Subjectivity and the Aesthetics of National Identity in Gertrude Stein's "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas."

Article excerpt

On September 2, 1933, the following headline in the books section of the Chicago Daily Tribune heralded the literary event of the season: "Gertrude Stein Writes a Book in Simple Style" (Butcher). This was news. Stein's publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in August 1933 marked her first attempt at writing a popular book, a lucid if rambling account of her life "in the heart of an art movement of which the outside world at that time knew nothing" (The Autobiography 28). The book presented a Gertrude Stein previously unknown to the American public - understandable, entertaining, conversational, and seemingly confessional. The American public embraced this figure. Within a month of its publication, The Autobiography was named both a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and one of the top 10 best-selling nonfiction books in the nation by Publishers Weekly ("P.W. Market News"). According to one biographer, many predicted Stein's book would win the Pulitzer Prize (Wagner-Martin 201).

Stein's adoption of a distinctly plain-spoken American voice in The Autobiography and the mass appeal of the book have defined it as a text that separates Stein's earlier, experimental work from her more "public" writings that followed.(1) However, important recent criticism that brings The Autobiography back within the fold of Stein's experimental oeuvre fails to address the text's treatment of national identity. While it is clear that Stein invokes an essentialist view of nationality, her repeated destabilization of the essential nature of national identities demonstrates that The Autobiography, as a popular book, remains dedicated to decentralizing and destabilizing the terms we use to define our identities. Most importantly, Stein's discussion of national identity in The Autobiography marks this as a text that extends her continuing engagement with American cultural issues in her work.

Critics have highlighted, much as the reviews of the book did when it was published, the conventional aspects of this text.(2) While Tender Buttons, often considered emblematic of Stein's experimental work, resists generic categorization, in The Autobiography Stein writes within an identifiable genre. Moreover, she chooses a genre that has traditionally been identified with male authors and the mastery of narrative control.(3) And because Stein is using Toklas's voice, her usual cadences are entirely absent from this text. Stein's revelation of her part in the genesis of The Autobiography in the last lines of the book reinforces the idea that she is "coming clean" in this text:

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. (252)

At long last, The Autobiography insists, the writer American readers had perceived as an incomprehensible aesthete has stepped forward to reveal the ruse and expose herself as the author of a "simply" written text.

Stein's resistance to an essential identity in The Autobiography is the focus of much recent feminist criticism on the text, which demonstrates that while Stein's ventriloquism of Alice's voice makes this work far more readable than much of her other writing, this move also defines The Autobiography as experimental. For these feminist critics, Stein's displacement of the autobiographical 'T' onto the lesbian couple demonstrates that The Autobiography presents a distinctly feminist notion of identity that, with its resistance to the idea of a unified, coherent self, anticipates postmodern notions of subjectivity.(4) Sidonie Smith directly connects Stein's experimentation with time in the text to the subversion of coherent subjectivity:

the anecdotal breaks in chronology, the confusion of past, present, and future, as well as the externalized portrait, subvert the notion of clearly defined developmental stages of growth, of the subordination of time present and future to time past in autobiographical narrative, and the notion of a coherent, unified core of selfhood. …