Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Albert Barnes: Looking like a Jew in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Article excerpt

This paper explores the symbolism of "Jewish looks" in the writing of Jewish-American Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Beginning with Stein's early college writing about Jews as a distinct race, and her literary treatise on human categorization, The Making of Americans (written 1903-1911), I trace the shifts in Stein's thinking about Jews forward to her most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Written in fairly conventional prose that was a dramatic break from an already immense oeuvre of extremely experimental writing, The Autobiography presents readers with numerous enigmas nonetheless. In particular, the references to Jews in the book, both crude and carefully coded, provide a textual puzzle that sheds light on Stein's striving to fully understanding human nature and her concerns about how such understanding might be compromised by the practice of portrait writing.

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Because Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas1 is largely about two Jewish American women, one might expect Jewish identity to play an important role in the book. Gertrude Stein was born into an established family of German-American Jews and raised in Oakland, California, and Alice Toklas grew up as part of the well-to-do Jewish community of fin-de-siècle San Francisco. In The Autobiography, despite its account of both their family histories, their Jewish roots are conspicuously absent. Instead, as critic Phoebe Stein Davis notes, there is an almost obsessive use of nationality to describe the vast menagerie of artists, writers, and other chatacters appearing in the autobiography.2 Not surprisingly then, among this cosmopolitan circle of internationals in Paris, Stein and Toldas ate most often described as Americans, never as Jews.

Stein's writing about the role of Jews in modern society was latgely oblique: she made infrequent, coded, and puzzling references to Jews and Judaism throughout her writing career, and, in fact, The Autobiography is no exception. While it is not difficult to find allusions to Jews in Stein's earliest writings, manuscripts, and correspondence, and a Jewish lexicon appears in even her most absttact work, these references form neithet a consistent sutvey nor a coherent whole. Instead, as critics such as Maria Damon, Priscilla Wald, and Barbara Will have shown, this oddly constant feature of her work shifted with the many experiments in genre and style over the course of her career. Generally, however, her writing about Jews moved from a facial to a performative undetstanding of Jewish identity, and the latter behavioral identification is what one finds in The Autobiography. The shirts in Stein's writing about Jewish nature, while consonant with the shifts in her ideas about human nature in general, illuminate the impôt tance of het concrete ties to early social sciences of race and, later, alert us to the lingering racialism underlying an otherwise anti-essentialist view of human nature.

In Tbe Autobiography, her most public book, Stein mentions jews only once with the epithet "He looks like a Jew" (p. 11). This comment is made in reference to Albert Barnes, the wealthy Philadelphia art collector who was not Jewish. Despite its oddity, this Jewish reference to a non-Jew in the non-Jewish-appearing autobiography of rwo Jewish women firmly establishes the import of Stein's interest in Jewish identity on her radically experimental oeuvre. In fact, the Jewish reference to Albert Barnes is part of the formal challenge of the book as a whole. For although the prose is relatively sttaightforward, Tin Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas famously breaks with the traditions of autobiography and biography, first and foremost as an autobiography written by someone other than its titular subject. Stein writes the book in the narrative voice of Toklas recounting her relationship with Stein and the arc of Stein's literary career alongside the careers of Picasso, Matisse, and other contemporaries. …