|Pablo Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein.|
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
by Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein's famous, epochal literary memoir about her life in Paris before, during and after World War I is another book where I was left asking myself how it was possible that I'd not read it before. Stein existed today as a kind of totemic figure for the early 20th century cultural avant garde/modernism, but I don't believe she is commonly read. I know I've never heard any of her works from the 1001 Books Project: Three Lives, The Making of Americans and this one mentioned either inside a classroom or out.
Coming from the East Bay of the San Francisco area, I was of course familiar with her famous quip about Oakland, that "There's no there, there." Maybe that made people in the Bay Area a little hostile, or maybe it's because her significance is not really addressed by any of her works. Three Lives is very much of the first novels that could be called Modern or Experimental Modernism, The Making of Americans hasn't really held up, and is perhaps a tad long, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a memoir, not a novel, and memoirs aren't typically read in literature classes in high school and college.
That said, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas really wowed me. Gertrude Stein is someone that sociologist Randall Collins would call a "network star" or someone whose connections ensure the survival of her ideas after her death. Although this is putatively an auto-biography of Stein's long time companion and lover, the author's by line and the book itself make it clear that it is in auto-biography of Stein written by Stein from the perspective of Toklas.
Stein was important not only for her writing, but also for her patronage. She was an earlier purchaser of Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Matisse. Her older brother was a partner in these endeavors, and while Stein does go into her child hood and education, including time at Radcliffe and at John Hopkins Medical School, where she was apparently one class from taking her degree. It is unclear where her money comes from, but she is not someone who has to work for a living, and could afford to support herself and buy paintings and such without any source of income.
During the war she had a Ford shipped over and became a driver, as did many Americans based on the number of World War I books written by Americans about their experiences as Ambulance drivers- ee Cummings and Hemingway to name two. The action which takes place post-World War I is a bit of an anti-climax. Hemingway makes a decent appearance, and Stein lives to see herself hailed as a genius at Oxford and Cambridge University- but not by the Atlantic Monthly, who in fine literary memoir form singles out for particular ire.
Fashionable or not, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a must for anyone who thinks they understand 20th century modernism- for both painting, sculpture and literature.