Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas remains Stein’s best-selling book largely because of its accessibility. Stein began sending chapters to her agent William Aspenwall Bradley in the summer of 1932, and John Lane’s Bodley Head Press quickly snapped up the rights for an English edition. Harcourt Brace agreed to publish the American edition. When it was published in 1933, reviewers almost uniformly praised its genius. Bernard Fay, for example, in the Saturday Review of Literature wrote, ‘‘There has never been a more entertaining and more easy walk through life than this book.’’ Reviewing the book for the New York-Herald Tribune Books, Louis Bromfield, like Fay, spends considerable more ink writing about Stein’s life than the ‘‘autobiography.’’ Bromfield notes: ‘‘Stein has an extraordinary power of personality and it is my impression that she has the clearest intelligence I have ever encountered.’’ Of Stein’s book, Bromfield writes, ‘‘She has achieved brilliantly her desire of direct emotional transference and actuality. More than any other book I ever read, I lived this book, page by page, sentence by sentence, through twenty-five years.’’ William Troy, of the Nation, focuses on the book’s cultural context, writing, ‘‘Miss Toklas’s ‘autobiography’ is, among other things, a critical history of modern French painting and an account of the post-war generation in American letters.’’ One of the few reviewers critical of the book is William S. Knickerbocker, whose ‘‘review’’ parodies Stein’s style. With heavy sarcasm, Knickerbocker suggests that anyone can write like Stein. Copying Stein’s ‘‘trick’’ of speaking through another, Knickerbocker reports on Charles, a child, reading Stein: ‘‘Charles aged eleven going on twelve said a mouthful when he said with the wisdom of serpents and harmlessness of doves Gertrude is like The Emperor’s Clothes.’’

Stein’s influence, and that of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, has increased over the almost seventy years since its publication, as she has become a veritable poster child for various strands of literary theory in the academy. Wendy Steiner’s, Exact Resemblance to Exact Resemblance: The Literary Portraiture of Gertrude Stein, for example, points to Stein’s ‘‘autobiography’’ as an example of writing that erases the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, a central issue in postmodern thought. Critics and theorists have also examined lesbian subjectivity and feminist issues as they appear in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

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