Before I started reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I looked at reviews online. Many, many of them mention how conceited Stein is. They complain that she thinks herself a genius and that her writing is fantastic and groundbreaking and to the writing world what Picasso’s paintings are to the art world.
After reading the book, I would contend that she’s not nearly as much of a braggart as people say she is. The book itself is something of a joke, and throughout, she intersperses self-deprecating remarks with self-aggrandizing ones (which she often makes in an off-hand, tongue-in-cheek manner, anyway).
But even if she were outright conceited in calling herself a genius and placing herself at the forefront of twentieth-century literature, so what?
One thing that always irritated me about modernist authors—even the ones I loved from the beginning, like Hemingway—is that their writing is all so self-consciously genius. “Look at me!” they seem to scream from the page like my four-year-old when I’ve spent too long on the computer. “Look how clever I am!”
Hemingway does this. James Joyce does this. Pablo Picasso does this (I know he’s not an author, but he’s from the same time period, and he never shied away from proclaiming his own genius). But people don’t seem to complain so loudly about the fact that these fellows know they’re geniuses. And I have to think that’s because they’re fellows.
Stein’s writing bridges the gap between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century literature. She made it possible for the amazing writers who came after her—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce—to be amazing writers and to have an audience for their amazing writing. She broke the ground, and she toiled for years and years with little recognition to do so. If she believes that she’s a genius, then what’s wrong with that?
The only thing I can see wrong with it is that she said it out loud and she said it unapologetically and she said it as a woman rather than as a man.
I really enjoyed The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The first chapter was absolutely brilliant, and I laughed and nodded with understanding many times in just the scant three pages that make up that shortest chapter. Read More