Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Gertrude Stein.
March Is Women’s History Month
The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Vintage Books, New York, 1990
Okay, Gertrude so there was no there, there in Oakland. (I agree, having lived there for a period at a much later time-San Francisco, however, is a different matter). So, by hook or crook, Miss Gertrude Stein gets herself (along with her older brother) by a circuitous route to turn of the century Paris (turn of the 20th century that is) and becomes not only an international literary and cultural figure in her own right but a veritable magnet for every "advanced' bourgeois cultural tendency in the then known Western civilized world. Starting with the nova Paris anti-academy art world as the likes of Picasso, Braque and Matisse and their schools take it by a storm on through to the sparse World War I years when the flower of European culture was almost destroyed to a re-emergence in the aftermath of that war with "lost generation" types like Hemingway and Fitzgerald we get a bird's eye view of important trends in modern cultural history during the first third of the 20th century. And of Stein's own struggle to get the kind of literary recognition she craved and desired.
What we do not get is anything that, even with the looser standard for such endeavors in the beginning of the 21st century, that we recognize as autobiography either of the ostensible subject of the book, Stein's long time companion (to use a quaint term of the time for two women living together) Alice B. Toklas or Ms. Stein herself. Nor as we suppose to. What we are treated to is a `modern' writing sensibility trying to free up the language (and grammatical constrains) from their 19th century moorings. More conventionally we are given a travelogue, gossip column, some helpful hints and some very witty writing that gives tidbits of what Ms. Stein thought of literature, her place in it and the place of others in her literary pantheon.
In some sense this book, while quite readable even today, is not for the faint-hearted, or those who are not modern Western literature majors or readers of something like "The New York Review Of Books". Fortunately I am a devoted reader of that magazine and therefore the seemingly hundreds of literary figures that Stein `name drops' along the way I had at least passing familiarity with. Some of the many art figures that passed through I was less sure of. What is clear is that Ms. Stein's `mobile salon' (for lack of better words to trace this pair's movements) and her literary achievement here is an echo from a bygone era. Nobody today, as least in the circles I run in or want to run in, could stand up to the `precious' visits by English and other celebrities that dropped in Stein's residences. Or the standard variations on the European grand tour by American college students or young marrieds that made a stop obligatory. Or the stifling aimlessness and routinism of many the various denizens of the Paris of the day, famous or not. But in a world that currently suffers from serious disconnects with its cultural past it is interesting to read about those who had time to "do' the literary scene. But, mainly, get this book for some very clever writing by Ms. Stein.