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). 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 663 words.)

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