The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies

The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies

by Anna Linzie


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ISBN-13: 9780877459859
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 06/01/2006
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Anna Linzie is a writer, literary scholar, and translator living and working in Sweden.

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The True Story of Alice B. Toklas A Study of Three Autobiographies
By Anna Linzie
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2006 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-985-9

Chapter One Genre/Textuality and Gender/Sexuality in the Toklas Autobiographies

The splice that joins separate elements edge to edge (as in the splicing of film) provided Stein with the means to imag[in]e a union that was simultaneously syntactical and erotic. Although such implicit punning lurks within many of her remarks about syntax, it has not often been noticed that Stein's formulation of modernist technique-for the splice makes possible one kind of juxtaposition-contains a poetics of gender hidden within its apparently formalist concerns. CAROLYN BURKE, "Getting Spliced," 101

The sexual/textual relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas began almost one hundred years ago. Among other things a lesbian marriage, an elaborate organization of public and domestic roles and practices, a strict division of labor, and a joint literary enterprise, this relationship was strong, intense, and enduring, lasting from Toklas's arrival in Paris in 1907 until Stein's death in 1946, and it has been analyzed in many ways over the years. The Stein-Toklas union presents itself to us in texts, images, and historical documents as gratifyingly theatrical, seemingly simple yet deeply enigmatic, open to the probing of curious minds yet irresistibly clandestine. Perhaps partly because of these alluring contradictions, Stein and Toklas have become the unlikely protagonists of popular myth. They are available to us today not only in Stein's entire oeuvre from 1907 onward, Toklas's writings, biographies, and critical works, but also in other media, for instance, famous paintings and portraits, well-known photographs, films, comics, Web sites, and even t-shirts. "Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are legends and icons now. They have achieved that cottony apotheosis of later capitalism, imprinting on a T-shirt" (Stimpson, "Gertrice," 124). These are sites where the Stein-Toklas legend is continually (re)created.

For instance, Gertrude, Alice, "Pabs" (Picasso), and Basket (the poodle) star in Tom Hachtman's comic book Gertrude's Follies, a collection of strips previously featured in the Soho Weekly News. Among many other extremely creative rearticulations of the Stein-Toklas legend, this work contains hot spots such as Stein exclaiming that Toklas is a "genius." This reaction is in response to Toklas's discovery that a copy center makes ironons, and her subsequent suggestion that they make Picasso t-shirts. "I'll bet you could fit a mural on one of mine!" Stein says. And then: "When we're in New York this summer we'll sell 'Guernica' shirts outside the modern! Pussy you're a genius!" (Gertrude's Follies, 1978). Other modern versions of the legend, for instance Truong's Book of Salt, redefine Toklas as the genius of the Stein-Toklas household as well. For the 1934 U.S. lecture tour, which makes Stein so nervous she would not have been able "to worry and to chew her food at the same time," Toklas makes sure that there will be oysters and honeydew melons for Stein to eat at every destination. In other words, she "devise[s] a menu composed of foods that are solid in form ... and yet both courses can be consumed without the pesky need to chew. Miss Toklas is a genius after all" (253).

There is also a Web site, managed by Hans Gallas, which makes the case that "It is time for a new word-gertrudeandalice." The main purpose of the Web site is to "provide a site which recognizes the importance of this almost four-decade long partnership." It is declared that "Much of what Gertrude Stein accomplished could not have been done without Alice B. Toklas. Much of what Alice B. Toklas accomplished could not have been done without Gertrude Stein. Stein has received much deserved recognition and analysis over the years while Toklas has received some, but too little of either" (, accessed 17 November, 2002). Indeed. As I juxtapose works by Stein and Toklas, in defiance of critical convention and high-low literary hierarchies, I align my own study with projects of popular culture such as these. Like Hachtman's comic strip, my study could be seen as "an irreverent look at the life and times of Gertrude Stein and her faithful companion, Alice B. Toklas." Like Gallas's Web site, my engagement with Stein and Toklas posits a certain crucial doubleness or reciprocity that can be articulated as gertrudeandalice-or, in Stein's own words, "Gertrice/Altrude" (see Weiss, 66). In this chapter, I will map out the theoretical framework for my argument, specifically the question of "true stories" in autobiography and the troubled interplay of feminism and deconstruction in my own reading of the Toklas autobiographies as not quite straight in relation to both sexuality and textuality.

Each one of the texts under consideration in the present study can be provisionally described as a Toklas autobiography, an inscription of "the true story of Alice B. Toklas." Autobiography is an essentially hybrid genre, in itself a form of bricolage (Gilmore, Autobiographics, 125). Most critics agree that, as soon as the generic definition of autobiography-"a genre which rests, however unsteadily, on the fiction of Truth to Self" (Broughton, 84)-is invoked, a new dimension of complexity is added to the vexed relations between text and context, primary and secondary text, writer and critic. For instance, it has been claimed that "Autobiography meddles with academic knowledge in its desire for clear and detached understanding" (Robert Smith, 52). Gilmore points out that autobiography "threaten[s] to throw the inquiry off, or the inquirer" ("Anatomy," 224-25) and that it also involves an inescapable authorization complex, as "Critics/scholars of autobiography attempt to authorize their texts with introductions that contextualize their arguments within a comprehensible and already-authorized field of study" (Autobiographics, 125). Laura Marcus adds that the debate on autobiography has a tendency to split into extreme opposites: "Discussion of autobiography has tended to polarise between an impossible demand for representational accuracy or its abandonment in a fictionalist position" (245). Hinting at the same rift in autobiographical criticism, T. L. Broughton points out that "autobiography's theoretically fragile but politically tenacious relationship to 'real life' makes it especially ticklish to both humanist and poststructuralist generalizations" (92). Any engagement with autobiography necessitates critical self-reflection and exploration of the negotiations and decisions that have to be made in order to manage tricky dichotomies such as text/context, word/world, and person/persona. The provisional genre definition of the primary texts analyzed here seems to invite readings that move in a possibly flippant and simplistic way across the slash that separates these binaries.

Autobiography has its roots in the confession, which marks it as a necessarily truth-telling discourse, but, as Gilmore points out, "in telling the truth, autobiographers usually narrate, and thereby shift the emphasis to telling the truth" ("Policing Truth," Autobiography and Postmodernism, 68). Another way of saying the same thing is to define autobiography as the telling of li(v)es. Autobiographical truth and lies in autobiography then turn into aspects of the same impossibility of capturing life discursively. In the following, I shift the emphasis from the (supposedly "external") truth of the story to the story itself, the writing of autobiographical "truth," in the Toklas autobiographies and in commentary and criticism pertaining to them. Even as the subject matter of the present study makes it highly susceptible to the lure of autobiography as a discourse of singular truth, its obnoxious title, "the true story of Alice B. Toklas," is meant both to call upon the expectations for truth that adhere to the genre and to challenge them. This title-indicating both label and critical license or "entitlement"-is to be seen as a challenge, a paradox, and an ironic comment on the expectations and conventions of autobiography and literary critical engagements with autobiography. It will consequently be reformulated as a question in the Conclusion.

It is my conviction that "the true story of Alice B. Toklas," if there is one, resides in the textualization and multiplication or fragmentation of autobiographical truth and in the strategic (de)authorization of the author. These movements must be seen as a departure from the norm, since the concept of truth in autobiography is based on qualities such as unity, coherence, authenticity, and stability, and since, in Gilmore's words, "for both its writers and its critics, autobiography is driven by an authorization complex. Its writers attempt to situate themselves in relation to discourses of 'truth' and 'identity'" (Autobiographies, 124-25). Departures from the protocol, Gilmore says, will be scrutinized and possibly condemned, the perpetrator "deauthorized through [the] policing of ... truth" (Autobiographics, 130). Again, the concept of license indicates the contradictory nature of this positioning. The autobiographical genre may seem to give carte blanche to the autobiographer to write whatever she wants (a form of self-authorization). At the same time, certain transgressions will be recognized as particularly provocative, acts of intolerable license, gestures of impossible excess. As Margot Norris points out in relation to The Autobiography, "The criticism of Stein for having herself called a genius in her memoir reflects a naive critical embrace of both the assumption and the convention of a disavowed egotism as the proper gesture of autobiography that makes little allowance for either generic play or gender play" (80, my emphasis). The enactment of a marriage license in writing can be seen as another "improper gesture" of autobiography in the context of a same-sex sexual/textual union.

This study explores how the concept of autobiography as a referential genre is transformed, and the expected semblance of transparency and truth in autobiography is jeopardized, in relation to several autobiographical texts written about the "same" person, the "same" life, but differently, by different writers, and at different points in time. Generally speaking, the most important effect of several texts telling the "same" story is the destabilization of the conception of an "original" text. As Richard Hardack puts it, "The central subtheme of [The Autobiography] is that posing, imitating, and copying are the primary components of autobiography." Because of this unsettling of conventional hierarchies of primary and secondary, "The copy ... determines the original, not the reverse" (25-26). This turnaround brings to mind the simulacrum at the heart of postmodern theory, in Fredric Jameson's words the "identical copy for which no original has never existed" (quoted in Hilti, 37). The Autobiography, as the "first" Toklas autobiography chronologically speaking, may appear to be the original text upon which the Cook Book and What Is Remembered follow. Since The Autobiography can be seen as Stein's "imitation" of Toklas's conversational style, however, a copy rather than an original, and the two subsequent autobiographies presumably represent Toklas herself speaking (speaking her self), the question of originality turns into a critical impasse.

Moreover, The Autobiography is not the "first" Toklas autobiography in an absolute sense, since "Ada" preceded it. There is also the companion or shadow autobiography, Stanzas in Meditation, which puts in question which text is the authoritative version of the story. Similarly, Three Lives is highlighted in The Autobiography as Stein's first serious attempt at writing, but the idea of origin is challenged by there being always something before the beginning, in Stein's case the short novel with lesbian content later identified as Q. E. D. The riddle of originality also extends to Stein and Toklas themselves, their roles and discursive acts. One of Toklas's main responsibilities is to copy (decipher and transcribe) Stein's handwritten words. If copying is a primary component of autobiography, and the copy determines the original, her occupation at the typewriter is primary insofar as it is secondary. In other words, Toklas's processing of Stein's "original" text determines it and establishes its originality. At the same time, in The Autobiography Stein duplicates or copies Toklas's act of repetition in a third movement that possibly displaces Toklas once again: "The issue of transcribing someone else's voice is vital to Stein's project. Toklas is only an unreal copy, a simulacrum. Stein has to create a secretary, a copyist, for herself" (Hardack, 26, n. 18).

The complex issue of originality is not the only obstacle for interpretation in relation to the Toklas autobiographies. Moreover, the "I" in the text refers to a doubled, fictionalized persona (in The Autobiography), to the figure of a humble cook and recipe collector (in the Cook Book), or back to an earlier text (in What Is Remembered), never to a politically motivated real-life author. The lack of an accessible real-life referent to the autobiographical "I" is not unique to the Toklas autobiographies, of course, but rather the distinguishing impasse of autobiography as a genre, and perhaps modernist autobiography in particular. As Stephen Scobie points out, "Autobiography continually replays Rimbaud's famous aphorism, 'Je est un autre,' on which so many Modernist schemes of identity are based" (129). Nevertheless, the way in which, and the extent to which, the nonidentity between historical person and textual persona is foregrounded and exploited in these three texts (in the Cook Book and What Is Remembered no less than in The Autobiography) matters, and it enables me as a critic to pursue the question of a troubled and troubling world-word connection. Still today, it seems, a common assumption is that there is one potential autobiography for each person. In other words, historical person and autobiographical persona are expected to "match" as world and word meet. Multiple autobiographical accounts of the "same" person will therefore cause a certain discord with generic norms and readerly expectations, and thus the Toklas autobiographies can be seen as particularly problematic instances of the genre.

In and between the Toklas autobiographies, a textual persona, seemingly more or less directly linked to the historical person Toklas, is written and rewritten until the immediate person/persona relation (which we expect from autobiography) becomes a matter of contention rather than a matter of course. According to Philippe Lejeune, autobiography "supposes that there is identity of name between the author (such as he figures, by his name, on the cover), the narrator of the story, and the character who is being talked about" (quoted in Marcus, 254). This fantasy of identity constitutes the foundation for the autobiographical contract. An intriguing slippage of meaning occurs as the "I" of autobiography, the authorial presence that is supposedly guaranteed in the autobiographical contract, and secured in its presumed "identity" with the proper name on the book cover and the flesh-and-blood person behind that name, multiplies. Even though the Toklas autobiographies resist readings that would try to make person and persona correspond, however, taking the easy way out and equating autobiography and fiction is not an option. The fact that there was a historical person Alice B. Toklas is an irreducible aspect of the text, however far removed from its operations. It would be simplistic and irresponsible in this case to uncritically reinscribe Paul de Man's claim that "any book with a readable title-page is ... autobiographical" (922). Instead, it might be more useful to consider Derrida's conceptualization of the signature as particularly pertinent for autobiography: "By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But ... it also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now" ("Signature Event Context," 328). The Toklas autobiographies may not embody the essence of Toklas the historical person but perhaps rather harbor the elusive trace of her "having-been present" in their production in a "past now." At the same time, signatures are not always to be trusted. Stein originally finished The Autobiography as Mark Twain finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (creating another link to male canonical writing, apart from Robinson Crusoe)-"Sincerely Yours, Alice B. Toklas"-but subsequently crossed it out (see Dydo, Gertrude Stein, 537-38).


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................vii
Introduction. The Toklas Autobiographies and the True Story of Alice B. Toklas....................1
1. Genre/Textuality and Gender/Sexuality in the Toklas Autobiographies....................25
2. Authorship and Authority in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas....................55
3. Mimicry and Sexual/Textual Difference in What Is Remembered....................103
4. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and the Incompatible Combination....................138
Conclusion. The True Story of Alice B. Toklas?....................184

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