A Recipe for Modernism and the Somatic Intellect in the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons

By Bruner, Belinda | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

A Recipe for Modernism and the Somatic Intellect in the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons


Bruner, Belinda, Papers on Language & Literature


Long relegated to the position of subservient wife of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas is a distinctive writer in her own right; The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is a witty, enthralling text flavored with philosophical musing and domestic storytelling. The 1954 cookbook provides insight into the bohemian lifestyle of the Modern expatriates through the narrative that binds the recipes and presents readers with an artifact of lesbian domesticity. While studies have compared Toklas's What Is Remembered with Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, (1) Toklas's cookbook has received spare critical attention. The most notable exception is Anna Linzie's work on what she calls the "three Toklas autobiographies." Linzie suggests that Modernism as readers know it may not have been possible without Toklas's contributions. The voice and style Stein and Toklas share should leave readers with a chicken or egg dilemma, especially within the context of current questions of authorship and narrativity. In addition to flaunting a Gertrudistic sense of humor and presenting her recipes with wit and creativity, Toklas's cookbook continues to reveal the extent to which the two women influenced each other and, in turn, influenced the development of Modernism. While using Toklas to help construct her own position as genius, Gertrude Stein, together with Toklas, built the foundation for modern and contemporary questioning of conventional authorship and voice; the two women are also responsible for increased attention to the physical in Modern writing. Looking at The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book for its own merits and in comparison with Stein's Tender Buttons, one recognizes several complications of the anxiety of influence. Particularly noteworthy are three features of the development of Modernism as a literary genre: the privileging of the physical over the intellectual, the increased treatment of female experience, and questions of voice and perspective. Focusing on Toklas is intended to demonstrate her capabilities as a writer and to suggest that Toklas played a more significant role in the development of Modernism than has been previously acknowledged, "marijuana brownie" (2) recipes notwithstanding. Stein's work under study here exemplifies her movement from an intellectual grasp of language to a domestic and tactile aesthetic. In addition to Linzie's work, studies by Holly Laird and Rebecca Scherr create the backbone for a close reading of several passages of works by Toklas and Stein. Further, scholars should note the ramifications of Linzie's work; what she suggests and lays the groundwork for is a radical reinterpretation of Modernism and Stein's contribution to its development. To prove that Toklas was a great force in the directions of Modernism would be a lengthy and speculative project. What might be done here, however, is to recognize Stein's signature seal as being irrevocably linked to that of Toklas by comparing samples of the two authors' work. My suggestion is that Toklas continues Stein's word play and narrative strategy after Stein's death as an instinctive preservation of what she has known and as imitation based on true devotion; Toklas, however, did not merely influence Stein as Stein constructed her position as genius but created Gertrude Stein, as readers have come to recognize her, by seducing Stein through the realm of the sensual and introducing her to its poetic possibilities. In her discussion of "tactile erotics," Scherr argues that Stein invented this aesthetic approach to writing. It is fruitful to compare Scherr's concept with my reading of Stein's aesthetic, which I term the "somatic intellect." Scherr maintains that Stein "draws on the realm of the senses as a mode for questioning, resisting, shifting, experimenting with, and undermining literary and cultural practices" (194). She argues that Stein's work focuses on the senses, tactile in particular, and provides examples that can be read as Stein's "attempts to mime texture" (197). …

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