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literature

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Stein, Gertrude (1874-1946)  
 
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Geniuses, like herself, are essentially people outside time because they are ahead of their times. Hence, Stein must wait for the public to catch up with her: "The creator of the new composition in arts is an outlaw until he is a classic . . . For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts." According to Stein, the transition between refusal and acceptance is never gradual, but rather abrupt and startling.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

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Although The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) began as a joke, this stylistically uncharacteristic work was responsible for suddenly transforming her from an "eccentric" personality into a best-selling author and "household name."

By assuming the voice of her lover Toklas, and thereby playfully dramatizing the problematic relations between her private identity as a lesbian and her public perception by her audience, Stein was able to position herself in the center of the narrative of modernism.

This entertaining and deceptively transparent book is filled with spirited gossip and portraits of many of the important artistic figures of the time (for example, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Margaret Anderson).

The early narrative recounts the years before Stein and Toklas met, then describes their encounters with various celebrated people, their alliances and rivalries, and their experiences of driving an ambulance during World War I.

Toklas's voice as narrator allowed Stein to make several important claims, the most famous of which became the bells that rang each time Toklas met a genius. There had been three of them: the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the painter Pablo Picasso, and, of course, the writer Gertrude Stein.

The success of the Autobiography launched Stein on a highly publicized lecture tour through England and the United States. Yet, having at last secured the broad recognition she had long sought, Stein nevertheless was dismayed that audiences seemed much more interested in her personality than her writing.

After Autobiography

Hence, she became increasingly preoccupied with problems of identity and audience, and how knowledge of identity can or cannot be described, transmitted, or understood. The Geographical History of America (1936), Everybody's Autobiography (1937), and Ida: A Novel (1941), explore the difference between "writing," the kind of work customers were willing to pay for, and "really writing," the intellectually challenging and hermetic sort she had labored at for more than thirty years.

The Geographical History of America, a formidable instance of "really writing," explores the meanings of literature, geography, and autobiography, and the loss of self under the sway of such influences as time, audience awareness, and money.

Her often quoted phrase, "I am I because my little dog knows me," is a paradox. Self-recognition can become distorted when it identifies outside itself, but since her "little dog" possesses no sense of human nature, human mind, or human time, it "entifies" rather than "identifies" Stein.

Such reflections are, in part, motivated by Stein's understandable refusal to be reduced to her contemporary audience's limited understanding of the meanings of lesbian authorship, as well as their prejudice against perceiving lesbians as transformers of culture.

In What Are Masterpieces (1940), Stein endeavors both to transcend history and meaning, and to explain the historical relevance and significance of her work. Masterpieces deal with matters of human nature, but their authors, in the act of writing, are paradoxically free of human nature's restraints and therefore create timeless work.

By contrast, Everybody's Autobiography is, as the title suggests, audience-friendly "writing" that not only narrates Stein's childhood and her subsequent lecture tour in her native land but also contains some of her most quotable material. For example, of the influence of Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini, she writes: "There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing."

World War II and After

Regardless of how ambivalently Stein regarded her public, she continued her interest in audience-centered "writing" both before and after World War II. In 1942, Stein and Toklas fled defeated Paris for their country house in Bilignen, but shortly thereafter the Nazi occupation severed their communication with the United States for two years.

During this time, Stein wrote Paris France (1940), a tribute to her adopted homeland, Wars I Have Seen (1945), a meditation on the relation of modernity, war, and nationalism to historical contingency and coincidence, and Mrs. Reynolds (pub. 1952), an allegorical novel about Hitler and Stalin.

With the liberation of France, Stein and Toklas returned to Paris in 1944, where she surrounded herself with American military personnel and even toured with the Army in Germany.

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