Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958
The title of this book is misleading. Alice B. Toklas did not write it. The book is more the autobiography or memoirs of Alice and Gertrude Stein, as written by Gertrude.
Gertrude wrote more than two dozen books and plays, but most people have read only The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and, perhaps, Three Lives. Of course, many can quote “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” frequently forgetting the fourth rose, and “pigeons on the grass alas.” As one of the preeminent authors of twentieth century American literature, she was the creator of a new literary style that had a profound influence on many younger novelists, poets, and dramatists.
Even though Gertrude’s writings at the time were known to only a small group of readers, the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made her an international celebrity. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a great success, even making the best-seller list. Following its publication she was persuaded to give lectures and readings throughout the United States, and she became one of the best-known writers of her day. Contributing to her renown was her association with the new school of contemporary painting in Paris—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and all the other modernists.
Two types of readers were attracted to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: the serious reader, who recognized it as a more accessible example of her unique literary style, and the general reader, who saw the book as a report on bohemian life in Paris. The latter took delight in a chatty, gossipy account of the lives of the more than four hundred people mentioned. Some of these people were to become famous artists of the twentieth century, others were well known at the time but soon faded into obscurity, while many belonged to neither group. Several people whose names appear in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas objected to Stein’s account of the Paris art scene and even wrote rejoinders trying to set the record straight.
The originality of Gertrude’s work can be observed in the way in which she transcribes banal daily speech, exactly as she hears it, into her literature. In her early study of psychology she observed that the brain does not always operate on a sequential or logical level and that conversation is frequently made up of repetitions reflecting digressing or associative thoughts. From the French Symbolist poets she learned how the imagination can create linguistic images without having the brain serve as mediator to establish logical order. She believed that the mind could assign meanings to words that are unrelated to their dictionary meaning, especially when dealing with words describing emotions or remembering specific sounds.
To appreciate Gertrude’s unique literary style the reader may wish to consider The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a book of portraits. Stein wrote hundreds of portraits in her life, but these are unlike the traditional verbal or visual portraits found in art and literature. If one were to compare portraits written or painted in the eighteenth or nineteenth century with those, for example, painted by Picasso or Matisse in the early years of the twentieth century, one would note immediately that the former attempted to present a likeness that was as close as possible to the subject. In a Picasso or Matisse portrait, however, the painter does not strive for the representational correctness of a photograph and the viewer observes an abstract essence of the subject. In Picasso’s Portrait of a Young Girl, for example, the subject has a head represented by numerous green shapes and a blue arm that seems to extend below the leg. Matisse’s Landscape at Collioure is made up of no more than a series of different colored brushstrokes. Although painters can find such new and different ways to express themselves by varying colors and shapes, writers are much more limited by the boundaries of language.
In many of her portraits, Gertrude rejects the use of traditional narrative prose with all its complicated grammar rules, conventions, and limitations. She also discards the artificial ways in which discourse has been recorded in written form over the centuries. What she does is to present a verbal portrait of an individual based on the way in which that person thinks and speaks, using words unique to the speaker, with variations and permutations. Speaking about language, Stein stated that “it does not make any difference to me what language I hear, I don’t hear a language, I hear tones of voices and rhythms.” Her portraits are as complicated and difficult to understand as the paintings of the modernist artists working in Paris at that time. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, however, utilizes the least radical form of Stein’s literary style. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is written in the way in which Alice would have written or spoken the story. Even though the plot traces Gertrude’s life from her birth until 1932, when she finished writing this book, the reader has more of an understanding of the essence of Gertrude than an awareness or knowledge of her life. Gertrude has the character of Alice tell the story in her “rambling” speech, constantly interrupting herself to refer to a specific time, place, or person, and gradually painting the complete portrait as Gertrude wants to be seen. References to artists or writers of her time, whether praising or blaming, ultimately serve only to complete that picture.
The last paragraph in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas provides an important statement. It suggests that the book is like Daniel Defoe’s fictional biography of Robinson Crusoe—a complete literary work of fiction.