Stein & Toklas

September 1: On this day in 1933, Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her account of her salon life as seen through the devoted eyes of her companion. This ventriloquism allowed her to be Boswell to her own Johnson, as in "It was then that Gertrude Stein said, Hemingway, remarks are not literature." Stein had encouraged Toklas to write her own book but, as Stein-Toklas puts it, this would have required that "a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs … add being a pretty good author." With this multi-tasking too overwhelming, there was but one clear option:

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.

Toklas lived on for two decades after Stein, and she did write her own memoir near the end. What is Remembered is quirky too, but enjoyable, and it has the ring of authenticity. Characteristically, it stops with the death of Stein; among the last things remembered are the problems and pleasures of living in Occupied France—converting the car to run on wood alcohol, driving about with their dogs to visit other Parisians who had refused to leave, donating the car to the Red Cross, returning to Paris in it at Liberation, to greet Picasso and his paintings in their apartment. The final paragraph of What is Remembered is given to the last, legendary moment which Stein and Toklas shared:

I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question? Then the whole afternoon was troubled, confused and very uncertain, and later in the afternoon they took her away on a wheeled stretcher to the operating room and I never saw her again.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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