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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 142-144
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Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Ed. Kay Turner. New York: St. Martin's P, 1999. 160 pp. $17.95.
In the wake of recent discoveries about Gertrude Stein's politically contradictory writings, such as her essay "On the Degeneration of American Women" and her essayistic activity during the Vichy regime, it is good to know that the Beinecke archive of Stein's as-yet-unpublished writings still holds such gems as the sticky-sweet nothings that Gender and Sexuality Studies scholar Kay Turner has selected for her collection, Baby Precious Always Shines. Unfortunately, the notes are not dated, but remarks about historical events suggest that they were written between 1935 and 1946, when Stein and Alice B. Toklas's relationship "had aged to its own kind of perfection" (6). But to read Turner's collection of love notes just for the thrill of peeking into the tender moments of the twentieth century's most famous lesbian couple would be to misread this book. And that misreading is neither intended nor allowed is something Turner, editor of previous collections of lesbian love letters and of women's responses to pop-icon Madonna, makes quite clear in her forty-page introduction, which prefaces 110 pages of notes from Stein to Toklas and about ten pages of notes from Toklas to Stein.
It is a different Stein that Turner exposes in these notes, and yet it isn't. The reader encounters a private Stein who, without the constraints of her usual daily self-fashioning in the face of the press, publishers, or cultural high society, still remains amazingly true to the public image that she projects in her public autobiographies, such as, say, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) and The Geographical History of America (1936). If anything, Turner's selection makes clear that Stein has always been hyperaware of an audience beyond the immediate addressee of her writings. Hence, the Stein we meet in Baby Precious is a Stein whose personal, psychological, and cultural biographies are intricately interwoven, and whose previously unpublished intimacies with Alice have, in fact, contributed much to the literary, if not the cultural, history of the Twentieth century. In this respect, Stein's notes to "baby precious tender/ loveing lovely loved baby wifey" (89) transcend the personal, and although Turner comes to this project very focused, "not as a Stein scholar, but as a lesbian reader and admirer of Stein's work and as a folklorist interested in the history and traditions of gay culture" (5), she wisely opens her discoveries to many more possibilities of reading and rereading Stein. [End Page 142]
Probably the seminal point that this collection raises is the heteronormativity traditionally assumed about Stein and Toklas's marriage, in which the domestically challenged Stein occupied the "masculine" position as the artistic genius-husband and Toklas took the "feminine" position of secretary, cook, and wife. Turner's collection calls for a rereading of the "hubby" and "wifey" dialogue in terms of queer discourses on camp and gender performativity. Stein and Toklas, Turner asserts, "reveled in a kind of domestic theatricality; they staged the gendered roles of husband and wife as an obvious yet meaningful performance--a form of 'serious play'" (19), and this play "was not about the imitation of heterosexual, bourgeois privilege [but] about the erotic cadence found in the central enjoyment of habit and repetition" (11).
And the eroticization of domestic habit and repetition are what characterizes Gertrude's and Alice's notes in terms of style, content, and psychology:
My dearest wife,
This little pen which
Belongs to you loves to be
Written by me for you, its
Never in a stew nor are
You my sweet ecstacy,
Stylistically, we are transported back to the tone of Tender Buttons (1914), the piece in which Gertrude memorialized...