The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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by Pericles Lewis

When Gertrude Stein decided to write the story of her life, she did so in the voice of her lover, Alice B. Toklas. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) was written in a more accessible style than much of Stein's other work, which has led to speculations about the role of Toklas herself in its composition.[1] It became a bestseller and seemed to exemplify the incorporation of the pre-war avant-garde into a much broader, and more mainstream, modernism. The Autobiography also became a publishing phenomenon, and (with Toklas in tow), Stein toured the United States in 1934, lecturing to large audiences.

In one memorable passage, Stein has Toklas describe her first dinner, in 1907, at Stein’s home at 27, Rue de Fleurus, Paris, where the walls were covered with paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso, then mostly unknown to Americans from San Francisco like Toklas. Seated next to Picasso, who was flustered at having arrived late, Toklas tried to calm him down by murmuring that she liked his painting of Gertrude Stein. The portrait, influenced by Picasso’s fascination with Iberian masks, marked an important stage in his development of cubism. Stein records Picasso’s response to Toklas: “Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will, he said.” In her memoir of Picasso, Stein wrote, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.”[2] Stein’s story about Picasso’s portrait of her encapsulates the mythology of the avant-garde, the French term for a vanguard (the leading troops in a battle), which referred by extension to the most radical innovators in the arts.[3]

  1. Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 209-17.
  2. For a discussion of this episode, see Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 216-42.
  3. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 95, 105.
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