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 history. Only at the end does Toklas reveal the true author, when she remarks that Stein has been threatening to write her autobiography and that this is it. The book thus holds onto a continuous present by ending at the moment of its beginning, as the reader is invited to reread the book as a work by Stein.
Throughout the book, chronology follows curiosity rather than linear time. The section “Gertrude Stein in Paris, 1903-1907” precedes “Gertrude Stein Before She Came to Paris.” Although Toklas is seemingly the main character, she disappears on page 5 and does not reappear for many pages while Stein’s story is told.
Indirection is at the heart of every observation. The painter Henri Matisse, for example, is first observed at three removes: Stein quotes a story told by Toklas about the cook Hélène’s opinion of Matisse’s dinner manners. Stein pretends to write about surface details, and yet she succeeds in revealing the nature of life underneath. She constantly digresses, only to return with what she wants to say.
Appraisals of character and talent are delivered from a female viewpoint that has little to do with the male world of professional success, education, and wealth. The long, brilliant section on the leading artists of the day concludes with a series of intimate anecdotes about their wives and mistresses. There is no upstairs or downstairs in Stein’s world. Her vision of human personality is bold, irreverent, and thought-provoking. As a work of literary reminiscence, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is one of the richest ever written.
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...
(The entire section is 2,770 words.)