Seeing the Autobiography through “The Autobiography”.

It seems inherent to the genre that an autobiography should be personal. We assume it will open windows into the life of the author, cool breezes of introspection blowing in. However, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has a decidedly large scope. The text drifts amongst the great minds of the twentieth century. In the midst of scenes populated by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway, it becomes easy to forget the work’s autobiographical nature. The air of the chapters may begin to feel stagnant as we search for refreshingly intimate moments between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Upon inspection, we find there are in fact windows of affection through which readers may begin to see the personal in an autobiography that is decidedly and paradoxically distant. These small moments illuminate the autobiography in a lovely light, casting it in such a way that readers may begin to see the autobiography through “The Autobiography”.

Below is a sequence of many of these small intimate moments as they appear in the work. They offer insight into a twenty-five year romance that spanned the profound and the mundane. Gertrude and Alice cried at the first World War, and disagreed on food temperatures. It is these restrained sentences that bring the text domestic warmth. It is these sentences that show Gertrude’s love not only for the elite art scene, but for her partner as well.

  1. Page 102: Alice tears up photographs taken of cathedral towns by the photographer Rönnebeck.

“We thanked him (Rönnebeck) and thought no more about it. Later when during the war I found them, I tore them in a rage.”

  1. Page 112: Alice and Gertrude discuss the differences in the temperature they like their food. One particular evening is discussed in which Alice waits to eat so that she may read the first portrait called Ada in Geography and Plays.

    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927, Photographer unknown via the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers  Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library New Haven.
    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers,
    Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

“Here I want to show you something, she said. No I said it has to be eaten hot. No, she said, you have to see this first. Gertrude Stein never likes her food hot and I do like mine hot, we never agree about this.”

  1. Page 118: Alice and Gertrude attend bullfights in Spain, and while Alice is at first repulsed, Gertrude helps her enjoy the spectacle.

“We went to bullfights. At first they upset me and Gertrude Stein used to tell me, now look, now don’t look, until finally I was able to look all the time.”

  1. Page 138: Alice insists that Gertrude use the device “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

    Wax seal for embossing envelopes reading: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" in a circle around a central rose graphic, Leuchars & Son Geffroy Suode Paris via Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers  Yale Collection of American Literature
    Wax seal for embossing envelopes reading: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in a circle around a central rose graphic, Leuchars & Son Geffroy Suode Paris. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beineke Library.

“Speaking of the device of rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, it was I who found it in one of Gertrude Stein’s manuscripts and insisted upon putting it as a device on the letter paper, on the table linen and anywhere that she would permit that I would put it. I am very pleased with myself for having done so.”

  1. Page 149: Alice and Gertrude weep together as the Germans approach the Paris.

    German soldiers, World War One, September 1914. German Army, via Wikimedia Commons/ public domain.
    German soldiers, World War One, September 1914. Photograph by German Army, Via Wikimedia Commons/ public domain.

“The germans were getting nearer and nearer Paris and the last day Gertrude Stein could not leave her room, she sat and mourned. She loved Paris, she thought neither of manuscripts nor of pictures, she thought only of Paris and she was desolate. I came up to her room, I called out, it is alright Paris is saved, the germans are in retreat. She turned away and said, don’t tell me these things. But it is true, I said, it is true. And then we wept together.”

  1. Page 162: Alice describes waking Gertrude up in the mornings

    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927, Photographer unknown via Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers  Yale Collection of American Literature Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library New Haven.
    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers,Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

“… and I had often to wake her up very early. She and Cook used to write the most lugubrious letters to each other about the unpleasantness of sunrises met suddenly.”

  1. Page 176: Alice and Gertrude become close to Abel, their Godson in the war. However, they both lose track of him, as if losing a relation.

“Some time later he wrote and said that the family were moving into a different department and he gave me his new address. By some error the address did not rich him and we lost him.”

  1. Page 198: It is revealed the Gertrude’s favorite photograph of her is a snapshot taken by Alice.

“One day she told him (Man Ray) that she liked his photographs of her better than any that had ever been taken except one snap shot I had taken of her recently.”

  1. Page 242: Alice becomes Gertrude’s publisher and works to make sure her pieces are in bookstores.

    Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition, photographer unknown via the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature
    Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

“I now myself began to think about publishing the work of Gertrude Stein. I asked her to invent a name for my edition and she laughed and said, call it Plain Edition. And Plain Edition it is.”

  1. Page 252: It is explained that Gertrude is the true author of Alice’s autobiography- the ultimate intimate gesture.

    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in wallpapered room, by Sir Cecil Beaton via the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s London, England
    Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in wallpapered room, by
    Sir Cecil Beaton. Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s,
    London, England.

“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.”

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