- The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies
In the famous closing lines of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein lets readers in on the trick. She, not her reticent companion, has authored the work: "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" (342). Stein, writes Anna Linzie, reveals "herself [as] the author of a clever literary experiment" (59). If the text had seemed linear, mundane, gossipy, too confessional, or not confessional enough, no matter—it was all a ruse, all the manipulations of an innovative, unique author who was never playing by autobiography's rules in the first place. "This . . . brilliant move . . . has elevated The Autobiography to a remarkable position in literary history," Linzie writes (59). But, she explains, it also has fed critical responses that promote Stein as a modernist genius author while too easily dismissing Toklas's cultural, authorial, and domestic labor. Linzie's ironically titled The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies complicates that simplistic hierarchy, reading The Autobiography alongside Toklas's The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and What Is Remembered as a network of "intertexts" that "require a notion of the 'true story' as a radically relative category that is necessarily multiple, provisional, and ever shifting" (13).
Linzie's volume offers a significant critique of critical assumptions about autobiography and expands the notion of text beyond a discrete work by a [End Page 185] solitary author, making room for profound, all-encompassing collaboration and "a radically nonunitary lesbian autobiographical subject" (62). Emerging from the study as "indispensable," if ever retreating, is an Alice Toklas—writer and cook, conversationalist and gardener, war chronicler, genius-maker, homemaker—whose complex work, particularly the remarkable Cook Book in its entwining of history and domestic life, surprises and rewards (57).
After an introduction that revises Homi K. Bhabha's "almost the same but 'not quite/not white'" construction as "almost the same but 'not quite/not straight'" in order to underscore Toklas and Stein's dual undermining of normative modes of heterosexuality and autobiography through "mimicry, parody, [and] repetition" across the works, Linzie surpasses this initial construct in rich readings of each of the three "autobiographies" and their immediate reviews and critical legacies (20). Indeed, so many scholars and members of Toklas and Stein's circle are cited that Linzie wonderfully performs her argument that an essential truth about these women and their writing is undiscoverable and not the point. Instead, conversation matters and enables—between Stein and Toklas, between the couple's writings and readers (including, fascinatingly, Toklas's marginalia in books about Stein), and between their labors and their contemporary re-imaginings (for example, Monique Truong's Book of Salt: A Novel and Tom Hachtman's comic book Gertrude's Follies). Similarly, Linzie's reading is "one particular reading among many actual and potential readings," for "the true story exists only in someone's discursive engagement with it" (189). For Linzie as for her subjects, truth resides in participatory, everyday reading and writing practices very different from the passive audience positioning demanded by the classical autobiography and, for that matter, the modernist masterwork.
Perhaps Linzie's finest reading is of the Cook Book and Toklas's delight with a "Mix master," her "most cherished kitchen gadget" (152). As she mixes French ingredients in this American machine, cooks American recipes Stein craved with French preparations, and delights at the machine's functionality while appreciating its aesthetic beauty, so too Toklas uses the cookbook "full of memories" to mix genres (145). More than that, Linzie argues, Toklas mixes conventional binaries such as high and low, war and housekeeping, and art and cooking to...