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Thursday, July 31st, 2003


The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein

27 rue de Fleurus

A review by Edmund Wilson

Editor's Note: Edmund Wilson's review of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was originally published in The New Republic on October 11, 1933.

Gertrude Stein has written her memoirs. But she has attributed them to her friend and companion of twenty-five years, Alice B. Toklas; and her book is thus something a little different from the ordinary book of memoirs. It is Gertrude Stein's imaginative projection of how she and her life and her circle look to Alice B. Toklas. Miss Toklas is presented as the enthusiastic admirer and the obedient shadow of Miss Stein; she turns toward her as the sunflower toward the sun. Yet Miss Toklas's personality is by no means indistinguishable from Miss Stein's: Miss Stein has created her as an individual. And thus The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has something of the character and charm of a novel — a novel of which the subject is the life which Miss Stein and Miss Toklas have made together in Paris, the salon over which they have presided, the whole complex of ideas and events of which they became the center: a social-artistic-intellectual organism.

It is an instructive and most entertaining book. The chapters which deal with the period before the War are perhaps the most interesting part: here she tells about her discovery of Picasso and Matisse, what they were like in their early phases, the gradual taking-shape as a movement of the tendencies of isolated artists, the development of her own literary methods. There is a good deal of wisdom about art and artists, literature and writers: "As Picasso once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don't have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it." All this part of the book has the excitement of artistic adventure, which Gertrude Stein skillfully points up by making Alice B. Toklas come into the Stein world from the outside without knowing at first what it is all about. These chapters, with their stories of Matisse's insulted portrait, Gertrude Stein's posing for Picasso, Braque's assault on the picture expert and the dinner for the douanier Rousseau, are moving in their quiet understatement. It was what Jean Cocteau called "the heroic age," and Miss Stein's account of it evokes a nostalgia for the days when the independent shows and the little magazines were matters of prime importance, when everybody was serious about art and it was possible for American spinsters in Paris to coöperate with perfect understanding with revolutionary painters and poets. At the banquet for the douanier Rousseau, Marie Laurencin "sang in a thin voice some charming old Norman songs"; Rousseau "blissful and gentle played the violin" and talked about his memories of Mexico; and Guillaume Apollinaire invited Miss Toklas and Miss Stein "to sing some of the native songs of the red indians." André Salmon got drunk and chewed up Miss Toklas's new hat; but she did not resent it long, as he "woke up very charming and very polite" and it was all by way of homage to the douanier Rousseau.

The high heart of this period, however, was shaken by the death of Apollinaire in the War; the movement had collided with historical events. The later chapters of the book are less moving. The painters have all arrived; the writers are all arriving. Everybody, as Gertrude Stein intimates, was bent on his own career. Miss Stein and Miss Toklas become more waspish. "Gertrude Stein liked him [Ezra Pound] but did not find him amusing. She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." "There was also Glenway Wescott but Glenway Wescott at no time interested Gertrude Stein. He has a certain syrup but it does not pour." And they are pretty hard on Hemingway:

Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson are very funny on the subject of Hemingway. The last time that Sherwood was in Paris they often talked about him. Hemingway had been formed by the two of them and they were both a little proud and a little ashamed of the work of their minds.... And then they both agreed that they have a weakness for Hemingway because he is a good pupil. He is a rotten pupil, I protested. You don't understand, they both said, it is so flattering to have a pupil who does it without understanding it, in other words he takes training and anybody who takes training is a favorite pupil. They both admit it to be a weakness. Gertrude Stein added further, you see he is like Derain. You remember Monsieur de Tuille said, when I did not understand why Derain was having the success he was having that it was because he looks like a modern and smells of the museums. And that is Hemingway, he looks like a modern and smells of the museums.

It is indeed true that, as one reads this book, one is more forcibly struck than ever by Hemingway's debt to Gertrude Stein. Such passages as the following suggest that he has been influenced by her conversational as well as by her literary style (I hardly dare suggest that Gertrude Stein's literary style may in its turn have been affected by the conversations of Hemingway's characters):

It was about this time that the futurists, the Italian futurists, had their big show in Paris and it made a great deal of noise. Everybody was excited and this show being given in a very well known gallery everybody went. Jacques-Emile Blanche was terribly upset by it. We found him wandering tremblingly in the garden of the Tuileries and he said, it looks alright but is it. No it isn't, said Gertrude Stein. You do me good, said Jacques-Emile Blanche.


He and I always say that he and I will be the last people of our generation to remember the war. I am afraid we both of us have already forgotten it a little. Only the other day though Elmer announced that he had had a great triumph, he had made Captain Peter and Captain Peter is a breton admit that it was a nice war. Up to this time when he had said to Captain Peter, it was a nice war, Captain Peter had not answered, but this time when Elmer said, it was a nice war, Captain Peter said, yes Elmer, it was a nice war.

Yet one feels that Miss Stein, in her criticisms of certain of her friends and disciples, as expressed at any rate in this book, is affected by two considerations which tend to bias her judgment. In the first place, she is the ruler of a salon: there is something of Mme Verdurin about her. You get the impression that when her protégés go elsewhere or cease to need her, she can no longer believe in them quite so strongly. She seems, for example, to hint that the virtue began to pass out of Matisse as soon as he became popular and prosperous and, leaving Paris, ceased to come to her dinners. And she is also herself a writer who has had a very hard time to get published and who has never yet had the recognition to which she considers herself entitled. Her only references to Joyce in this book are (1) that he was supposed to have been brought to see her but never came and (2) a derogatory remark by Picasso about Joyce's work. Herself Miss Stein describes as "in english literature in her time ... the only one." Success in itself seems to imply to her some imposture of deterioration. Yet it is hard to tell how much deliberate irony there may be in the presentation of all this through the medium of Alice B. Toklas. There is evidently a certain amount of pure mischief in her treatment of Hemingway, as to whom a distinct difference is indicated between Miss Stein's and Miss Toklas's opinions. And it is hardly conceivable that the creator of Miss Furr and Miss Skeene can be insensible to the humors of Miss Toklas and Miss Stein. A cool and pervasive irony has always been one of the characteristics of Gertrude Stein's writing; and there is certainly more artistic impersonality in this book than most of the comments I have heard allow. When you read it, you take away an impression of Miss Stein and Miss Toklas in Paris, not in the least like anything you get from the memoirs, say, of Margot Asquith or of Isadora Duncan, but, rather, like your recollection of one of the households of Jane Austen.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, though not Gertrude Stein's most important book, is likely to prove her most popular. It is the only thing she has published since Three Lives which is from the ordinary point of view easily readable. (She says that she has cut down The Making of Americans to four hundred pages at the request of someone who told her he thought he could find a publisher for it but was never able to make good. Why doesn't Harcourt, Brace or somebody bring it out? All it needed to be readable was compression.) And she explains here — or makes Alice B. Toklas explain — in simpler language than heretofore — what she has been trying to do in the experiments which first disturbed and stimulated the world with the publication of Tender Buttons.

Let us hope that The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, with its wisdom, its distinction and its charm, will have the effect of causing the general public to recognize Gertrude Stein for what she is: one of the most remarkable women of her time and if not "in english literature the only one" at least one of the genuinely original ones. Hitherto, though her influence has always been felt at the sources of literature and art, her direct communications with the public have been extremely blurred and broken, and neither the readers of modern books nor the collectors of modern paintings have realized how much they owe her. When she lectured at Oxford and was asked by her hecklers why she "thought she was right in doing the kind of writing she did," she replied "that it was not a question of what anyone thought but after all she had been doing as she did for about twenty years now and they wanted to hear her lecture. This did not mean of course that they were coming to think that her way was a possible way, it proved nothing, but on the other hand it did possibly indicate something." The interest in the publication of these memoirs from quarters which have scoffed at or ignored her is a tribute of the same kind.

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