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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

For years, Gertrude Stein nagged Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong companion, to write her autobiography. When Toklas did not, Stein did it for her. The format of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is deceptively simple. Its seven chapters—ranging in length from the three pages of chapter 1, “Before I Came to Paris,” to the forty-nine pages of chapter 6, “The War” (World War I), or the fifty-nine pages of chapter 7, “After the War: 1919-1932”—detail the artistic development of Gertrude Stein and only incidentally the life of Alice B. Toklas.

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When Toklas arrived in Paris in 1907, Stein, with an A.B. from Radcliffe College and a few courses short of a medical degree from The Johns Hopkins University, was already established there, as was her brother Leo. Toklas, spending her first day in Paris after her arrival from San Francisco, met Gertrude Stein and lived with her for the next thirty-nine years. The autobiography tells of how, when Toklas found herself in the presence of genius, little bells went off in her head. This happened only three times in her life, but the loudest ringing occurred on the day that she met Gertrude.

Stein’s mother died in 1888, her father in 1891. Leo and Gertrude attended Harvard and Radcliffe, respectively, traveling frequently in Europe on their small but sufficient inheritance. Leo, an artist, had relocated in Florence, Italy, in 1901. The next year, he moved to Paris. (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas details Leo’s life and Gertrude’s background, as well as Alice’s.) In 1901, abandoning medical school with the excuse that she was thoroughly bored, Gertrude joined Leo in Europe. Today she would be called a dropout. In her day, however, it was rare for women to attend medical school, so her not finishing, if regrettable, surprised no one.

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein chronicles the involvement that she and Toklas had with the artistic community that flourished in and around Paris between 1910 and 1930. Toklas fed the artists and entertained their wives while Stein picked the men’s brains. When the Stein trust fund occasionally yielded more than anticipated, Gertrude and Leo spent the surplus on paintings. When she died in 1946, Stein owned more than a hundred paintings by the most important painters of her time: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, and other legendary artists. Stein entertained these artists at the salons that she and Toklas held every Saturday at 27 rue de Fleurus, where she and Toklas lived until 1937. Stein also posed for such artists as Picasso and the sculptor Jo Davidson.

Following World War I, young Americans flocked to Paris, members of what Stein named “the lost generation.” The brightest and best of them sought out Gertrude Stein. Ernest Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder: All of them found their way to 27 rue de Fleurus, where they found intellectual exhilaration. All owe a debt to Stein, who directly affected their writing. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s first commercially successful book, presents in detail a record of the Stein-Toklas household from 1907 to the mid-1930’s.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—indeed, Stein’s work in general—demonstrates that women have minds and are quite capable of functioning as independently as men. On an artistic and philosophical level, Stein identified more easily with men than she did with women.

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, mere...

(The entire section contains 3580 words.)

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