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  • The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies
  • Margot Norris (bio)
Anna Linzie . The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2006. 230 pp. ISBN 0-877-49585-1, $34.95.

The starting point for Anna Linzie's engaging study is the exploration of Alice B. Toklas as a construct of three texts: Gertrude Stein's 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Toklas's own 1954 The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, and her 1963 memoir What is Remembered. The promise of "the true story" is therefore ironized at the outset, given that there are several "autobiographies" of Gertrude Stein's partner, and that each of them confounds the sense of the genre of autobiography in multiple and intriguing ways. The mischievous reason for her "obnoxious title," as Linzie calls it (28), is to turn the assumption of truth in autobiography into a question, or rather a proliferation of questions and riddles. In this spirit she both begins and ends her "Conclusion" with a "certain proliferation of question marks" (187). Her methodology, she points out, is marked by what she calls "critical license"—that is, excess, lawlessness, and lack of control—and she cheerfully concedes that she authorizes herself to produce arguments that may at times "seem excessive and irresponsible" (3). This is hardly true, to my mind, but it certainly is the case that the book is not orderly, and lacks logical development and a progressive organization. But it has a broad ranging thesis—however difficult this is to corral—and such an opulent and delicious panoply of original research, scholarship, analysis, citation, anecdote, information, insight, and commentary that it resembles one of the culinary feasts that were served at 27 rue de Fleurus.

Linzie's first sentence refuses to assign the three works at the center of her focus either to Gertrude Stein or to Alice B. Toklas, and instead calls them "written by a legendary Jewish-American lesbian couple" (1). This adumbrates her thesis, or as near as we come to a thesis, that "'the true story of Alice B. Toklas,' if there is one, resides in the textualization and multiplication or fragmentation of autobiographical truth and in the strategic (de)authorization of the author" (28). The texts, in Linzie's view, are hybrid productions, although certainly not writing collaborations in a conventional sense. Toklas, for example, sometimes contributes to the story by deliberately silencing or effacing herself, while elsewhere she contributes by mimicking "Stein mimicking Toklas" (17). Linzie further produces several intriguing examples of reciprocal mimicry she unearthed in the Yale collection, including a typing exercise by Toklas that sounds very much like Stein at her most experimental, or another that shows Stein imitating Toklas's handwriting (19). And Linzie deftly theorizes these maneuvers in mimicry through Homi Bhabha's colonial formulation: "It is not colonialism, then, but perhaps a normative heterosexuality—another regulator of power, access, and privilege—that produces [End Page 108] mimicry and irony in this case" (20). In other words, the women's lesbian relationship produces a subgenre of lesbian autobiography marked by a "not quite/not straight formulation" (23).

The multiplication of the Stein-Toklas autobiography takes form not only as double-speaking and mimicry but also as proliferation. Linzie's repertoire of autobiographical texts forms the core of a legend of Stein and Toklas that is shown to incorporate or attract its own indeterminate collection of intertexts. These include "Ada" and the couple's submerged love notes (published in 1999 as Baby Precious Always Shines), as well as Linda Simon's 1977 The Biography of Alice B. Toklas and Monique Truong's 2003 work of fiction, The Book of Salt: A Novel. Linzie even discusses a six-page unpublished text by Ernest Hemingway called "The Autobiography of Alice B. Hemingway." This wide scope allows her to treat Toklas's story as comprising a wide range of topics and issues. These include "various discourses of domesticity, the hierarchies of race and class primarily visible in the Cook Book, another perspective on war and history, a heightened sense of social consciousness, and a reformulation of...