Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

The longest chapter in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas covers the fourteen years from the end of World War I to 1932, the years during which talented Americans swarmed into Paris. Stein wrote the book in six weeks during 1932, modeling it loosely on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)....

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The longest chapter in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas covers the fourteen years from the end of World War I to 1932, the years during which talented Americans swarmed into Paris. Stein wrote the book in six weeks during 1932, modeling it loosely on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It is significant that Stein devotes three pages to Toklas’ background but twenty-two to her own and to her move from the United States to Paris. Obviously, despite its whimsical title, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is Stein’s autobiography fancifully presented.

The writing style in this book is unique. Earlier, Stein had used her combined psychological and medical training to observe closely how people actually speak and to represent that speech as accurately as she could. In Three Lives (1909), she recorded precisely if often monotonously the actual speech cadences of three domestics: Lena and Anna, German immigrants, and Melanctha, a serving girl who was the first seriously presented African-American protagonist by a white American writer. The speech of these three women involves endless repetition and circularity. Although they talk tedious drivel, Stein presents them with respect.

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein is still experimenting with a style that bewildered her earlier readers but that delighted many later ones. She allows thoughts to flow as they do in the unconscious mind and uses punctuation minimally. Her sentences often ramble in her attempt to depict how the unconscious mind processes thought. Stein’s deviations from the mechanical and grammatical norms to which most writers adhere alarmed early publishers, who refused to publish her writing. Stein herself financed the printing of her early work, although Harcourt, Brace and Company published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was a commercial success.

One can analyze this book in terms of its structure, its use of language, its social commentary (particularly in regard to more than three decades of artists and writ-ers), and its experimental approach that shocked many readers and still startles the uninitiated. In the first place, novices might ask how an author dares to write the autobiography of another person. The inherent contradiction in doing so is obvious, but it is also indicative of the outrageous way in which Stein uses contradiction and of her marked ability to find the truths inherent in it. Stein was confident in her artistic approach, and she was never swayed by the demands of publishers and readers who failed to appreciate her heterodox manner of representing her unique vision of life and society.

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, the mere appendages of husbands who were deemed the important members of society, Stein was striking out courageously in a new direction. On the other hand, Stein needed 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 occupy the wives of the interesting male artists and writers who clustered around her fascinating, brilliant, and monolithic mate. Stein did not like wives, as the autobiography makes clear. While Toklas was far from a silent partner in the relationship, she acceded to Stein’s wishes. Toklas had a fine mind and a strong sense of herself, and her devotion to Stein was absolute.

One of Stein’s most quoted lines is “Rose is a rose is a rose.” This is not a simple line: It represents her essentialism but it also poses the question, by not beginning the line with the indefinite article, of whether “Rose” is a flower or a person. Such is the enigmatic quality that pervades much of Stein’s writing and that makes a book such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas yield more to readers on second, third, or fourth readings than on the first one.

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