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The Moderns

Re-Examining The Relationship Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Toklas: Library Of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Aka "Pussy": Alice B. Toklas.

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 12/5/2007

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway describes a visit to the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris during which he overhears a lovers' squabble. "'Don't, pussy,'" Hemingway reports Stein pleading. "'Don't. Don't, please don't. I'll do anything, pussy, but please don't do it. Please don't. Please don't, pussy.'"

Heavy-handed and suspect as the episode sounds, Janet Malcolm, who mentions it early in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press), suspects that this representation may not be that outlandish (even though, at the time of its writing, Hemingway had fallen out with his expatriate friends). While the image she conjures of the literary world's most famous lesbian couple is certainly one in which Toklas plays the caretaker to Stein's overworked genius, there are numerous instances that prove Toklas was not merely a passive support system for art but instead someone with enough emotional clout to bring the towering modernist writer to her knees and beg for "pussy" to stop.

To understand the Stein/Toklas relationship, you would be better inclined to take the word of a seasoned critic like Malcolm (a New Yorker writer) than the hearsay of literature's pre-eminent misogynist. Two Lives more than makes up for Hemingway's curt analysis by using the literary equivalent of investigative journalism to illuminate segments of the relationship that peek out from between reams of scholarship-all while tackling the serious business of biography and literary criticism.

Of course, when most people think of Gertrude Stein, they think of either her babbling brook of experimental modernist fiction or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Written in the voice of her lover, confidant, and caretaker, Stein's book is one of the few in her oeuvre with enough narrative cohesion to be clearly understood (unlike the bizarre and frustrating prose bits from "Tender Buttons"). Toklas' role in the author's life, however, was not limited to creative inspiration. "Toklas recognized Stein's originality when Stein's self-confidence was at its lowest ebb," Malcolm writes. "She banished doubt from Stein's artist's consciousness, as she would later banish the unworthy from Stein's salon. The division of household labor between the two women, with one doing everything and the other nothing, was another precondition for the flowering of Stein's genius."

Toklas could also command her lover's genius. Malcolm details an episode in which Toklas, spurned by Stein's affair with May Bookstaver, forced the author to replace every mention of the word "may" with "can" in Stein's 1932 epic poem "Stanzas in Meditation." This is part of what Malcolm describes as "a repertoire of sadomasochistic games the couple played"-so much for being a passive support system.

You would think that after Stein's 1946 death Toklas would finally emerge from the shadow of her stocky and somewhat self-absorbed partner. According to Malcolm, however, this wasn't the case:

Stein had been the extra-smart, unruly pet whom Toklas took exemplary care of and upon whose dependence she depended. The hole that Stein's death left in Toklas's life was never filled. There was no Gertrude II [a reference to Basket II, the couple's second poodle]. After Stein's death in 1946, Toklas took on some canine characteristics of her own. She tended the shrine of Stein's literary and personal legend with the devotion of the dog at the master's grave. She would snarl if anyone came too close to the monument.

Now imagine the frumpy, square-faced Toklas baring her teeth at the trespasses of Malcolm and the other literary scholars who populate Two Lives.

Indeed, the business of literary scholarship is central to Malcolm's enterprise. There is a refreshing camaraderie between Malcolm and three other Stein scholars (with whom she discusses various aspects of her project) that dispels traditional notions of the intellectual community as stuffy, private, and cutthroat. Equally humbling is Malcolm's personal struggle with some of Stein's most impenetrable writings. She cuts up the 925-page The Making of Americans into six manageable sections with a kitchen knife and in the process discovers that "in carving up the book I had unwittingly made a physical fact of its stylistic and thematic inchoateness." The ways in which Malcolm wades through the surf of Stein scholarship are captivating, especially when she butts up against the work of Leon Katz, a Columbia University doctoral student who worked directly with Toklas on a project to decipher Stein's early diary entries (some of which contained less than flattering remarks about the writer's first impression of her future companion).

Two Lives continually calls attention to the pitfalls and pratfalls of literary biography; in this regard, whatever the veracity of the episodes uncovered, Malcolm's work can be considered an honest enterprise. "The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties," she writes. "Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold."

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