The Construction of Identity in Gertrude Stein´s 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas'

Term Paper, 2012

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Construction of Identity in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
2.1 Stein´s Conception of Identity
2.1.1 The Role-play of the Subject
2.1.2 Identity Construction Between Inside and Outside Perspective
2.1.3 The Impact of Memory on Authenticity
2.2 Stein´s Realisation of Identity
2.2.1 Identity and Social Categories
2.2.2 Identity Through Nationality
2.2.3 Identity Through Being an Artist

3 Conclusion

4 Works cited

1 Introduction

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933, was the first book of Gertrude Stein to receive wide public attention and become a commercial success.[1] Alice B. Toklas was Stein´s lesbian partner who met her in 1907 and stayed at Stein´s side until her death in Paris in 1946. Though the title declares Alice B. Toklas the alleged subject of the autobiography, it is in fact the story of Gertrude Stein´s life. Until the composition of The Autobiography, she had only managed to publish four books in the United States during her thirty years of writing, one of which she had financed herself.[2] Stein´s work had only been supported by a small circle and had been rejected by the Anglo-American press and publishers.[3] The unprecedented success of the autobiography has mainly been attributed to its reader-friendly language which stood in sharp contrast to the experimental nature of her earlier writing which seized the understanding of many.[4] But there is a second reason for the sudden triumph of her writing. Around the turn of the century, the interest in the author-figure increased significantly and with it the number of writer´s autobiographies. According to Louis Kaplan’s bibliography of American autobiographies, between 1880 and 1920 only 113 autobiographies were written by journalists or authors. In the following twenty years, "authors produced ten times as many."[5] By dedicating a piece of writing to the genre of the autobiography, which is strongly linked to celebrating someone´s personality, Gertrude Stein could be confident to receive attention.[6] Her name had already been circulating frequently in the popular press.[7] The American expatriate author, who spent most of her life in Paris, "was considered a rite of passage into the modernist movement" and was known for her collection of modern art and her weekly salons.[8] It was the curiosity in her personality and in that of the well-known guests at the Saturday salon at the Rue de Fleurus which boosted The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. With its name-dropping, characterisations, and the gossip about the people who came and went at the Saturday salons, it nourished the appetite of the American audience for the lives of famous people, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Cezanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Stieglitz, Carl van Vechten, and Ernest Hemingway.[9] As The Autobiography can be considered a response to the overall interest of the readers in personalities, it is worth studying how the text depicts identities. This focus of inquiry centres on the author-figure Gertrude Stein as well as all the other representatives of the Parisian avant-garde scene.

2 The Construction of Identity in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

An "autobiography, after all, is but an extended reply to one of the simplest and profoundest of questions: who are you and how did you come to be that way?"[10] While this definition is widely shared, the issue whether the content or form is the key to answer the central questions of an autobiography is held differently in the secondary literature. James Goodwin, for example, argues that autobiographies are designed to revolve around the experience of one individual.[11] He thus declares the content the most meaningful part of the genre. Albert E. Stone, in contrast to Goodwin, is convinced of the equal status of content and form.[12] From her point of view, both the narrated individual experience and the way this narration is composed should be scrutinised to answer the key questions of an autobiography. Georges Gusdorf, however, goes even further and places the form above the contents when she purports that the literary and artistic function of an autobiography is more important than the historical and objective function.[13] Concerning Gertrude Stein´s text, the approach of Gusdorf holds true as for Stein the medium is more important than the narration of individual experience. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she corroborates the assumption by taking the stance that emotion, the cornerstone of individual experience, should neither be the material nor the cause of poetry or prose (cf. AABT, p. 228). Gertrude Stein clearly opts for a textual rather than a sentimental focus.[14] As Stein is leaving emotions behind, the questions of who you are and how you came to be that way - the question of identity - are to be answered exclusively on the basis of the discursive concepts of Gertrude Stein.

The literary ideas underlying her construction of identity are by no means stable though. Timothy Galow explains that Stein did not adhere to one set of literary ideas throughout her career but "Stein repeats key words, phrases, and anecdotes [...], often, but by no means always, recalling their original context and meaning in her later works."[15] He raises the point that scholars have sometimes misread Stein´s theoretical works since they failed to recognise Stein´s fluctuation in concepts and since they did not notice the discrepancies or contradictions between several of her theoretical accounts.[16] These scholars tore the theoretical treatise out of their context and extended them beyond their relevant frame of reference.[17] In order to avoid making the same mistake, I remain in the realm of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and take it as a starting point for deducing her understanding of how identity is created in autobiographical literature.

It is the goal of this treatise to find out how Stein solves the problem which writers as well as other artists are encumbered with: "the difficulty that [...] after all the human being essentially is not paintable." (AABT, p. 130). For this purpose, I will firstly examine the theoretical concepts which are relevant for identity construction in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Those are her conviction that identity in autobiographies is discrepant from those in reality, her findings that identity is constructed in the process of a person´s inside and outside influencing one another, and her attitude that due to the revision work of the memory, identity is created anew with every moment. In the second part of the paper, it will be detailed how Gertrude Stein eventually realises identity construction in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a result of her principles in theory. Firstly, it will be argued that she is bound to present identity as complex. Furthermore, the final part will outline that and also why she chooses the filtering categories nationality and working as an artist to create identity.

2.1 Stein´s Conception of Identity

Since the poststructuralist movement, critics of literature try to argue that autobiography is an imaginative art.[18] It is a kind of fiction though it does not feel like an invented story to the reader because real-life names, places, and events raise the expectation that this genre is to contain truth.[19] Although The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas evokes this assumption as well, Gertrude Stein underlines that she does not intend to imitate life but underline the artistic and imaginative value of the genre.[20] She explains that identity is created anew by writing an autobiography: "You see that is why making it The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made it do something, it made it be recognition by never before that writing having it be existing."[21] The following three points investigate the literary concepts of Gertrude Stein on how identities in an autobiography come into existence.

2.1.1 The Role-play of the Subject

Contrary to the oddness, obliquity and self-doubt in other pieces of writing, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein is presented as "understandable, entertaining, conversational" and as a "good-humoured, unpretentious, well-educated, widely travelled [person, A.D.], commonsensical and deserving of popular acclaim."[22] This is why Ellery Sedgwick, who published four instalments of The Autobiography in 1933, praised the book saying that now the time had come that "the real Miss Stein would pierce the smoke screen with which she has always so mischievously surrounded herself".[23] He was wrong, however, in equating the text-intern identity of the main protagonist with the real-life author. The publisher failed to recognise that Stein is playing a role.[24] This role-play which includes the separation between author and subject is but an integral part of the textual composition.[25] It is above all reflected in the narrative perspective.

Stein passes off her autobiography as the story of Alice B. Toklas´ life but in the end reiterates her own life by using the voice of her lesbian partner. The complex narrative perspective can be called a "Bauchrednervorführung" with Stein as a ventriloquist and Toklas as her dummy.[26] Thus, Stein rips off the bond between the author and the subject and so neglects the central feature of the genre of autobiography: the trinity of the author, narrator, and subject.[27] By employing an intermediating narrator who is not herself, Gertrude Stein pretends that her life-story is filtered through the eyes of another person who is able to give a balanced account of her. These eyes, however, are not part of the persona of Alice B. Toklas but belong to Gertrude Stein who uses them as a stylistic means. This is why "[t]he text both posits and prohibits the construction of 'Alice' as the transcendental signified" behind the text´s 'I'.[28] Alice herself becomes a stylistic strategy, as a result of which she loses her credibility since her persona can be manipulated again by Gertrude Stein. The writer makes clear that in writing one´s own autobiography one looks at oneself just as another person would do. In this way she underlines that even her own perspective on herself is a construction. She can talk about herself without identifying formally with the first person 'I' and so she can write her autobiography "as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe." (AABT, p. 272). This incredibility as well as Gertrude Stein´s confession at the end that she wrote the book herself disrupts the illusion that the outsourced narrative perspective is intended to intensify the impression of authenticity.

Given that the narrative perspective is intended to underscore the imaginative construction of the subject, it can be assumed that The Autobiography ascribes a fictional role to Gertrude Stein. According to Stefana Sabin this is the role of the protagonist in a Bildungsroman.[29] Despite the fact that Gertrude Stein indeed emerges as a girl from the Californian province conquering Paris, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas does not offer any examples which indicate the learning progress and self-initiated development of the fictional character Gertrude Stein.[30] Not her ambition and endeavour but coincidence and convenient connections secure her forthcoming. In Cuenca, Spain, for example, one policeman is detailed to always hover in the distance when Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas walk about in order to prevent that they be annoyed by the people of the town. Stein and Toklas conclude: "[H]e was charming and he took us to lovely places in the country where we would not very well have gone by ourselves." (AABT, p. 129). The two women did not ask for any companionship themselves but someone else is anxious for their development which they would never have made without this person (see for more examples AABT, p. , ). The same pattern of other people taking care of Gertrude Stein´s success holds true for the promotion of her writing. She is always encouraged by friends, or they themselves take action to make her work known (cf. AABT, p. 138, 190, 210). What is more, in critical situations, she does not need to help herself out but is bailed out by others (cf. AABT, p. 197). Regarding mistakes, there is no progress either as she does not learn from them. When Alice B. Toklas, for instance, accidentally mixes up letters and sends the wrong answers to the wrong recipient, neither she nor Gertrude Stein draw any consequences. Subsequently, they make a similar mistake again - being incautious with addresses - and hence they lose contact to someone (cf. AABT, p. 192). They again do not take responsibility for the infelicity as the ensuing undiscerning statement indicates: "By some error [...] we lost him." (AABT, p. 192).

Next to the content-wise evidence there is a more fundamental reason why The Autobiography cannot be a Bildungsroman. Sabin interprets the substance of an autobiography whose contents can at a maximum be an "appearance of substance."[31] She thus gives priority to the content to trace down the role of the authorial subject. This approach, however, contradicts Stein´s priority of the medium over the subject which I have discussed above. Stein´s role-play does not evolve in the content but in the form. Gertrude Stein creates a fictional character of its own right which bears a primarily formal function in connection with the stylistic strategy 'Alice B. Toklas.' Both of the women in the text have a distinct function: Stein is seeing and Toklas is speaking. The Alice B. Toklas in the text is "a passive sitter and object of someone else´s gaze."[32] Alice B. Toklas is confined to speaking as particularly those situations reveal when the first person narrator, allegedly Toklas, remembers situations which only Gertrude Stein could have witnessed. When Alice B. Toklas for example tells about the last meeting with Avery Hopwood, she first lists what the three of them did together. In this recount, she uses a 'we-perspective' including her, him and Gertrude Stein. Suddenly, she shifts to a 'they-perspective' including only Hopwood and Stein and says that "they had long talks and [...] he had never talked so openly and so intimately." (AABT, p. 152). The shifting indicates that she was not present at the walks but she still knows about the content of the talks.


[1] cf. Will, p. 137.

[2] cf. Galow, p. 53.

[3] cf. Will, p. 133; cf. Paris Was a Woman, Extras.

[4] cf. Goer, p. 102; cf. Sabin, p. 94; cf. Stein Davis, p. 19; cf. Will, p. 137.

[5] Galow, p. 24.

[6] cf. Galow, p. 30, 32; cf. Stein Davis, p. 18.

[7] cf. Galow, p. 59.

[8] Paris Was a Woman, Extras.

[9] cf. Sabin, p. 94/95.

[10] Stone, p. 115.

[11] cf. Goodwin, p. 74.

[12] cf. Stone, p. 111.

[13] cf. Gusdorf, p. 43.

[14] cf. Goodwin, p. 83: Though Goodwin makes this judgement for Everybody´s Autobiography, it is, in my opinion, applicable to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

[15] Galow, p. 66; cf. Galow, p. 62.

[16] cf. ibid., p. 60/61.

[17] cf. ibid., p. 61.

[18] cf. Eakin, p. 29.

[19] cf. ibid., p. 30.

[20] cf. Goer, p. 113.

[21] Stein qtd. in Goodwin, p. 79.

[22] first quotation: Stein Davis, p. 18; second quotation: Souhami, p. 264.

[23] Sedgwick qtd. in Souhami, p. 267.

[24] cf. Will, p. 145.

[25] cf. Galow, p. 40/41; cf. Goodwin, p. 84.

[26] Goer, p. 110.

[27] cf. ibid., p. 104.

[28] Will, p. 142.

[29] cf. Sabin, p. 94.

[30] cf. ibid.

[31] Butler qtd. in Will, p. 139.

[32] Will, p. 142.

26 of 26 pages


The Construction of Identity in Gertrude Stein´s 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas'
Dresden Technical University  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Writing and Rewriting American Autobiography
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Pablo Picasso, Third-Person Autobiography, Autobiography, Identity Construction, Inside and Outside
Quote paper
Anne Decker (Author), 2012, The Construction of Identity in Gertrude Stein´s 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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