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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.

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.

Context

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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 appendages of husbands who were deemed the important members of society, Stein was striking out courageously in new directions. Stein, nevertheless, needed Alice B. 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 protect her from boring people, to occupy the wives of the interesting male artists and writers who clustered around her fascinating, brilliant mate. The autobiography makes clear that Stein did not appreciate artists’ wives.

Toklas was far from a silent partner in the relationship, but she acceded—publicly, at least—to Stein’s wishes. Toklas had a fine mind and a strong sense of herself. Her devotion to Stein was absolute. Toklas could be petty and jealous. She vetoed some of Stein’s friendships—most notably her friendship with Ernest Hemingway, perhaps because she sensed Hemingway’s wish to seduce Stein. Behind the scenes, Toklas was a force to be reckoned with.

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein is assertive, artistically intractable, and single-mindedly certain of her artistic aims. Her boredom with the wives of the celebrities she attracted suggests that she did not value their intellects, but her aversion to wives was probably much more complicated than this: It likely had much to do with Toklas’ jealousy and with Stein’s desire to keep peace in her household.

Form and Content

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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,” or the fifty-nine pages of chapter 7, “After the War: 19191932”—detail the artistic development of Gertrude Stein and only incidentally the life of Alice B. Toklas.

When Toklas came to Paris in 1907, Stein, a graduate of Radcliffe College and one course short of a medical degree from The Johns Hopkins University, had already established herself there, as had her older brother, Leo. Toklas, newly arrived from San Francisco, met Stein and lived with her for the next thirty-nine years.

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 to Florence, Italy, in 1901, and the next year moved to Paris. Gertrude soon joined him, leaving medical school with the excuse that she was bored, thoroughly bored. In her day, it was rare for women to attend medical school; her not finishing, if viewed as regrettable, surprised no one.

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein presents in detail the involvement that she and Toklas had with the art world that flourished in and around Paris between 1910 and 1930. Stein, when her trust fund occasionally yielded more than anticipated, bought paintings with the surplus, as did Leo. By the time that she died, Stein owned more than a hundred paintings by some of the most important painters of her day: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, and other legendary artists.

Stein knew the artists of her day, entertaining them at the salons that she and Toklas held every Saturday in 27 rue de Fleurus, where she and Toklas lived until 1937. (In that year, her landlady declined to renew their lease, which had run for thirty-four years, forcing the two to find other quarters.) Stein posed for such artists as Picasso and the sculptor Jo Davidson.

Following World War I, young American artists and writers flocked to Paris, members of the so-called lost generation. The brightest and best of them sought out Stein. Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder—all found their way to 27 rue de Fleurus, where they imbibed much of the intellectual exhilaration that surrounded Stein. Each owes a debt to Stein, who directly affected their writing.

Places Discussed

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*Paris

*Paris. France’s capital city, in which Gertrude Stein spent much of her adult life, including years of it lived with her companion Alice B. Toklas. Her book describes Paris at a time when many of the most important artists and writers of the era congregated in the city. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Paris was the center of the art world. There, Stein and Toklas were friends with, among others, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway, Tristan Tzara, and Man Ray. They witnessed the rise of such art movements as cubism and Dadaism. Stein’s own writing style was influenced by the developments in visual art that she witnessed, making this setting important not only to this autobiographical work but also to her works not set in Paris.

*Rue de Fleurus

*Rue de Fleurus (rew duh fluhr). Parisian street on which Stein and Toklas live. In the home’s large atelier, Stein displayed her collection of artworks and entertained on Saturday evenings. Because it provided a meeting place for the artists and writers of the time, this place, as well as the art collection which it housed, helped to shape and define the artistic movements of the time. At one particularly successful dinner party, Stein seated her artist friends facing their own works. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and no one noticed the seating arrangement until the end of the party.

*Montmartre

*Montmartre (mon MAR-treh). Parisian neighborhood in which many artists lived and had their studios. Picasso lived there during his first marriage, to Fernande, before his work was widely recognized. Stein and Toklas frequently visited their friends in Montmartre.

*United States

*United States. The native country of Gertrude Stein and of Alice B. Toklas figures in the book largely as background—a place that formed them both but which does not offer the same possibilities for art as Europe—and particularly Paris—does. Two chapters about Toklas and Stein before they go Paris briefly describe their childhoods in America, beginning with their births in San Francisco and Allegheny, Pennsylvania, respectively. Significant events of their adult lives such as Stein’s training at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore also receive mention. However, in general, their lives in America are depicted merely as preparation for their lives in Paris.

*England

*England. Stein and Toklas visited friends in English country houses, an experience which Toklas enjoyed but which Stein tired of quickly. She disliked the constant conversation in English. Toklas found these homes especially relaxing, enjoying the slow pace and friendly atmosphere. The two were in England when World War I broke out, and spent several weeks with friends in the country until they could return to Paris.

*Nîmes

*Nîmes (neem). City in southern France in which Stein and Toklas spent time during World War I, when they served as volunteers for the American Fund for French Wounded. Stein learned to drive so that she could participate in the war effort and ran errands for hospitals in the area. The two women met many American soldiers who were stationed there, and even “adopted” a few with whom they corresponded later.

Historical Context

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1920s–1930s and Literature
Stein’s book not only chronicles her relationships with various early twentieth-century artists and writers, but her writing itself exemplifies modernist ideas about composition and representation. Historians often date the onset of literary modernism to the end of World War I. Faith in God, self, nationhood, humanity, and reality was shaken as a result of the war, and writers frequently turned to thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Carl Jung, Sir James George Frazer, and Albert Einstein for ideas that framed the world in a new light. For example, T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland (1922), uses allusion and symbolism to represent a world that had literally and figuratively fallen to pieces. Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), employs a stream-of-consciousness narrative to prioritize subjective experience over the depiction of an objective world. Woolf, like other writers during this time, strove to show how time itself did not exist outside individuals, but rather in human consciousness, an idea popularized by philosopher Henri Bergson. Woolf, like William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying (1930) and Stein in Three Lives (1909), uses multiple narrators to explore particular themes and events. Other modernist literary works during this time include Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), e. e. cummings’s The Enormous Room (1922), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and John Dos Passos’s 1919. Stein’s stylistic influence, however, is most apparent in the work of Ernest Hemingway, who epitomized the cynical and morally adrift population of seekers Stein refers to as ‘‘a lost generation.’’ Hemingway’s novels include The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). ‘‘Lost Generation’’ writers include expatriates such as Malcolm Cowley, Ezra Pound, and Archibald MacLeish, who moved to Europe, questing for adventure, romance, and meaning.

Stein exerted her influence on modernist literature chiefly through her friendships with writers, many of whom attended her salons, Saturday-evening parties in which established and aspiring painters, photographers, sculptors, and writers would exchange ideas, read poems, look at the Steins’ art collection, argue, drink, and eat. Stein’s brother Leo initially leased the apartment-studio at 27, rue de Fleurus in Paris in 1902, and Stein joined him in 1903. The salons commenced shortly after. Stein’s own writing was deeply influenced by painters such as Cézanne and Picasso. Using the former’s work as a model, Stein developed a flat writing style that focused on the nuances of voice. This is evident in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein uses Toklas’s speech patterns and a deadpan delivery. She sometimes referred to her style as ‘‘the continuous present.’’ Picasso’s method of manipulating objects influenced Stein’s approach to crafting poetry and verbal ‘‘portraits.’’ Her collection of poems, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914), and her portrait, Picasso (1938), embody this approach.

When The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1933, these modernist writers, and a number of painters such as Picasso, Matisse, and Braque, had captured the public imagination. Stein’s book capitalized on the public’s hunger for gossip about these figures, detailing quarrels, romances, and other intrigue, and catapulted it to the bestseller’s list. Americans needed diversion from the continuing economic hardships of the Depression, and reading about celebrities’ lives met that need. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was doing its part to meet the country’s other needs and restore economic confidence, passing legislation such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Home Owners’ Loan Act, the Emergency Relief Act, and Banking and Gold Reserve acts.

Literary Style

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Point of View
A story’s point of view refers to its mode of narration, that is, whose eyes the action is seen through and whose mind presents the information. Autobiographies, by definition, are written by the person the book is about. They are told in the first person and the narrator is a major character around which the action revolves. Stein complicates this convention by writing an autobiography about herself but told by Alice B. Toklas, as if Stein were Toklas. In fact, the fictional Toklas is a minor character in her own ‘‘autobiography.’’ Such a narrative trick underscores not only the fictional aspects of Stein’s book but by implication, of all autobiographies. Stein reveals her authorship of the book in the last paragraph:

About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as DeFoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.

Myth
The very idea of myth is usually opposed to certain notions of the real. By presenting details that later have been determined not to be factually accurate, Stein draws attention to the fictional quality of her writing and to the fact that she is more interested in the impression of the stories she tells rather than whether or not they actually happened in the way she presents them. Combined with her technique of assuming the persona of a person who worshipped her, Stein manages to create a myth of herself, an image of how she would have others remember her.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: In 1933 President Roosevelt appoints Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. Perkins is the first woman cabinet member.

Today: The Bush administration has four women cabinet or cabinet-rank members including Christie Whitman (Environmental Protection Agency), Ann Veneman (Department of Agriculture), Gale Norton (Department of the Interior), and Elaine Chao (Department of Labor).

1930s: Tens of thousands of writers and artists leave Germany as Hitler moves to suppress modern art.

Today: The Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim group in control of Afghanistan, orders the destruction of all statues in the country, including two towering fifth-century images of Buddha, claiming the statues are offensive to Islam.

1930s: People involved in same sex romantic relationships are stigmatized, persecuted, and sometimes arrested. Most states have laws prohibiting sodomy.

Today: Same sex relationships are increasingly accepted by society, and many corporations provide benefits for domestic partners. Sixteen states still have laws prohibiting sodomy.

1930s: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas hits the bestseller’s list, as Americans seek diversions from the Great Depression.

Today: Americans turn to television and the Internet, seeking diversions from recent terrorism attacks.

Media Adaptations

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In 1970 Perry Miller Adato directed When This You See, Remember Me, a documentary of Stein’s life. The film combines passages from her writings with vintage photographs, amateur film clips, her lyrics set to music, and brief excerpts from conversations with people who knew her in Paris, including Virgil Thomson, Genet, Maurice Grosser, Jacques Lipschitz, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, and Bennett Cerf.

In 1972 Caedmon released the audiocassette Gertrude Stein, in which Stein reads from The Making of Americans.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Breslin, James E., ‘‘Gertrude Stein and the Problems of Autobiography,’’ in Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, edited by Michael J. Hoffman, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 149–60.

Bromfield, Louis, ‘‘Gertrude Stein: Experimenter with Words’’ in New York Herald-Tribune Books, September 3, 1933.

Curnutt, Kirk, ed., The Critical Response to Gertrude Stein, 2000, pp. 544–71.

Fay, Bernard, ‘‘A Rose Is a Rose,’’ in the Saturday Review of Literature, September 2, 1933.

Hoffman, Michael J., Gertrude Stein, Twayne, 1976, pp. 114–21.

Knickerbocker, William S., ‘‘Stunning Stein,’’ in Sewanee Review, 1933.

Skinner, B. F., ‘‘Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?’’ in Atlantic Monthly, January 1934, pp. 50–57.

Stein, Gertrude, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Vintage Books, 1960.

Steiner, Wendy, Exact Resemblance to Exact Resemblance: The Literary Portraiture of Gertrude Stein, Yale University Press, 1978.

Toklas, Alice B., What Is Remembered, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963.

Troy, William, ‘‘A Note on Gertrude Stein,’’ in the Nation, September 6, 1933.

Wickes, George, Americans in Paris, Paris Review-Doubleday, 1969.

Further Reading
Hobhouse, Janet, Everybody Who Was Anybody, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. Hobhouse’s loose biography is filled with anecdotes of Stein’s life and times and includes photographs of Stein, her literary and artistic friends, and her studioapartment.

Hoffman, Michael J., Gertrude Stein, Twayne, 1976. Hoffman’s study analyzes Stein’s writing and provides an account of the Paris salons. This is a good starting point for beginning students of Stein.

Kellner, Bruce, ed., A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content with the Example, Greenwood Press, 1988. Kellner’s study includes brief analyses of Stein’s writings, critical essays, biographies of famous Stein friends and associates, and poems about Stein. Kellner’s annotated bibliography is also a useful research tool.

Knapp, Bettina, Gertrude Stein, Continuum, 1990. Knapp provides a thoughtful and accessible introduction to Stein’s writing as well as details of her relationships with Paris artists.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Views Series, this volume contains fifteen essays on Stein, a chronology, and a bibliography. The selection is astute, and, although there is no specific essay on

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Bridgman offers one of the fullest analyses of the overall structure and style of Stein’s writing. The book is carefully conceived and clearly presented.

Greenfeld, Howard. Gertrude Stein: A Biography. New York: Crown, 1973. A brief introduction to Gertrude Stein, well suited for the general reader.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Random House, 1961. Hemingway gives his side of the story about his relationship with Gertrude Stein and about its fracture. His view is biased but fascinating. An interesting supplement to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Hobhouse, Janet. Everyone Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. Offers a helpful catalog of the significant people who frequented 27 rue de Fleurus and of both Stein’s and Toklas’ opinions of them. Well illustrated.

Hoffman, Michael J. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A balanced, critical study identifying Stein’s work as the most important source and influence on modernism.

Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. New York: Praeger, 1974. This book, rich with illustrations, captures the vibrant spirit of the exciting circle of painters, sculptors, writers, and fascinating passersby that came within the Stein-Toklas social orbit before and after World War I.

Simon, Linda. The Biography of Alice B. Toklas. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. A fine biography of Alice B. Toklas, especially for the reader interested in seeing the life and times from Alice’s perspective. Can serve as a valuable companion volume to Stein’s book.

Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. London: Pandora, 1991. The most thorough account of Gertrude Stein’s long lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, this book shows how strong Toklas was and how she dominated many aspects of her forty-year association with Stein.

Sprigge, Elizabeth. Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Work. New York: Harper Brothers, 1957. Like James R. Mellow’s book (above), this well-written biography is replete with excellent illustrations. Along with Mellow’s biography, it remains among the most valuable resources for Stein scholars and enthusiasts.

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