The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein 1933

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933, is Gertrude Stein's best-selling work and her most accessible. Consisting of seven chapters covering the first three decades of the twentieth century, the book is only incidentally about Toklas's life. Its real subject, and narrator, is Stein herself, who reportedly had asked Toklas, her lifelong companion, for years to write her autobiography. When Toklas did not, Stein did. Stein published excerpts of the work in the Atlantic, which occasioned a response from behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner whose essay, "Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?" connected the style Stein employed in the book with her work on automatic writing in Harvard's psychology laboratories a few decades before. Automatic writing, popularized by the surrealists in the 1920s, was writing that follows unconscious as well as conscious thought of the author. Stein's writing certainly has some of that element in the Autobiography but on the whole she sticks to telling a story of her life and times in more or less chronological order. That life includes details of her relationships with artists and writers who would become some of the most famous of the twentieth century, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Max Jacob, and Sherwood Anderson. Stein's book is modernist not only because she discusses modernist art and artists but because of how she represents her subject through indirection, paradox, repetition, and contradiction.

Author Biography

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874 to Daniel and Amelia (Keyser) Stein, Gertrude Stein became a voice for the avant-garde in twentieth-century art. Her cosmopolitan attitudes and tastes were formed early, as she spent five of the first six years of her life in Vienna (where her father studied the banking business) and in Paris. In 1880 the Steins moved to Oakland, California, where her father worked as a stockbroker. After her parents died, Stein moved to Baltimore to live with her aunt. During the 1890s, she attended Radcliffe, studying composition with William Vaughn Moody, philosophy with George Santayana, and psychology with William James. These thinkers were to have a profound impact on Stein's approaches to writing and her taste in art collecting. In 1903 Stein moved to Paris. Her apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus, which she shared with her brother Leo and later with her companion Alice B. Toklas, was a meeting place for artists, writers, and musicians. Her Saturday "salons" brought people such as Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Erik Satie, Virgil Thompson, and Pablo Picasso.

An art collector with a daunting personality and no lack of self-confidence, Stein gave advice, made pronouncements, and presided over a flock of expatriate American and English writers, whom she dubbed the "Lost Generation." Her first major work, Three Lives (1909), gives a taste of the experimental nature of her writing. Comprised of three short tales, each of which explores the essential nature of its main character, the work implicitly questions notions of linearity, identity, and certainty. Stein's best-selling book, however, was more conventional. Ostensibly a book about her partner, Toklas, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is, in fact, the story of Stein's life, written by Stein from Toklas's point of view. Its gossipy anecdotes about celebrity artists made it a best seller. Other works by Stein include Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914); The Making of Americans (1925); Composition as Explanation (1926); Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein (1933); and Lectures in America (1935).

Ignoring warnings to leave the country after Germany had occupied France during World War II, Stein (who was Jewish) and Toklas stayed. After the war, Stein became a celebrity to American soldiers, who regularly visited her. A prodigious writer, Stein penned poems, plays, librettos, histories, biographies, and essays, and translated the work of others. Her health deteriorated in 1945, and on July 27, 1946, she died in the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine after an operation to remove stomach cancer. The French government awarded her the Medal of French Recognition for services during the Second World War. More recently, Stein's work has garnered increased attention, as poets and language theorists such as Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Richard Kostelanetz, and Bob Perleman have cited its influence on their own writing.

Plot Summary

Before I Came to Paris

At three pages, this is the shortest chapter in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein inhabits the persona and speech patterns of Toklas throughout the book. The perceptions of other characters and the recounting of events, however, belong to both Stein and Toklas. For continuity, the narrator of the book will be referred to as Toklas.

Toklas introduces herself and provides some details about her life, mentioning, importantly, that her life changed after the San Francisco earthquake, and she met Gertrude Stein. Saying that she has only met three geniuses in her life, Toklas writes, "The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead."

My Arrival in Paris

In this chapter, Toklas notes that Stein's book, Three Lives, is about to be published and that the writer is deep into writing the history of her family's life, The Americans. Toklas describes the house at 27, rue de Fleurus, where the two held their Saturday evening salons, and the numerous pictures that Stein and her brother Leo had collected, which "completely covered the white-washed walls right up to the top of the very high ceiling." She also introduces and comments on characters such as Stein's maid Helene; Alfy Maurer, a former tenant of the house; Pablo Picasso; his mistress, Fernande; and Henri Matisse. Toklas describes their atelier as a very open place where anyone could come and look at the pictures. She notes, however, that because France is a formal place, guests need to mention the name of someone who told them about her place to gain entrance. The anecdotes are in no particular order but rather presented in the way in which the narrator remembers them.

Gertrude Stein in Paris: 1903-1907

In this chapter, Toklas recounts how Stein came to collect paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Stein and her brother Leo bought their Cézannes from Ambrose Vollard, a gallery owner and art dealer who owned numerous paintings by Cézanne. The Steins also bought paintings by Matisse who, Toklas writes, was then poor and always depressed. Stein discovered Picasso's work in a gallery and met the painter shortly after, often posing for portraits for him. Other people she mentions include Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, Kathleen Bruce, Andrew Green, and Isadora Duncan. The relentless name-dropping and gossiping emphasize Stein's belief that she was a seminal influence on much of modern painting. If she were to have written this book in her own voice, it would have smacked of egotism and arrogance, but from Toklas's voice, it often comes off as charming. In the last pages of the chapter, Toklas describes Stein's inability to sell Three Lives to a publisher and her decision to have it printed by the Grafton Press in New York.

Gertrude Stein before She Came to Paris

This chapter details Stein's life from birth to just before she came to Paris. As such, it does not follow chronologically from the last chapter, but this is Stein's method. She repeats bits of information she has previously presented, sometimes adding a little more to them. Toklas discusses Stein's childhood and the books she read (William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, the encyclopedia, etc.); her family's trip to Europe and eventual return to Oakland, California; and her life at Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins Medical School, of which she flunked out because of boredom and disinterest. Toklas notes Stein's attitudes towards politics as well as art. For example, she does not believe the cause of women to be "her business." Before moving to Paris, Stein and her brother Leo lived together in London, where Stein frequently visited the museum and read the novels of Anthony Trollope, whom she considers the "greatest of the Victorians."


In this chapter, Toklas discusses the wives of geniuses such as Picasso and runs through a series of anecdotes about famous artists and writers such as Harry Gibb, Marcel Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, Juan Gris, André Gide, Avery Hopwood, Mina Loy, and Wyndham Lewis, among others. Significantly, she discusses Stein's ideas on Cubism. Stein says: "Cubism is a purely Spanish conception and only Spaniards can be cubists and … the only real cubism is that of Picasso and Juan Gris." Art historians usually credit Picasso and French artist Georges Braque with developing Cubism, although different "Cubisms" evolved over time. Picasso achieves cubist effects in paintings such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by using geometric shapes, fracturing spatial planes, and overlapping forms. Stein's own writing is sometimes referred to as cubist because of her interest in space over time, her use of multiple points of view, and her distortions of syntax.

Toklas describes a dinner for painter Henri Rosseau, in which fights break out and guests dance drunk on tables. She also recounts the successes of Matisse as well as those of Picasso, along with his split with Fernande and subsequent move from Montmartre. She calls the Futurists, a group of poets and painters led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Gino Severini who are enamored of speed and motion, "very dull," and she describes her trips to Spain and London. All of this is told in a deadpan voice, with no betrayal of emotion.

The War

In this chapter, Toklas recounts how she and Stein were in London when the war broke out and how disbelieving everyone was that such a thing was actually happening. Stein and Toklas had gone there during the summer of 1914, hoping to persuade the English publisher John Lane to publish Stein's work. For almost three months, Toklas and Stein stayed with Alfred North Whitehead and his family. Whitehead (1861-1947) is one of the three geniuses Toklas said that she had met in her life. He was a mathematician and philosopher at London University at the time, having just left Cambridge University. With Bertrand Russell he wrote Principia Mathematica. Toklas describes having their house seized by German officers, their trip to Majorca, and their work for the American Fund for the French Wounded during which she and Stein transported hospital supplies and set up depots throughout France in their Ford truck called "Auntie." The French government later decorated Stein for her work during the war. During the war years, Picasso and Stein quarreled and reconciled, Apollinaire died, and Stein wrote plays and published a collection of poems, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, whose obscurity brought her a degree of infamy.

After the War: 1919-1932

In this chapter, Toklas notes many of the changes among Stein's group of associates and friends that occurred after the war. Toklas and Stein meet T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, who presents Stein with a letter of introduction from Sherwood Anderson. Stein's advice to Hemingway after reading his work was, "There is a great deal of description in this… and not particularly good description. Begin over again and concentrate," and what became an often-quoted comment, "Remarks are not literature." The relationship between Stein and Hemingway has been discussed by many critics and biographers, some of whom suggest that Toklas was jealous of Stein's relationship with him.

Toklas also details Stein's attempts and then success at publishing The Making of Americans and recounts Stein's presentation of a lecture, "Composition as Explanation," at Cambridge University. Leonard Woolf later published the essay in the Hogarth Essay Series. Though Toklas expresses some bitterness at the beginning of the chapter because Stein's writing has largely gone unrecognized, by the end of it, she has accumulated a number of achievements. Stein ends the book by revealing that it is she, and not Toklas, who has written the book.

Key Figures

Sherwood Anderson

Anderson (1876-1941) is an American novelist who visits Stein and Toklas in Paris. Stein and Anderson joke about Hemingway, saying he "had been formed" by the two of them. Anderson is best known for his collection of connected stories, Winesburg, Ohio. Hemingway writes him a long letter at one point telling him that he does not like Anderson's work, but Anderson is not fazed by it.

Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire (1880-1918) is "very attractive and very interesting," "extraordinarily brilliant," and a friend of Stein's. Born in Rome in 1880, Apollinaire was a key figure in the French avant-garde. He wrote essays on cubist painters and experimented with varying tones and registers in his poetry. Toklas notes that when he died, "everybody ceased to be friends."

Georges Braque

Braque (1882-1963), is an occasional guest at Stein's gatherings and, along with Picasso, developed cubism. Toklas relates a story in which Braque, a French war hero, punches an art dealer who deliberately keeps the prices of cubist paintings at a government auction low in order to "kill cubism."

Paul Cézanne

Cézanne (1839-1906), often called the father of modern art, was a French painter, one of the first post-impressionists, known for his innovative use of color and perspective. He was a friend of Stein's and was gaining popularity when Stein began buying his paintings from Vollard. Cézanne's influence on Matisse and Picasso was immeasurable.

T. S. Eliot

Eliot (1888-1965) and Stein have one conversation, "mostly about split infinitives and other grammatical solecisms and why Gertrude Stein uses them." Eliot accepts a piece of Stein's to publish in The New Criterion, which he edits.

Bernard Fay

Fay, Professor of the College de France and director of the National Library, is one of Stein's "four permanent friends" and the author of books such as Revolution and Freemasonry and Franklin.

Juan Gris

Gris (1887-1927) was a friend of Stein's and of Picasso's. Gris moved to Paris in 1906 where he met Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Toklas describes him during this time as "a raw rather effusive youth." A cubist, like Braque and Picasso, Gris also worked in many different media. Stein wrote a book about him, The Life and Death of Juan Gris.


Helene is Stein's maid at 27, rue de Fleurus. Toklas describes her as "one of those admirable bonnes in other words excellent maids of all work." Helene also has opinions on Stein's guests. For example, she does not like Henri Matisse, thinking that he is impolite for a Frenchman. She leaves the Stein household in 1914 after her husband is promoted and wants her to stay home.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway (1899-1961) is an American writer who meets Stein after World War I. Toklas presents him as a very serious, driven person who idolizes writers such as Ford Madox Ford and Stein herself. Hemingway and Stein frequently discuss literature, and Stein advises him to quit journalism and become a full-time writer, which he does. At the time Hemingway met Stein, he was working on stories that would comprise In Our Time (1925).

Though Toklas is not convinced of the story she reports, she writes that Hemingway arranged for the serialization of The Making of Americans in Ford Madox Ford's Transatlantic Review and persuaded Robert McAlmon's Contact Editions to publish it in book form in 1925. Although Hemingway was initially a friend of American writer Sherwood Anderson and presents Stein a letter of introduction from Anderson, the two have a falling out. Stein herself is ambivalent about Hemingway. On the one hand, she has a "weakness" for him, yet on the other hand, she implies that he is somewhat self-deluded and more interested in his career than his art. Hemingway names Stein and Toklas godmothers of his first child.

Henri Matisse

Matisse (1869-1954) is a French painter whose work Stein and her brother Leo collect. Considered one of the formative figures in twentieth-century art, Matisse was a master in using color to convey emotion, render forms, and organize spatial planes. He was influenced early by the French painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne and the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh and later by the pointillist painting of Henri Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. In 1905 he exhibited his work along with that of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Using vivid colors and distorted shapes to express intense emotion, the three became known as les fauves ("the wild beasts"). Matisse is thirty-five years old, depressed, and poor when Stein first meets him, but after the 1905 show, he becomes widely known and immensely popular. Stein introduces Matisse to Picasso.

Media Adaptations

  • 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.

Fernande Olivier

Fernande is Picasso's lover, who Toklas initially describes as "a tall beautiful woman with a wonderful big hat and a very evidently new dress." Later she writes that Fernande "was not the least amusing" and that she only had two subjects: hats and perfumes.

Francis Picabia

Picabia (1879-1959) floats in and out of stories. He is a drawer, painter, and poet of Spanish descent who is affiliated with the cubists. Picabia paints Stein's portrait. He is also a good friend of Apollinaire's. He brings Tristan Tzara to Paris in the last chapter. Tzara is credited with developing Dadaism.

Pablo Picasso

Picasso (1881-1973) is widely acknowledged to be the most important artist of the twentieth century. He is credited with pioneering cubism, collage, and assemblage. Born in Spain, Picasso lived most of his life in France and was very close friends with Stein, who bought many of his paintings. Toklas describes him as "small quick moving but not restless, his eyes having a strange faculty of opening wide and drinking in what he wished to see." She also writes that he is volatile, intense, and often rude, but a genius. His relationships with other painters, such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Henri Matisse, are at the center of many of the book's anecdotes. Stein and Picasso have arguments, but they also reconcile and remain lifelong friends.

Ezra Pound

Pound (1885-1972) visits Stein and Toklas in Paris. Toklas finds him interesting but not very amusing. She says, "he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Pound's ideas about literature and his work as a correspondent for Poetry magazine made him one of the single biggest influences on modern poetry.

Gertrude Stein

Stein (1874-1946) is the actual author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ; however, she writes as Alice B. Toklas, so her observations are as if from Toklas's point of view. This allows Stein to say things about herself she otherwise would not be able to without sounding utterly egotistical and pompous. By having Toklas write about her, Stein capitalizes on the humor inherent in the point of view shift and upon the couple's obvious affection for each other. Wendy Steiner describes Stein's character in the autobiography as follows: "The writer records another's perceptions of her and in so doing creates the other who is then found to be the writer herself." This way of mirroring, or overlapping of selves, is a kind of literary equivalent to cubism, where forms overlap and merge with one another.

Leo Stein

Referred to only as "Gertrude Stein's brother" throughout the book, Leo Stein (1872-1947) lives with his sister from 1903-1913 and is largely responsible for introducing her to modern art. Together they buy paintings by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Gris, and Picasso. He is rarely mentioned after 1913, as he and his sister have a falling out.

Alice B. Toklas

Toklas (1877-1967) is Stein's companion for almost forty years. She is the purported narrator of the book, through whom Stein recounts the story of her life. A brief biography of her appears in the first chapter. She was born in San Francisco of "Polish patriotic stock," and is domestic in nature, enjoying gardening, needlework, and the like. Toklas types and proofs Stein's manuscripts, seeks out publishers for Stein's work, and runs the household. Toklas is also responsible for entertaining the wives and girlfriends of the writers, artists, and visitors to the couple's house, as Stein finds most of the women boring. Stein has Toklas recall: "The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me."

Toklas first met Stein in Paris in 1907 and moved in with her in 1909. She had previously known Stein's older brother, Michael, from San Francisco. In her memoir, What Is Remembered (1963), Toklas writes of that meeting:

In the room were Mr. and Mrs. Stein and Gertrude Stein. It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention. … She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else's voice—deep, full velvety like a great contralto's, like two voices. She was large and heavy with delicate small hands and a beautifully modeled and unique head.

Carl Van Vechten

Van Vechten (1880-1964) is an American music critic, novelist, photographer, and close friend of Stein's. He wrote The Music of Spain (1918), Peter Whiffle (1922), and Nigger Heaven (1926), among other works. He was active in the Harlem Renaissance and is known for his efforts to promote better interracial relations. He and Stein correspond for years and Van Vechten visits her in Paris. When she dies, Stein leaves him funds to publish all of her unpublished work.

Ambrose Vollard

Ambrose Vollard (1865-1939) is an ambitious Paris art dealer who heavily promotes Paul Cézanne's work. The Steins buy their first Cézanne from Vollard and many subsequent paintings. Toklas describes him as "a huge dark man" and gloomy.

Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead (1861-1947) is a professor at the University of London when Stein and Toklas visit him and his wife just before the outbreak of World War I. He is one of three geniuses that Toklas has met, the other two being Stein and Picasso.



By telling her own story through the persona of someone close to her, Stein implicitly suggests that a person's identity can only ever be provisionally known. She adopts Toklas's voice and draws on her memories for her ventriloquist's trick, effectively creating an identity that is part Toklas, part Stein. Experiments with point of view in literature and painting were popular during Stein's time, and the idea of objectivity was giving way to the notion that reality was subjective and plural. Stein experiments with point of view in other books as well, most notably, Three Lives.

Women's Rights

Stein describes her unconventional and lesbian relationship with Toklas as if there were nothing unusual about it. However, by presenting their partnership unapologetically and as entirely natural, Stein, intentionally or not, holds herself up as a model for what women can accomplish, both in the personal and professional sphere. The art world was a notoriously male province in the early twentieth century, and Stein's influence, financially, emotionally, and ideologically, showed that strong women could shape the direction of industries such as art and literature. Her influence on writers and painters such as Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway, Anderson, and others was profound.


Stein's stream of consciousness narration, her use of repetition, her disregard for conventional punctuation, and her presentation of events in sometimes helter-skelter order mark her book as distinctly modern. Modernism in the arts emerged fully after World War I and was largely a response to changes in the world order wrought by the war. In an effort to represent these changes, writers, painters, and musicians broke with many of the traditions that had defined their work, experimenting with collage, fragmentation, stream of consciousness narration, multiple points of view, non-standard syntax and sentence structure, etc., to depict the increasing anxiety and uncertainty of human life. Modernist writers who pioneered these changes include Stein, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.


Implicit in Stein's book is the disappearance of any difference between fictional and nonfictional characters. The media contributes to this by creating a culture of celebrity, and removing the need to imagine personalities. By writing her own autobiography through the eyes of someone else, Stein underscores the idea that all lives are constructions, imagined as much by those who live them as by those who read about them.


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.


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.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a short account of your life from the point of view of someone close to you. Then do the same from your own point of view. What differences do you notice?
  • Rewrite the first three pages of Stein's book, eliminating all digressions, and using conventional punctuation. What is gained and lost in your version?
  • If Stein's "autobiography" were a painting, what would it look like? Try painting it, or write a paper describing the painting.
  • With your class, make a chart listing the ten people in Stein's book you would most like to meet, ranging from most to least. Provide reasons for your choices and then compare your list with others in the class. What does this tell you about how you value people?
  • Compare Hemingway's story of his relationship with Stein in A Moveable Feast with Stein's in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Which is more credible and why?
  • With three other students in your class, design an ideal space where you would invite artists and writers to discuss their work. In what section of town would it be located? Would it be an apartment, a loft? What would it look like and whom would you invite? Present your design and responses to your class.

Historical Context

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.

Compare & Contrast

  • 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.

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 best-seller'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.

Critical Overview

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.


Chris Semansky

Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition. In this essay, Semansky considers the representation of experience in Stein's book.

Conventionally, the relationship in autobiography between language and experience has been one in which the author uses words to describe events, chronicle change, and mark emotions. This is evident in most fiction and biography as well. Stein's book, however, complicates this relationship, as it is founded on a lie: it is not what it says it is. Stein, of course, confesses as much in the book's last sentences, but her narrative "trick" is more than simply a joke played on unsuspecting readers. Along with the style in which the book is written, the use of a narrator who is not what she seems to be underscores the notion that human experience is, at root, beyond the pale of representation.

Stein has said that her goal in writing is to inhabit a "continuous present." By this, she means writing as if she were outside the conventions and expectations of any given genre, outside of how a particular kind of book was written before. Usually, authors follow rules, consciously or not, governing kinds of writing, so fiction, for example, is "about" people writers "make up" in their imagination, while nonfiction is about real people in the real world. These categories are also guideposts for consumers, as bookstores organize their products around them. Writing in a continuous present, however, means implicitly challenging the rules of these categories, asking questions such as, "Why does poetry have to be about the emotions?" or "Why can't an autobiography be written by someone other than the subject of the book?" Such questioning both ignores and upsets traditions while simultaneously creating new ones. In part, then, writing in a continuous present for an autobiography means creating a new form for the autobiography, and Stein does just that. Her book is as much about what an autobiography is as it is about her life.

The writer of a conventional autobiography has the goal of telling the story of her life, explaining who she "really" is. Stein, however, questions the possibility that individuals know themselves best, or that their version of their life is somehow more true or real than anyone else's version. In having Toklas tell the story of her life, Stein reinforces the idea that people do not necessarily belong to themselves and that identity, the experience of being a person, is constituted by language, rather than being something that is always already there. To put it another way, a conventional approach to autobiography has the writer using language to describe a unified, rational, and coherent self. Experience is already there; it has happened. All the writer has to do is retrieve it, like going to the store to pick up some milk. Stein's approach, however, positions her self as something that comes into being only through the interaction of words and other people. "She" doesn't "belong" to her. "Identity is recognition," Stein writes, "I am I because my little dog knows me."

Writing in the continuous present, as critic James Breslin notes, also means coming to terms with representing the past, a primary feature of autobiographical writing. Stein does this by sticking roughly to chronological order, but she often repeats details and sometimes jumps ahead. In this way, she creates a kind of kaleidoscopic form, one without a center. Breslin writes, "The book's narrative method simultaneously acknowledges chronological time and the power of writing to play freely with that time." Stein, then, has it both ways. She questions the very form that she writes in, while also using enough of its features to be recognizable to readers. Wendy Steiner describes Stein's one step forward, two steps back approach to time as "the return," writing:

The reader is constantly returned to events in such a way as to superimpose the present onto the past, to destroy linear temporality. At the same time, any single event is at the center of a constantly shifting set of accompanying events or associations … the pattern keeps changing, and virtually anything can be incorporated into the design.

Ironically, it is the appearance of conventional aspects of autobiography that made The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas a Literary Guild selection in August 1933. The book's popularity, however, does not stem from revelations about Stein's inner life or from juicy details about Stein and Toklas's sex life. While such subjects are standard fare for many celebrity autobiographies written today, Stein eschews anything emotional, choosing instead to concentrate on surfaces, just like the painters she admires, Cézanne and Picasso. Breslin notes:

"The Autobiography" gives the inside by way of the outside; it plays down psychology and sticks to the surface, recording externals (objects, acts, dialogues) in a way that clearly manifests deliberate and idiosyncratic acts of selection and stylization.

These surface details are most often gossip about celebrity writers and artists, and descriptions about modern art. Readers were interested in these subjects partly because they knew many of these people from press reports about their scandalous behavior. Apollinaire, for example, was once a suspect in the theft of the Mona Lisa, and Picasso's racy paintings were the subject of much speculation about the painter's sexuality. But even this gossip was secondary to Stein's true aim in writing the book, which was to create an impression of her life by describing all that surrounded her. Stein's friends questioned the factual accuracy of her details about them in a 1935 essay in Transition magazine, "Testimony against Gertrude Stein." But truth, for Stein, isn't a literal accounting of what is there, but the impression of a particular mind and set of eyes. She treats her friends as literary characters rather than "actual" people whose behavior needs to be factually recorded. In this way, her autobiography is more like a novel than an autobiography, for it confounds readers' expectations. Just as Matisse and Cézanne use paint to create a representation of their own experience, Stein uses words.

Michael Hoffman looks at Stein's looseness with facts another way, arguing that "Stein's form was the memoir, not a history … her technique was fictional from the start, and its aim was both personal publicity and self-justification." Citing Stein's use of a narrative persona, and her transformation of events into material for her story, Hoffman suggests that Stein's book be read with the same tools one would use to read a work of fiction. The problem with this suggestion is that most people who read Stein's book do not do so in a college classroom, and so are not necessarily aware of the different "tools" one brings to reading different kinds of writing. Most readers, regardless of Stein's artifices, would probably read her reportage of people and events as being factually true. But in the end, does this matter? George Wickes, in Americans in Paris, argues that Stein was more interested in creating a myth of the Modernist movement rather than a factual recording of its events and players. In this sense, her "autobiography" is symbolic of a larger truth, one that transcends time while at the same time embracing it, one that suggests factual accuracy while also ignoring it. This truth suggests that Stein, like her "autobiography," may be open to explanation, but in the final analysis, is inscrutable, like life itself.


Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Phoebe Stein Davis

In the following essay excerpt, Davis explores how Stein treats national identity in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, finding that Stein defines it "by what is lacking—rather than by what is present."

What Do I Read Next?

  • Harold Bloom edited a 1986 collection of essays, Gertrude Stein, which includes Judith Saunders's essay about Stein in Paris and Catherine Stimpson's essay on Stein and feminist issues.
  • Randa Dubnick's The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism (1984) examines the relationship between Stein's writing and modern art.
  • Alice B. Toklas's impressionistic memoir of life with Gertrude Stein, What Is Remembered (1963), provides amusing vignettes of the couple's life in Paris.
  • In 1909 Stein published Three Lives, a series of three novellas. Three Lives has remained one of Stein's most popular works.
  • Lyn Hejinian's 1987 prose poem-autobiography My Life was deeply influenced by Stein's philosophy of composition.
  • In A Moveable Feast (1961), Ernest Hemingway tells his side of the story about his estrangement from Stein.
  • James R. Mellow's 1974 biography Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company recreates the world over which Stein ruled with a combination of social energy, intellectual curiosity, and dogged perseverance.

From the first page of The Autobiography, Stein characterizes people in terms of their national identities. Although Alice introduces herself as an American, "I was born in San Francisco, California," she explains that while the quality that best defines her mother is her temperament—"my mother was a quiet charming woman named Emilie"—her father is best defined by his national identity: "my father came of polish patriotic stock." Here, Toklas's father is so thoroughly identified by his nationality that she does not bother to give his name, as she does with her mother. Throughout The Autobiography, national labels often replace names. For example, Alice's descriptions of Stein's Saturday evenings repeatedly respond to the question she knows is on the reader's mind—"who were they all"—with a list of nationalities. She explains, "groups of hungarian painters and writers … did get there," and "quantities of germans." She adds that "there was a fair sprinkling of americans." Individuals are often known only by their nationalities: "the other german who came to the house in those days was a dull one"; "there was another german whom I must admit we both liked." Although both of these men are named elsewhere in the text, they are introduced and recognized first and foremost by their "german" identities. Carl Van Vechten is introduced only as a stranger in an adjacent opera box, who "might have been a dutchman, a scandinavian or an american." The British painter Francis Rose is known only as "the englishman" for much of chapter 7. Alice makes a point of identifying the "three great dancers" she has known and the "three geniuses" she has known as all of different nationalities. Everywhere Stein and Toklas go, they conduct a nationality count, describing the atmosphere of a place according to the numbers of different nationalities there. In Palma de Mallorca, for example, Alice notes that "a great many americans seem to like it now but in those days [William] Cook and ourselves were the only americans … there were a few english … there were several french families." Even the policeman who brings Stein and Toklas coal during World War I, ushers them safely in and out of their apartment "on dark nights when Zeppelins came," and who, in Alice's words, "became our all in all," is identified only as "a stalwart breton."

Of course, referring to a person's nationality in order to characterize him or her assumes that people of that nationality share essential traits. Stein lets the reader know that she is drawing on a number of essential qualities about French, Spanish, American, and German peoples. She explains that the essential character of the French is so immutable that it determines the types of architecture they build: "human nature is so permanent in France that they can afford to be as temporary as they like with their buildings." This remark could, at one level, be dismissed as one of Stein's witty aphorisms were it not for the sheer number of essentializing statements that pile up in The Autobiography. For example, Russians tell "the usual russian stories"; because Picasso is Spanish "life is tragic and bitter and unhappy"; the "american character" is essentially "abstract"; and "germans … are not modern, they are a backward people." Like many other characters who make a brief appearance in the book, Germaine Pichot is immediately identified by her national identity: "she was quiet and serious and spanish." Moreover, her nationality manifests itself, for Stein, in her physical appearance: "she had the square shoulders and the unseeing fixed eyes of a spanish woman." We learn that Pichot "had taken a young man to the hospital," but what seems more central to an understanding of this woman is the fact that she has many sisters, all "married to different nationalities, even to turks and armenians."

"The book's popularity … doesn't stem from revelations about Stein's inner life or from juicy details about Stein and Toklas's sex life."

However, while nationality is often treated as a physical attribute in this text, at the same time, one's nationality is also described as an identity one takes on at certain moments. Nowhere is this more clear than in the conflicts between Stein and Picasso as they pore over Stein's photographs of the Civil War: Picasso "would suddenly remember the spanish war and he became very spanish and very bitter and Spain and America in their persons could say very bitter things about each other's country." Here, nationality is not only described as an internalization of one's country, it is also personified as Alice explains that the "Spain and America in their persons" give voice to their patriotism. But while Picasso, as a Spaniard, embodies Spain, Stein also describes his nationality as a transformative process: while looking at Stein's photos, Picasso "became very spanish." Picasso's nationality is organic in both cases, however, as a country "living" inside his body and as an identity he "becomes" when reminded of traumatic national events in Spain.

A sense of national identity as organic is perhaps most clear in Stein's descriptions of Mildred Aldrich, the figure she sets up in the text as an exemplary American citizen "with a George Washington face", whose national purity works as an antidote in "mixed" company. For Stein, Aldrich is "a very striking figure and a very satisfying one in the crowd of mixed nationalities." Stein's sense of personal "satisfaction" extends not only to Aldrich, but to their native land, America: "she made one very satisfied with one's country, which had produced her." Here Stein uses exactly the same terms, "insides" and "outsides," to describe both the process of writing her own personal narrative of identity, ("all your inside gets to be outside"), and the national narratives of identity in the passages above—citizens come out of the country that "produces" them and they are simultaneously born with their country "in their persons." This correspondence between the language Stein uses to describe personal and national subjectivity demonstrates that in The Autobiography she continues to "address the relationship between personal and national narratives of identity."

However, in the case of Mildred Aldrich, these boundaries between inside and outside, American and un-American, do not always remain firmly in place. Alice explains that she and Stein "teased her and told her she was beginning to look like a french peasant and she did, in a funny kind of way, born and bred new englander that she was." While Aldrich can "look" like a French peasant despite her "breeding," it is the nationality that is "bred" into her that makes her house, French in every other way, look American: "it was always astonishing that the inside of her little french peasant house with french furniture, french paint and a french servant and even a french poodle, looked completely american." Although what amazes Stein and Toklas is the resilience of Aldrich's American identity, Stein allows for a fluctuation between national identities here that her repeated essentializing would seem to belie—something French can look "completely american," and someone "born and bred" in America can "look like a french peasant."

Throughout The Autobiography, in the midst of her catalogues of essentially German, Spanish, American, Russian, Hungarian, and English peoples, Stein repeatedly demonstrates the mutability of national identity. One can, according to Stein, "lose" one's national identity and replace it with another:

Gertrude Stein always says that chicagoans spent so much energy losing Chicago that often it is difficult to know what they are … some lower their voices, some raise them, some get an english accent, some even get a german accent, some drawl, some speak in a very high tense voice, and some go chinese or spanish and do not move the lips.

Here, merely by changing the way they speak, "chicagoans" are so successful at changing their national identity that they become hard for Stein to recognize; "it is difficult to know what they are." Thus, a transformation that has been described as organic in the text becomes a calculated construction of identity: even though they are Americans, Chicagoans can "go chinese or spanish." In much the same way, Wyndham Lewis, who is British, can look "rather like a young frenchman on the rise, perhaps because his feet were very french, or at least his shoes." Hemingway not only looks "rather foreign", but as an American journalist for a Canadian newspaper he provides "the canadian viewpoint." Although The Autobiography underscores the idea that there is something essentially French about a Frenchman, and there is a discernible "canadian point of view," as these examples suggest, this national essence can be captured or reflected by those who are not "produced" by that nation.

"Alice is very clear on what Stein wants to accomplish with The Autobiography:'Gertrude Stein wants readers not collectors… she wants her books read not owned."'

Even this attempt to locate an essence for each nationality, determined by where one is "born and bred," falters at various times in the text. Moreover, in The Autobiography one can "be" a certain nationality without any relationship to anyone who was "born and bred" there. For example, Stein explains that because Constance Fletcher's stepfather was an Englishman, "Constance became passionately an english woman." Although Constance Fletcher is not from England, she "became" English. Thus, being "born and bred" gives no more access to a nationality than any other connection. Constance Fletcher seems to defy the entire concept of an essential national identity in that she is simultaneously English and Italian, without having any mixed blood. Stein explains that "she was more italian than the italians. She admired her step-father and therefore was english but she was really dominated by the fine italian hand of Machiavelli." This complex example demonstrates that not only can sheer "admiration" cause one to adopt a national identity, but also that one can adopt the national identity of a foreign country, an identity that is even more authentic than that of the people "born and bred" in that country.

Stein's repeated emphasis in The Autobiography on the role national identity plays in personal relationships, politics, and the production of art must, in part, be attributed to the internationalism of the modernist movement in Paris at the time. The modernism in early twentieth-century Paris that Stein remembers was marked by the heterogeneity of the artists involved, a heterogeneity that would have made these expatriates more aware of national distinctions among their diverse group living together in a metropolitan zone. Fernande Olivier's memoirs of the same period highlight the presence of different nationalities at Stein's Saturday night salons. Olivier writes: "There was always a mixture of artists, bohemians, and professional people, and, of course, foreigners. It was an odd spectacle—this assortment of people from quite different worlds, all talking about art and literature." For Olivier, what qualifies the group of "foreigners" as "different" from the other groups present is not their occupation—we don't learn if they are "artists" or "professionals," they are just "foreigners"—but their place of birth, presumably outside of France. But because The Autobiography was written for American audiences between the two world wars and because it was fabulously successful during this period, it is equally important to read it in the context of the discourses that defined national identity in America at this time. This will help us to understand both the pressure on Stein to present essentialized national identities in a book she meant to be a bestseller in the United States and the risks she took in destabilizing this essential national subject.

The issue of what constitutes American citizenship was particularly pressing when Stein wrote The Autobiography in 1932. A dominant concern in American culture in the 1920s was defining and legislating nationality. Stein's repeated use of essentialized national identities to label those in The Autobiography maintains what is at the center of contemporary discourses on nationality, namely the immutable "otherness" of foreigners. At the same time, however, the fact that people can change ethnic and national identities in the text clearly works against the prevailing discourses on nationality in the United States, from nativism to cultural pluralism.

Stein's awareness of and concern with efforts in the United States to greatly curb legal immigration is clear in an interview she gave for the New York Times Magazine in May 1934. Stein explains:

I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need that stimulation of new blood … there is no reason why we should not select our immigrants with greater care, nor why we should not bar certain peoples and preserve the color line, for instance. But if we shut down on immigration completely we shall become stagnant … the next thing we should do is to relax the severity of immigration restrictions.

While Stein's concern for what she calls "preserv[ing] the color line" lies at the heart of the immigration legislation she says she opposes, her description of the fluctuations between different nationalities in The Autobiography presents a mixing of national identities that in no way poses a threat to the purity of American nationality. Moreover, Stein's discussion of national identity in The Autobiography implies that there are no essential differences that prohibit Americans Mildred Aldrich and Constance Fletcher from "being" French, British, or Italian.

Rather, for Stein, a person's national identity is defined in The Autobiography by an absence—by what is lacking—rather than by what is present. What Barbara Mossberg calls "the presence of absence in the text" is repeatedly what determines national identity for Stein. In the following example, the absence of something, in this case "papers," separates the "native born americans" from the "not very american looking citizens." As Stein and Toklas arrive at the American embassy in London to obtain their passports for returning to France at the beginning of World War I, Stein, alarmed by the fact that "the embassy was very full of not very american looking citizens waiting their turn", expresses her concern to the "young american" who helps them. He explains that the foreigners "are easier … because they have papers, it is only the native born american who has no papers." While the identity of a foreigner is determined by the papers he or she holds, the nationality of a "native born american" is determined by the absence of any papers that defines his or her identity.

Similarly, for Picasso, the absence of any sexuality on the part of the Americans who visit Stein's salon, their "virginal quality," leads him to identify them only by their nationality: "they are not men, they are not women, they are americans." Later in the text, the absence of the name of Marie Laurencin's father on her French passport, coupled with her mother's refusal to speak the name of the "important personage" in the French government with whom she had a long-standing affair, determines that, although Marie is "technically German" by marriage, the French officials cannot question her because there is a possibility she is one of "them." Stein explains: "naturally the officials could make no trouble for her, her passport made it clear that no one knew who her father was and they naturally were afraid because perhaps her father might be the president of the french republic." What the passport "makes clear" is the absence of any concrete information. In the face of this blank space in Marie's passport, the French officials who, based on her marriage, had previously labeled her as German, now determine that she is French.

The fluidity of Laurencin's national identity in the example above is clearly associated with her marriage, but it is because she is a woman that a marriage necessarily means a change of identity (her German husband will never become French). This example raises the important issue of gender as it pertained to defining national identity in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1924. The quota system that the government set up to drastically reduce immigration into the United States in this period, and thus prevent the contamination of the "pure" American public, allowed for a number of important exceptions. In fact, these exceptions undermine the very definition of a national "essence" based on one's place of birth. For example, if a husband and wife applied at the same time for immigrant visas and the United States had already admitted the quota of the immigrants from the wife's country, the act allowed the wife to claim nationality through her husband's place of birth. The act reads:

if a wife is of a different nationality from her alien husband and the entire number of immigration visas which may be issued to quota immigrants of her nationality for the calendar month has already been issued, her nationality may be determined by the country of birth of her husband.

In addition, if an alien child is born in a different country from his father, his nationality "shall be determined by the country of birth of the father if the father is entitled to an immigration visa." Thus it is only the child's and wife's national identities that can fluctuate, never the man's.

Numerous examples from The Autobiography support the idea, repeatedly emphasized by the feminist critics cited above, that feminine identities are associated with a fluidity and flexibility, and that masculine identities are not. In "Portraits and Repetition," one of the six lectures Stein delivered before American audiences in 1934 and 1935, she explains that in her poem "Lucy Church Amiably" (1927), she makes a point of explaining "that women and children change … if men have not changed women and children have." In The Autobiography, masculine identities are often associated with strict, stable national identities while feminized figures are more flexible concerning their national identities. Stein is both masculine and "completely, entirely american;" Toklas's father is nameless, but of "polish patriotic stock," while her mother is named, but is not identified with any particular nationality; Mildred Aldrich can "look like a French peasant"; Constance Fletcher moves readily between her identity as English and Italian; Pichot's sisters marry men known only as "turks and armenians"; and it is the German men who visit Stein and Toklas who are known as "the germans." Even Wyndham Lewis's ability to "look like a young frenchman on the rise," Stein implies, has much to do with the effeminate fashion statement his shoes make. Importantly, the only feminine characters who retain stable national identities in The Autobiography belong to the working class. In fact, the servants who work in the Stein/Toklas household are depicted as having the most static identities in the text. Even though 15 years pass between the time Hélène leaves the household in 1913 and returns in 1929, and her "husband had fallen on bad times" and her son had died, she remains exactly the same according to Toklas, "cheery as ever and enormously interested." The servants who work for Stein and Toklas are also portrayed as interchangeable: "in Italy there was Maddalena quite as important in Italy as Hélène in Paris."

Central to Stein's discussion of national identity in The Autobiography is her ability to identify nationalities by the presence of their specific national aesthetic. For Stein, nationality necessarily determines the aesthetics of any country, not just her own. For example, she explains that cubism developed "naturally" in Spain because the Spanish "realise abstraction." For Stein, "their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction. And so cubism is spanish." Alice explains that "we were very much struck, the first time Gertrude Stein and I went to Spain, which was a year or so after the beginning of cubism, to see how naturally cubism was made in Spain." In The Autobiography, Stein emphasizes that not only cubism, but also the entire modernist movement and the techniques of modern warfare developed simultaneously. Thus, art and war do not stand in opposition to each other in the text; rather, aesthetics and national interests intersect. In one scene, Alice directly correlates the development of cubism with "the principle of the camouflage of the guns and the ships in the war". As Toklas, Stein, and Picasso walk in Paris one night during the war,

all of a sudden down the street came some big cannon, the first any of us had seen painted, that is camouflaged. Pablo stopped, he was spell-bound. C'est nous qui avons fait ça, he said, it is we that have created that, he said. And he was right, he had. From Cézanne through him they had come to that.

Picasso, seemingly unfazed by military presence in Paris, is "spell-bound" by seeing the reflection of his own work on military weapons. However, when Picasso exclaims "we … have created that," he highlights an affinity between his art and the war going on around him. With her emphasis on the influence that cubism has had on French camouflage, Alice too makes a clear connection between modernist aesthetics and modern warfare. However, Picasso seems to go one step further when he exclaims, "it is we that have created that," at some level taking responsibility for the cannons that are moving through Paris.

In The Autobiography Stein does more than present an analogous relationship between art and war; she claims that war is a "natural" and "effective" aesthetic. The aesthetic form consistently takes precedence for Stein: "she says a landscape is such a natural arrangement for a battle-field", and the "very tall blond good-looking [German] young men who clicked their heels and bowed and then all evening stood solemnly at attention" at the Saturday evenings "made a very effective background to the rest of the crowd." Stein's reference to landscape in connection with war here is not an arbitrary one. As her work in Geography and Plays and her St. Rémy poems demonstrate, landscape was a crucial part of her thinking at this time. In fact, as she and Toklas approach the battlefield at the front for the first time, war becomes landscape:

we came to the battle-fields and the lines of trenches of both sides. To any one who did not see it as it was then it is impossible to imagine it. It was not terrifying it was strange. We were used to ruined houses and even ruined towns but this was different. It was a landscape. And it belonged to no country.

I remember hearing a french nurse once say and the only thing she did say of the front was … [it is] an absorbing landscape. And that was what it was as we saw it.

The strangeness Stein locates in this "landscape" is not a result of the aesthetic qualities of the front, but the fact that this battlefield is a no-man'sland. In the midst of the actual war at the front, Stein notes that one loses any ability to distinguish between nationalities: "it was wet and dark and there were a few people, one did not know whether they were chinamen or europeans."

Thus, the battlefield here loses any sign of nationality when it becomes "landscape"—"it belonged to no country." However, for Stein, how each nationality interprets the land as landscape demonstrates the essential and "inevitable" differences between nationalities. She says:

Another thing that interested us enormously was how different the camouflage of the french looked from the camouflage of the germans, and then once we came across some very very neat camouflage and it was american. The idea was the same but as after all it was different nationalities who did it the difference was inevitable. The colour schemes were different, the designs were different, the way of placing them was different, it made plain the whole theory of art and its inevitability.

While Stein's discovery of the difference between French, German, and American camouflage supports what she sees as the "inevitable" differences between people from different nations, the camouflage tells her even more about the "inevitable" role that aesthetics play in transmitting nationality. Moreover, the passage above reflects that for Stein, nations engender a specific aesthetic, one so essential to their beings that they carry it within them into the quite unabstract realm of warfare.

At the same time that Stein's attribution of a distinctive aesthetic to each nation reconfirms the connection between where one comes from and how one perceives the land around him or her, nationality also plays an important role here in destabilizing the bond between who one is and where one comes from. While nature remains constant and neutral here, each nationality perceives this same piece of the battlefield in a very different way. Thus, there is no essential connection between the way the land looks and the fact that it belongs to a certain country. Rather, the French countryside can be interpreted as French, German, or American, depending on how each culture constructs it. Thus, each nationality is able to imagine itself as part of the same landscape. Although Stein certainly posits that each nation is present in the style of its camouflage, what seems even more striking are the ways in which the camouflage on the battlefield underscores Stein's idea that nationality is a matter of absence, not presence. French, Germans, and Americans express the "inevitable" differences between their national identities by creating a pattern they believe will make them invisible in the landscape they occupy. That is, each different camouflage reflects each nationality's perception of how the landscape would look without its own soldiers in it.

Significantly, Stein concludes her chapter in The Autobiography on the early years of the modernist art movement in Paris (1903-07) with an anecdote that underscores the direct connection she makes between aesthetics and nationality. At the close of chapter 3, Alice relates that after Stein's manuscript of Three Lives was finally accepted by the Grafton Press in America, the editors dispatched a representative to Stein's Paris apartment. The young man's questions about Stein's aesthetics were directly connected to her national identity: "You see, he said slightly hesitant, the director of the Grafton Press is under the impression that perhaps your knowledge of english. But I am an american, said Gertrude Stein indignantly. Yes yes I understand that perfectly now." Stein's response here, "but I am an american," is presented as all that needs to be said in order to dismiss the "foreign" quality of her writing. For Stein, her aesthetics and her national identity are inextricably bound up together. That is, she writes the way she does precisely because she is an American.

But by 1932, after years of rejected manuscripts, Stein understood that she needed more than her own insistence to become a best-selling American author. Thus, The Autobiography represents Stein's careful negotiation of the liminal border between public and private spheres. Stein faced a dilemma: how could she, a Jew, a lesbian, publish a private "love letter" to Alice as a best-selling book in America? After all, the reception of Stein's work was plagued by accusations that she was an illegitimate "alien" whose experimental aesthetics called into question her claims to American citizenship.

In fact, Stein's most recent attempt in her 10-year effort to publish in the Atlantic Monthly was met in January 1932 with an exasperated response from the magazine's editor, Ellery Sedgwick, who not only refused to publish the piece but dismissed Stein's work with the explanation: "we live in different worlds" (qtd. in Gallup 125). Not a year later, after reading the manuscript of The Autobiography, Sedgwick said that he would gladly publish excerpts of her book in the Atlantic Monthly because, he said, this "delightful book" fulfilled his "constant hope that the time would come when the real Miss Stein would pierce the smoke-screen with which she has always so mischievously surrounded herself". This is, however, a very carefully orchestrated revelation. Stein uses The Autobiography to present a framed self-portrait of "the real Miss Stein," an important and accomplished American writer to be taken seriously. In The Autobiography Stein worked against her popular image as an "exotic expatriate or aesthetic hybrid" by presenting herself as a writer who works in legitimate genres, for whom there is "only one language and that is english." Alice observes objectively that "it has always been rather ridiculous that she who is good friends with all the world and can know them and they can know her, has always been the admired of the precious." As part of her careful orchestration, through Toklas, Stein attempts to debunk the idea that her salon was comprised of an exclusive crowd of elite artists: "really everybody could come in … there was no social privilege attached to knowing any one there …". Alice is very clear on what Stein wants to accomplish with The Autobiography: "Gertrude Stein wants readers not collectors… she wants her books read not owned." Stein frames herself in The Autobiography as a woman of the people, a straightforward and indispensable American writer who deserves more serious attention from the American reading public.

The reviews of The Autobiography demonstrate that the book successfully provided an insider's look at the modernist movement while at the same time combating Stein's image in America as an incomprehensible aesthete. James Agee's cover story on Stein in Time magazine emphasized the role that The Autobiography played in lifting the "self-induced fog" that had previously shrouded her. Supporting Alice's claim that Stein was puzzled over her status among "the precious," Agee concluded that "there is nothing precious or arty about her." Reviewing the book for the Nation, William Troy explained that after reading The Autobiography, readers would be left with the sense that "Gertrude Stein is not nearly so isolated and eccentric a figure in American letters as is so often believed." Rather, reviewers agreed with Stein that her work was accessible, readable, entertaining, and most importantly, not exclusively for an elite readership.

However, at the same time that The Autobiography marks Stein's success at gaining popular attention, the reason she repeatedly referred to this text as a "joke" remains clear here. Ironically, it is both Stein's revelation of the "real Miss Stein" in The Autobiography—the simple, thoroughly American author—and her access to the inner sanctum of the elite circles of high modernism that enable her to sell the story of her coupling with Alice to an American audience. That is, in order to sell The Autobiography Stein crafts a "new" national identity for herself in this text through the dissociation from her image as a continental aesthete. In The Autobiography Stein at once ventriloquizes Alice's voice and a national voice, that of the plain-spoken American. With her adoption of a distinctly American aesthetic for her writing in The Autobiography and the success she achieved as a result, Stein demonstrates that nationality is an aesthetic that can be adopted. Moreover, Stein's "completely and entirely" American voice underscores that national identity is an effect of narrative, an idea implicit in both her essentialized and destabilized depictions of nationality throughout The Autobiography.


Phoebe Stein Davis, "Subjectivity and the Aesthetics of National Identity in Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 18-45.

Lawrence Raab

In the following essay, Raab identifies Stein's adoption of early twentieth century art techniques in her presentation of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Like a good detective story the end of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas gives up one final secret:

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.

Of course the secret has always been in the title. But is this engaging paradox only a trick, a joke, a charming pretense? We all know that the best detective stories are concerned with more than the solution of the crime. Where does Gertrude Stein's "solution" lead us? Why has she chosen to disguise herself in the voice of her companion, Alice B. Toklas?

Twice in the Autobiography Gertrude Stein recalls her chiding of Hemingway. "Hemingway," she had said, "remarks are not literature." Yet the Autobiography looks curiously like a series of remarks, remarks about friends, the fading of friendships, about painters and their work and their wives, good exhibitions, good dinners, good conversations, remarks about the war, about soldiers, about driving a Ford, about art, about literature, remarks about the fact that remarks are not literature. We could say that the Autobiography takes the remark as one of its tactics, even as one of its disguises, as it has assumed through its voice the disguise of the autobiography. But can remarks become literature?

The Autobiography is usually considered Gertrude Stein's most likable, most accessible book—simply a story of "how two americans happened to be in the heart of an art movement of which the outside world at that time knew nothing." At first it seems altogether different from her "difficult" work, her concern with what she called "the value of the individual word." Yet the Autobiography's apparent simplicity may be deceptive and also a kind of disguise. "I like a thing simple," she said, "but it must be simple through complication." And perhaps her enigmatic work—a book like Tender Buttons—may not be as forbidding as the reader initially suspects. "Complicate your life as much as you please," William James had told her, "it has got to simplify." Literature also might attain genuine simplicity and clarity through complication.

The Autobiography made Gertrude Stein famous, but fragments from other writings—her famous sentence "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" for example—made her notorious. When she visited America on her lecture tour reporters were surprised to find that she spoke plain English and they could understand what she had to say. Why don't you write the way you talk? she was asked. To which she replied: Why don't you read the way I write?

What seems confused and obscure might actually be quite clear if only one could read it the way it was written, the way it continues to ask to be read. But a reader too often assumes, without thinking, that he knows how a book wants itself to be read—just as everything he knows has always been read: novel, newspaper, poem, billboard. If a book seems impenetrable he suspects that some special knowledge must be acquired. The book then becomes a complicated puzzle. Keys must be found before it can be unlocked, deciphered and decoded, clarified and finally reduced to the level of billboard and newspaper: the message, the news, the meaning, comfortable, reassuring and understandable at last. "I never was interested in cross word puzzles or any kind of puzzles," Gertrude Stein writes in Everybody's Autobiography,"but I do like detective stories. I never try to guess who has done the crime and if I did I would be sure to guess wrong but I like somebody being dead and how it moves along." How it moves along might be more than the pleasure of the surface. It might be more significant than what the book pretends to be about or seems to mean. How it moves might be what it means.

"Other people's words are quite different from one's own …" This was one of the discoveries Gertrude Stein made when, as a joke, she began to write the book it seemed Alice would never get around to writing. "I had done what I saw, what you do in translation or in narrative. I had created the point of view of somebody else. Therefore the words ran with a certain smoothness." What began as a joke became a tour de force. And the way it moved, the way Alice's voice carried it along, gave the book a shape and control it needed to become more than a tour de force. But there were other reasons for making Alice the speaker. There was the problem of time.

In 1946 Gertrude Stein spoke of the making of the Autobiography in an interview with Robert Haas: "You have as a person writing, and all the really great narration has it, you have to denude yourself of time so that writing time does not exist. If time exists your writing is ephemeral. You can have a historical time but for you the time does not exist and if you are writing about the present the time element must cease to exist. I did it unconsciously in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. … There should not be a sense of time but an existence suspended in time."

"When she visited America on her lecture tour reporters were surprised to find that she spoke plain English and they could understand what she had to say. Why don't you write the way you talk? she was asked. To which she replied: Why don't you read the way I write?"

The problem of the Autobiography was the creation of such an existence suspended in time, the invention of a real historical past which would, nevertheless, subvert the pressures of "the time element." Otherwise the work would become ephemeral, and pass away, like those paintings that disappeared into the wall so that Gertrude Stein could no longer see them. To write and to remember at the same time was simply impossible, because this could not produce genuine works of art. "If you remember while you are writing it will seem clear at the time to any one but the clarity will go out of it that is what a master-piece is not." For Gertrude Stein art had to be an expression of "the complete actual present." Her own past would have to be fashioned into a created present, complete and actual within the demands of her book. "Because if you remember yourself while you are you you are not for purposes of creating you." Writing while remembering she would have become her own audience, her own connoisseur. But the artist has no identity "while you are you" for the purpose of creating the identity of the work. She might have remembered Keats, who wrote of the poetical Character that "it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character … no identity …"

"The thing one gradually comes to find out," she wrote in the essay "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them," "is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything." Identity and memory become the materials of the composition, and the composition establishes its own time and its own particular shape. As Picasso had said to her: "I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself." "I sell myself nothing," Picasso had said. Gertrude Stein would not and could not sell herself her own past. She could not write her own autobiography. But someone else could write it. This was the solution: the creation of a figure of herself, the voice of a double to narrate her past. Through that narration and through the precise composition of that voice, the past might be redeemed and the life of memory re-created within the "actual moment" of the speaking voice of Alice B. Toklas.

An autobiography was not unlike a mystery story in which the detective was also the victim. Just as the past was dead so the victim also had been murdered before the story had begun. And this "victim," being also the detective, could hardly preside over the investigation of her own murder. But if Alice spoke the book then Gertrude Stein could, as she would have to, give up her identity in the creation of the identity of the voice of her book. The mystery of the past could be solved. The book could find its way of moving along. "You see," she said in 1935 in a lecture at the University of Chicago, "that is why making it the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made it do something, it made it be a recognition by never before that writing having it be existing. It is a natural thing to do if writing is to be writing, but after all it ought to be done as history as a mystery story. I am certain so certain so more than certain that it ought to be able to be done."

What Gertrude Stein was attempting—the creation of "existence suspended in time," the creation of masterpiece—was happening at the beginning of the twentieth century in the first Cubist experiments. Of these paintings she wrote: "Picasso in his early cubist pictures used printed letters as did Juan Gris to force the painted surface to measure up to something rigid, and the rigid thing was the printed letter." The Autobiography itself uses this tactic. Because of the impossibility of being the narrator of her own past, another element had to be added. That addition—the double, the invented voice of Gertrude-as-Alice—would function as "something rigid" and would force the past to assume shape and coherence and value. That addition would serve as a controlling force of stability, giving the composition of the book a defense against the ephemeral, allowing it to become a shape in space. This "printed letter" would be the presence and voice of Alice B. Toklas. The painted surface would be the presence and life of Gertrude Stein.

She would write the story "as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe," and in doing this she would not only blur autobiography into biography, she would allow both categories to dissolve into a narrative that would carry some of the demands and privileges of fiction. Forty-five years after the publication of the Autobiography we are familiar with works that call themselves "A Fictional Memoir" or "The Novel As History" or "The Nonfiction Novel": Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. We have become accustomed to hearing, over and over, about the breaking up and confusion of formal structures, categories and definitions. We have also become more accustomed to, though generally no less comfortable with, the thought that a work of art may finally be a medium leading us to a discovery of itself as itself, as a shape in space that may not be primarily reflective of (and indeed may not be at all reflective of) those aspects of the "real world" it may seem to contain. Art may move away from a pointing out at what lies around it. Art may not really be about what it seems to be about, but concerned instead with the way it uses the material of the world around it: what it does as itself, the shape it makes of itself, the medium that it is by itself, the way it moves along. In this effort the apparent function of language—to show, to gesture, to point out: Look at that, Remember that—is called into question, as if the reality of literature did not lie in how closely it could approximate the world from which it had drawn its signs and symbols. A world inhabited by the painting of the door that seemed so real you were almost tempted to try to open it. And the painting of the fruit, so clearly glistening with dew, so freshly picked it made you hungry: it made you want what it could only pretend to be.

And so it began with paintings. Gertrude Stein learned from Cezanne, at first, what could be done with words. Each part of the painting was essential, each gesture, each mark: "It was not solely the realism of the characters but the realism of the composition which was the important thing, the realism of the composition of my thoughts." It would not even be necessary to make the people seem real, or to make the fruit appear ripe and delicious. The fruit was no more essential to the composition than the leg of the table, or the curve of the cloth, or that dark vertical line that does not seem to be a part of any window or chair or table.

"In writing about painting," she says in "What Are Masterpieces," "I said that a picture exists for and in itself and the painter has to use objects, landscapes and people as a way the only way that he is able to get the picture to exist." Similarly, literature uses objects, landscapes and people to talk itself into existence. The still life by Cezanne is not really about a bowl of fruit. That bowl, and that fruit, and the table and the cloth and the wall behind them all provide something rigid that might contain the painted surface. Then the composition of that surface might make its own demands. It could call upon itself. Language also might become a calling upon itself.

Bees in a garden make a specialty of honey and so does honey. Honey and prayer. Honey and there. There where the grass can grow nearly four times yearly.

(from "Cezanne")

And how it moves along might become what it has to say. The name could be the sign of itself. The sentence could be like the stroke of the brush—self-existing but continuous. From the second of her four Chicago lectures:

Poetry and prose. I came to the conclusion that poetry was a calling an intensive calling upon the name of anything and that prose was not the using the name of anything as a thing in itself but the creating of sentences that were self-existing and following one after the other made of anything a continuous thing which is paragraphing and so a narrative that is a narrative of anything. That is what a narrative is of course one thing following any other thing.

The narrative could be the story of its own sentences, words that would run "with a certain smoothness," one thing—any thing—following another. The eye would move over words as over paint. The picture by Cezanne will appear now as a bowl of apples, now as a woman, now as a distant blue mountain. Moving closer, woman, fruit and mountain all disappear, and the strokes of the brush reveal themselves. The paint itself reveals itself. Perhaps that is what we were looking at all the time. And looking from a distance long and often and hard enough the same thing happens. The picture, perhaps reluctantly at first, comes into its own separate life.

"When a form is realized," Picasso said, "it is there to live its own life." But words, for Gertrude Stein, had not yet come into their own life. "I felt that the thing I got from Cezanne was not the last composition," she told Robert Haas. "You had to recognize words had lost their value in the nineteenth century particularly towards the end, they had lost much of their variety and I felt that I could not go on, that I had to capture the value of the individual word, find out what it meant and act within it…" This endeavor would lead her to create her most difficult work, work which, toward the end of the Autobiography, is described as "the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose." In 1914 she published a small book entitled Tender Buttons. It begins with three sentences entitled "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass":

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

The pieces in this book form "an arrangement in a system to pointing," but the words do not gesture away from themselves. They point at themselves and at each other: words as things, as objects on the page, as individual presences. From "Rooms," the last section of the book:

The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.

Anything could be asparagus, or fountain. Artichoke or salad dressing, apple, cup, table, elephant, a shawl which is hat, which is hurt or a red balloon, which is a wedding or a shawl. Anything could appear in the system of the sentence: "Cocoa and clear soup and oranges and oat-meal." Words would slide into each other, yielding up parts of themselves to each other, becoming each other, spreading into difference, into sameness, and back again into what that individual word might do or be when it could live as itself by itself.

Sugar any sugar, anger every anger, lover sermon lover, centre no distractor, all order is in a measure.

Any word repeated often enough will certainly lose its meaning, if only for a moment. But could that be "the value of the individual word," or only a musical drone in a mind that had begun to lose hold of the word altogether? Could words be stripped of their associational emotions by urging them toward the condition of song? By fragmenting and twisting grammar? By ordering a sentence so that even articles and prepositions would seem to take on the color and value of nouns and verbs? Finally it was impossible: the meaning, the associational emotion, could not be destroyed. It could be baffled but not annihilated. Unlike the paint that became apple and mountain, or within both simply shapes on the flat inflexible surface of the canvas, words clung to their meanings. And the mind of the listener also clung to meaning. She told Haas:

I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word and at the same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense. It is impossible to put them together without sense. I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible. Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.

Gertrude Stein's most difficult work is sometimes thought to be a magnificent failure: an adventure on the furthest edge of language that was bound to fail. No one could destroy "associational emotion in poetry and prose." But Gertrude Stein is not always well-served by the explanations, justifications and extraordinary claims she makes, again and again, for her own work. Perhaps it is unfortunate that most readers will come to her writing with some sense, however murky, of what she had to say about what she had done. So the work too easily becomes an illustration of the theory, something to be placed in context, made sense of, figured out, explained, justified. "I was creating in my writing by simply looking," she says in her lecture "Portraits and Repetition." But because of all those writings and lectures it has been difficult simply to look at what she has written: the weight, volume and painterly value of those words and sentences—to look simply, and to listen, and to be ready only to hear. One sentence from A Long Gay Book:

Please the spoons, the ones that are silver and have sugar and do not make mischief later, do not ever say more than listening can explain.

Listening can explain: this is a more helpful key to her work, and to that particular sentence, than the cloudy, hovering notion of the destruction of associational emotion. In fact she does not destroy emotion, or sense, and indeed the sentences themselves do not really attempt such a destruction. Instead, sense and emotion, and images and meanings, are fragmented and displaced. A sentence will slide in and then out of what "seems" to make sense. An image will appear and then disappear, will assert itself and then suddenly dismantle itself, as the eye moves along the play of the surface which, like a pane of water, breaks now into circles and now into its original calm. But more than listening can explain can become less than what listening might mean.

Looking for "sense" we are baffled, because we are looking for what we have been accustomed to find. We expect to hear what we have always heard in a series of sentences. We are not listening. And we are not listening to what listening can explain. Perhaps, we think, we do not have the words—the right "critical vocabulary"—to make this encounter "meaningful," to put it in its place, to explain it and so feel comfortable and so, finally, not feel threatened. Gertrude Stein's work does threaten us, and it means to. But the threat is a tactic and the tactic, properly attended to, listened to and heard, becomes a pleasure, a joy, language at play, delighting in itself.

A reason is that a curly house an ordinary curly house is exactly that, it is exactly more than that, it is so exactly no more than more than that.

(from Geography and Plays)

Everything means what it means, sometimes less and sometimes more. Everything is exactly that, and sometimes more, and sometimes no more. Literature, finally, tells us how to read itself. If we listen carefully enough it tells us exactly how to read, how quickly, how slowly, how carefully. It makes its demands, particular and special. It teaches us about itself as it goes about the work and the pleasure of becoming itself.

So the eye is drawn into a painting and if we are not in a hurry and do not feel anxious to deliver the painting into the explanation of the painting, weight and volume and value, shape and line will guide the eye, and the picture begins to reveal itself. In Picasso's Architect's Table of 1912, a picture once owned by Gertrude Stein, we see the letters that become MA JOLIE, the curves that could represent a cup in a saucer, the curl that might be part of a violin, the tilted words in the lower corner that say "Gertrude Stein." But this is not a table that stands in a room inside a frame. Not a table covered by a cloth set against a wall beneath a window. The picture is the table. And for all the hints of actual things, no object including that table is allowed to emerge in its entirety. A momentarily recognizable shape merges into another shape that presents no "meaning" other than the shape that it is. We do not confront a table with objects. We confront, immediately and directly, the surface of a painting. No illusion. As soon as our gaze touches it the painting insists upon revealing itself as a painting. No more than that, no more than more than that.

The best way to read Gertrude Stein is to read her, no more than that. But this is not always possible: we know too much; we think we know too much, or too little; we are anxious, afraid of being bored or confused; we are accustomed to reading as if the surface of language should be seen through rather than simply seen. We are used to experiencing books as pleasant deceptions, in which that plane of words pretends to give way and vanish into what it is "about," as if style were no more than a frail and dispensable container, and the true magical substance lay inside. Gertrude Stein's work is difficult because it denies this assumption. It asks us to read in a way that we may never have read before. And as it makes this demand it reveals a way of reading that otherwise might not have been available to us. By instructing us in itself it teaches us about language and composition: about any book. The Architect's Table is, initially, a more "difficult" painting to see than Cezanne's Still-life with Apples and Oranges. But if we can see the Picasso perhaps we can see the Cezanne more clearly.

We may find that it is more profitable to avoid, for a while, Gertrude Stein's explanations of her work and approach her through a picture like The Architect's Table, as Stein herself made her discoveries through Cezanne. The references in Cubist paintings—the letters, lines, edges and circles that stand for but do not become newspaper headlines, violins, eyes and bottles are points of reference, mementoes and memories of shapes that seem immediately recognizable, and are, but lead us finally to a way of looking at and not through that surface. Our inevitable initial struggle to make "sense" of a curly house or a blind glass might encourage us to consider the significance of that struggle. Then we might conclude: let the house be curly and the glass blind. In the painting the brown shape next to the saucer will not turn into anything recognizable, and yet it remains part of the painting and it functions in terms of the whole: it does something, and both shape and saucer, finally, work in the same way. So do the house and the glass, curly and blind, when we hear them as they are. The sense remains. In fact our apprehension of what those words mean is not lost but heightened, because of the strangeness of the composition. A blind man with curly hair? A glass on a table in a house? Now the words retreat into the ordinary, like: blue sky, white snow, red apple. "How often," Picasso said, "haven't I found that, wanting to use a blue, I didn't have it. So I used a red instead." Red sky, blue snow, white apple.

It is not particularly helpful to label Gertrude Stein a "Cubist writer," just as it doesn't help The Architect's Table to look at it and think, "A Cubist painting." Fortunately there are no "Manifestoes of Cubism." The painting appears relatively free of critical interference, at least on the part of its creator. However, a sense of what happens in the great works of Cubism is invaluable to hearing the sentences of Gertrude Stein. "The metaphorical model of Cubism is the diagram," John Berger writes in his fine essay "The Moment of Cubism," "the diagram being a visible, symbolic representation of invisible processes, forces, structures. A diagram need not eschew certain aspects of appearances: but these too will be treated symbolically as signs, not as imitations or re-creations." Berger concludes:

The Cubists created the possibility of art revealing processes instead of static entities. The content of their art consists of various modes of interaction: the interaction between different aspects of the same event, between empty space and filled space, between structure and movement, between the seer and the thing seen.

Rather than ask of a Cubist picture: Is it true? or: Is it sincere? one should ask: Does it continue?

The content of Gertrude Stein's art also consists of various "modes of interaction": between different aspects of the same word, between apparent sense and obscurity, between silence and repetition, stillness and movement, between the listener and the thing heard. Rather than ask: What does it mean? or: Does it make sense? we should ask: How does it move?

Early in the Autobiography Gertrude-as-Alice says: "Sentences not only words but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein's life long passion." The sentence is like the brush stroke. So many sentences form a narrative, so many brush strokes reveal an image. Our gaze resettles on the surface of the painting, and similarly on the shape of the sentence, whether we are baffled by curly houses and blind glass or charmed by a deceptively simple speaking voice:

I myself have had no liking for violence and have always enjoyed the pleasures of needlework and gardening. I am fond of paintings, furniture, tapestry, houses and flowers and even vegetables and fruit-trees. I like a view but I like to sit with my back to it.

So Alice B. Toklas begins the Autobiography, in a tone not unlike a response to some tedious questionnaire: Tell a little about yourself—for example your likes and dislikes. Objects, landscapes and people—these, at first, are what can be most easily seen. They are, like the apples in the painting by Cezanne, an invitation to move further into the surface. The surface of the Autobiography is clear but complicated, and the clarity is in the complication. Just as any object or landscape could be the subject of a painting, any remark could also be the material for the sentence that could become literature. It is only necessary to read a biography of Gertrude Stein in which one encounters the same stories and gossip to see that her book is concerned with more than the recitation of amusing anecdotes. While the stories entertain, the sounds of her sentences sink into our minds.

We can approach the difficult writing of Gertrude Stein through the Cubist paintings of Picasso or Juan Gris. We can also move closer to a book like Tender Buttons by an attention to what is really happening within those smooth precise sentences of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: the shape they make of themselves, the way they move. "I once said that nothing could bother me more than the way a thing goes dead once it has been said." The memories, anecdotes and remarks that make up the most visible surface of the Autobiography do not go dead once they have been said. What she called "the realism of the composition" is revealed through "the realism of the characters." The individual life of "the word" exists both in and beside its attachment to the object it is called upon to embody.

"It is very hard to save the sentence," she writes in How to Write. All of her books take up this challenge—nothing less than "words doing as they want to do and as they have to do when they live where they have to live." The book of sentences called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is clearly part of that attempt.

The last page of the first edition contains a photograph of the first page of the manuscript. Begin again. And the cover bears her emblematic sentence: "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," endlessly repeating itself in a circle. "One writes for oneself and strangers," she said. Beginning over and ending with its own conception and beginning over again the book hands itself back to those strangers, back to us. "And she has and this is it." The life of language is its delight in itself. Each word says: This is it. Pigeons on the grass, sugar in the silver spoons. And for the first time in a hundred years the rose is red. Exactly that. No more than more than that.


Lawrence Raab, "Remarks as Literature: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Fall 1978, pp. 480-93.


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 studio-apartment.

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.

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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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