montmartre, then the artists’ quarter of Paris.

In the following chapter, “Gertrude Stein in Paris: 1903-1907,” Gertrude details her formative years as a writer and one involved in the development of modern art, with specific reference to Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. In 1903, Gertrude begins writing The Making of Americans, an immense work that she regards as her major literary accomplishment at that time. It is finished in 1911 but is not published until 1925. During these years she also writes Three Lives (1909), her first published book.

In these years Gertrude and her brother Leo start buying the paintings that make up their vast and valuable art...

(The entire section is 969 words.)