An Appreciation of Gertrude Stein

Article by Danielle

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love Gertrude Stein and those who fear her. Which category you fall into has less to do with how intelligent you are than with your ability to enjoy writing that doesn’t adhere to the narrative conventions we usually take for granted. Once you read her, Stein’s passionate patronage of modern visual art makes total sense. The subject of her writing is the experience of language, just as a Picasso painting is about the experience of looking at an image.

Stein wrote in a wide variety of modes, often irreverently toying with old, tired conventions until they became strange and fresh again. While some of her experiments are considered scarcely readable, like her 900+ page magnum opus THE MAKING OF AMERICANS, others, like THREE LIVES and her children’s book, THE WORLD IS ROUND, are just odd enough without inviting too much readerly frustration. At her best, Stein reads a bit like your favorite dotty old aunt who just so happens to be a cantankerous genius and one of the most fascinating individuals of the twentieth century.

The first thing worth noting about THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS is that it’s not actually an autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s lifelong partner and muse. See what I mean about Stein’s tendency to play with form? Instead, Stein tells the story of her own life through Toklas’s eyes, melding their distinctive conversational styles into a brilliant hybrid voice that allows her to capture herself in action much more honestly than she perhaps could have in a more straightforward memoir.

Why go to all that fuss? Well, friends of the couple reported that Stein usually engaged in serious, literary discussion with the mostly male artists who attended her famous salons, while Toklas, an expert cook and slightly more traditional hostess, was confined to polite conversation with the artists’ wives and mistresses. While it might seem that Stein got to have all the fun talking shop with luminaries like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Braque and Picasso, Toklas was busy soaking up all the juicy gossip about everyone who was anyone in the American community in Paris. The result of this merging of their two perspectives is the single best group portrait we have of nearly every creative American living in the City of Light for more than a decade.

If you like your artists and writers towering and unapproachable, I suggest you settle in with some straight-ahead biographies of your favorites. However, if you’d rather learn about the sordid love affairs, dreadful financial mishaps, personal grooming issues, disturbing eating habits and stupid feuds of the Greats, you need look no farther than this book. If the syntax trips you up, try reading it out loud. You’ll soon realize that this is one of the funniest, most honest, and most modern of all autobiographies, even if it isn’t exactly an autobiography after all.

 

FOR THE TRUE GERTIE ENTHUSIAST, MAY WE ALSO RECOMMEND:

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Tender Buttons: Objects Cover Image
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To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays Cover Image
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