Everybody’s Example: Stein and Memoir

Michael Farrell


Does Stein's practice of autobiography raise questions and/or provide solutions for contemporary memoir and memoir theory?

An advantage of writing more than one autobiography is being able to relate the effects of the first one.

‘It was funny about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas … writers did not really mind anything that any one said about them, they might have minded something or liked something but since writing is writing and writers know that writing is writing they do not really suffer very much about anything that has been written. Besides writers have an endless curiosity about themselves and anything that is written about them help to help them know something about themselves or about what anybody else says about them… As I told Picasso the egotism of a writer is not at all the same egotism as the egotism of a painter and all the painters felt that way about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , Braque and Marie Laurencin and Matisse they did not like it and they did not get used to it… Matisse said that Picasso was not the great painter of the period that his wife did not look like a horse and that he was certain that the omelette had been an omelette or something. Braque said that he had invented cubism. And Marie Laurencin… we had not met for many a year.'

(pp 31-32 Everybody's Autobiography )

Amusing and cautionary: writing means both more and less to writers than other people, and while we may be satisfied with the fairness, objectivity or truthfulness of what we write, it's easy to underestimate the effect of writing on those we write about.

‘Alice B. Toklas did hers and everybody will do theirs.
Alice B. Toklas says and if they are all going to do theirs the way she did hers.'

(p 3, the first two sentences of Everybody's Autobiography)

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , Stein wrote her own autobiography by the means of a brilliant trick (at the end of the memoir, as Gertrude and Alice approach the present, Gertrude suggests that Alice write her autobiography, Alice asks if Gertrude would write it for her, and Gertrude agrees). A memoir of ‘a famous person I lived with' in reverse. Toklas' ownership of the autobiography is further undermined when Stein, after the above quote from Everybody's Autobiography , reveals that Toklas would have preferred the book to be called The Autobiography of Alice Toklas with no ‘B.' (as it was published in France). Stein thought the ‘B.' was ‘more' but ‘Toklas never thought so and always said so'. There are other moments in Stein's autobiographical writings when Toklas disagrees with Stein and Stein presents their differings frankly, at least as far as we know. Stein's style is a frank and open one: but it is also a humourous one, a very particular one and one concerned primarily with her ideas on writing. There are no explicit references to her relationship with Alice Toklas for example. It seems there were no major disagreements over representation of events in the memoirs or autobiographies, but it's known that Toklas was very upset when she found out about the existence of QED , a novel based on an early relationship Stein had with a woman called May. It is said that Toklas forbade Stein to use the word May in her writings and had her change ‘May' when used as a month to ‘April'. In ‘A Moveable Feast,' Ernest Hemingway mocks Stein's homophobic logic, yet I've read somewhere he broke off his friendship with the two women after overhearing them talk intimately; this is not dealt with by Stein. These are the kinds of revelations and difficulties we expect to read of in contemporary memoir. To not speak of such things is a kind of political taboo. This is what makes memoir compelling, popular, and though there may be an element of sensation in this popularity (and especially in the marketing of memoir), I think the main attraction is wanting to know how the writer dealt with the inevitable issues of their lives: the outbreaks and incursions of their bodies and psyches whether of a sexual, physiological or accidental nature. Compare Stein's description of identity: ‘I am I because my little dog knows me' with David Wojnarowicz (1991): ‘I often wonder whether my being a queer who asserts his sexual identity publicly makes some people see the word “QUEER” somehow written across my forehead in capital letters.' (p 150 Close To The Knives A Memoir of Disintegration ). Wojnarowicz details his anonymous sexual life, his experience of AIDS, and the corrupt and reactionary political and cultural life of America. It is intensely political in all senses of the word. Stein, in some senses, is on the other side of the fence: though a Jewish lesbian who lived through the Nazi occupation of France, her political ideas tend to be patriotic, generalised and poetic. Her political contribution is that of an example of individual thought, and perhaps as an example of success. Stein evades issues of truth largely through humour, force of personality and aesthetic daring. To criticise The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody's Autobiography for not being what their titles purport them to be would merely make the critic seem ill-humoured. No memoir I have read is as engaging as those of Stein; yet their personal nature is that of another era, pre-feminist (2 nd wave at least); pre-(homo)sexual liberation. And though she details all sorts of everyday activities, they are the activities of someone who has servants, and a partner who answers the phone, and who was one who ‘naturally sat'.

What can Stein offer then in such sexualised, politicised times? As memoirs increasingly adapt novelistic methods to tell life stories, the — I think largely unexplored — concepts and themes behind Stein's autobiographical work have great potential of a literary/aesthetic, intellectual and ethical nature. Consider the concepts behind the two autobiographies. There are many memoirs by partners of famous writers, often published after the writer's death. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein not only subverts this through writing the memoir herself, she suggests that her partner Alice Toklas is complicit in the writing. The culture of contemporary memoir is one in which the issues of offended family members: of lawsuits, feuds and ‘counter-memoir' are common. Many memoirists wait for family members to die before they publish; others strongly fictionalise their writing. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas offers a different kind of model, a complicit model, in which the writer's life is written through another's. And in Everybody's Autobiography when she mentions Toklas' disagreement, there is no sense of rancour, or defensiveness on Stein's part: her good humour is also perhaps a moral example. Why, when many memoirs detail family tragedies for example, are there not more joint biographies, less insistence on one person's truth? For all Stein's apparent egoism and complacency, doesn't she also appear less individualistic — even saintly in her role of the writer for everyone?

Stein can be difficult: because like a poet she has her own English. And it is through that English she approaches her own truths: and they are sometimes difficult truths. The following tells of the break-up with her brother Leo, which seems to suggest that Leo couldn't stand the fact that it was Gertrude who was the genius and not he.

       ‘Then slowly he began explaining not what I was doing but he was explaining, and explaining well explaining might have been an explanation. Now and then I was not listening. This had never happened to me before but up to that time I had always been listening sometimes arguing very often just being interested and being interesting and very often it was just that we had always been together as we always were.
       This is what happened then.
       Slowly and in a way it was not astonishing but slowly I was knowing that I was a genius and it was happening and I did not say anything but I was almost ready to begin to say something. My brother began saying something and this is what he said.
       He said it was not it it was I. If I was not there to be there with what I did then what I did would not be what it was. In other words if no one knew me actually then the things I did would not be what they were.
       He did not say it to me but said it so it would be true for me. And it did not trouble me and as it did not trouble me I knew it was not true and a little as it did not trouble me he knew it was not true.
       But it destroyed him for me and it destroyed me for him.
       Because there was this thing it should have been in him, he knew it best so it should have been in him.'

(pp 76-77 Everybody's Autobiography )

This passage is I think exemplary in several ways: first, Stein has no false modesty; second, this is a very careful description of what went wrong, the shifting reality seeming to happen on the level of syntax: it is subjective in a particular way. She isn't describing an incident but a set of relations, she is saying what she really thinks went wrong, word by word. Instead of trying to be more objective as another writer might do in order to seem persuasive, Stein is clearly being truthful, because it is clearly only her truth: it is in her language. Thirdly, I think it evokes very well a shift in power relations, and fourth, it contains its own beautiful definition of truth: ‘And it did not trouble me and as it did not trouble me I knew it was not true and a little as it did not trouble me he knew it was not true'.

Everybody's Autobiography. Just the title has boundless possibilities. What could such a title mean? What could be the result of such a book? Could there ever be enough agreement, hypothetically, fantastically for such a book to be written? In her novel The Making of Americans , Stein begins with a description of her own family, which then, she says, was extended with ‘the idea of describing every one, every one who could or would or had been living'. What, after writing such a novel, is the next logical step but Everybody's Autobiography ? Stein's work provides many useful examples of the fictionalisation of life, and how anything can be autobiography. For that is what Everybody's Autobiography is intended to be: an example for everybody: ‘Anyway autobiography is easy like it or not autobiography is easy for any one and so this is to be everybody's autobiography'. (p 6 Everybody's Autobiography).

Stein was a prolific and an obsessive writer; she used to stay up all night writing, leaving the results for Toklas to type up the next day. In this and other ways Stein resembles a male writer-model, and is something of an (avant-garde) hero in the Rousseauan sense. In the quote from Stein on the back cover of Look at Me Now and Here I Am, she says: ‘The four big American writers are Poe, Whitman, James, myself. The line of descent is clear'. Cynthia Gannett (in Gender and the Journal p102) wants to separate ‘literary' journal keepers from their non-literary sisters. Yet perhaps there is work to be done on the very prolificity of women writers regardless of their genre, fame or literary standing.

The assertion of women's agency as writers is a major theme of late 20 th century writing. Virginia Woolf, a prolific writer across different genres including much life-writing, helped lay the groundwork, particularly with her influential A Room of One's Own. But Stein, more concerned with identity as a theme than as a practice, can be relied on for more idiosyncratic generalisations about gender and writing, e.g. this dialogue with Dashiell Hammett:

‘I said to Hammett there is something that is puzzling. In the nineteenth century the men when they were writing did invent all kinds and a great number of men. The women on the other hand never could invent women they always made the women be themselves seen splendidly or sadly or heroically or beautifully or despairingly or gently, and they never could make any other kind of woman. From Charlotte Bronte to George Eliot and many years later this was true. Now in the twentieth century it is men who do it. The men all write about themselves, they are always themselves as strong or weak or mysterious or passionate or drunk or controlled but always themselves as the women used to do it in the nineteenth century. Now you yourself always do it now why is it. He said it's simple. In the nineteenth century men were confident, the women were not but in the twentieth century the men have no confidence and so they have to make themselves as you say more beautiful more intriguing more everything and they cannot make any other man because they have to hold on to themselves not having any confidence.'

(p 5 Everybody's Autobiography )

I think Stein's idiosyncrasy and authority have great potential for memoir also. It is typical of all histories to be presented as neat, progressive stories, and assumptions are made about the sorts of life-writing that existed up until recently, the exceptions such as Nin, Woolf, and so on, the relation between the autobiographical novel (Proust, Rilke, Salinger et al.) to autobiography. But what is being excluded is art. I think there's a fear of art, the same fear that Stein encountered constantly — despite the fact that her autobiographies were popular — and that fear is reinforced by the publisher's fear of the non-commercial. Ordinary people, people who would never think of themselves as artists want to be validated; other writers want to validate them; there's a memoir industry to support and encourage. Yet well-known creative writers have written memoir, and some writers use experimental techniques in their life-writing. Stein may be a genius, but does that place her outside the genre? Genres never stay stable for long.

Stein returns again and again to the themes of identity, human nature and writing itself. These themes tie all her work together and though there are works that can be called autobiographies, others novels, poetry and lectures, her self-referentiality and habit of explanation give the impression that her oeuvre is one work, that it is all ‘life-writing'.

In the above quoted introduction to Everybody's Autobiography , Toklas could be simply alluding to the fact that Stein ‘wrote Toklas', or more slyly, that ‘everybody's' would be about Stein, as ‘everybody' lives with her.

How do Stein's claims for art measure up against life, her own life, and claims for her own (and ‘everybody's') life?

Stein asserted that in the 20 th Century, masterpieces are flat. She is referring to the Cubists' abandonment of perspective, but also to her own writing. Her writing is concerned with sentences and with language, and is free — in a conventional sense at least — of allusion, suspense and character development. This flatness can be seen in the writings of William Burroughs, John Ashbery, Bernadette Mayer and the films of Andy Warhol and Jim Jarmusch. But if life can be a work of art (Oscar Wilde:‘My life is like a work of art. An artist never starts the same thing twice.' Ellmann p 508), and if this idea inspires us to live our lives as masterpieces , what are the implications of Stein's claims? An exemplary life; a Buddhist's life; a life without desire: a saint's life… Stein told Charlie Chaplin that her idea in her opera ‘Four Saints in Three Acts' had been

       ‘that what was most exciting was when nothing was happening… that saints should naturally do nothing if you were a saint that was enough and a saint existing was everything… I wanted to write a drama where no one did anything where there was no action and I had… and it was exciting.'

(p 283 Everybody's Autobiography )

Poetry and fiction are riddled with desire but memoir is not. Though it may detail dramatic happenings and intense feelings, the memoir is a flat or reflective form, that is, one in which nothing happens. It seems to me that Stein is a significant forerunner of memoir and its popularity (apart from the two autobiographies, Stein wrote two war memoirs: Wars I Have Seen and Paris France ): a feature of all her writing is the everyday, the present, and meditations on that present.

‘Wherever she was she liked to change places. Otherwise there was nothing to do all day. Of course she went to bed early but even so she always could say, what shall I do now, now what shall I do.'

(Stein's novel Ida p 339, Look at Me Now and Here I Am )

I think this refers to Stein's own boredom when she was younger, before she discovered writing and being a genius. In her bio note for Look at Me Now and Here I Am , it says she left John Hopkins medical school without a degree because she was ‘bored, frankly and openly bored'. Stein makes a distinction between doing nothing and being bored.

‘It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.'

(p 70 Everybody's Autobiography )

And though many critics find her writing boring, Stein is no longer bored — she is excited by the workings of her mind, and of language and the sentence in her mind.

Though Everybody's Autobiography is written as a story, at times in the past tense, she reverts to present tense, and it reads more like a diary or a daybook, a diary of the mind and its workings, as in a sense is her more nominally creative work.

‘It was in Bilignin that I decided to go to America again after years of not having been.'

‘I can never touch a book with a glove on and I get very troubled when anyone touches a book and they have a glove on. Dirty hands do not dirty a book as much as a glove can.'

(both p 151 Everybody's Autobiography )

A flat life seems to me an ideal one for a writer, one in which they can write and read undisturbed, and as for content, we all have memories, and you can't stop life from happening to you.

Language doesn't exist outside culture; the language of the nomadic Navaho, for example (as described by Waldman pp 96-97), is one of action and movement. It has many different verbs with slightly different meanings; it is less concerned with time. As a settled member of a settled culture, Stein's language, her English, is concerned with time, and concentrates on nouns: it is a language of being. Assuming memoir evolves, an evolving consciousness of the language of memoir, of the language of memory, of being and becoming, is a possible route for memoir to follow, one that approaches philosophy rather than fiction. To remain alive as an art form, memoir must seek new structures, new paradigms: and countless exist in the memory of memoir. Don't forget Stein.

Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde (Penguin 1988).

Gannett, Cinthia. Gender and the Journal (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast (Simon & Schuster, 1964).

Smith, Sidonie and Watson, Julia. Reading Autobiography; A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (University of Minnesota 2002).

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Penguin reprint, 1967). Stein, Gertrude. Everybody's Autobiography (Vintage Books Edition 1973, reprint of the1937 edition, Random House).

Stein, Gertrude. Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Stories (Virago 1995).

Stein, Gertrude. Look At Me Now and Here I Am, Writings and Lectures 1909-45 (Penguin 1967).

Wojnarowicz, David. Close To The Knives A Memoir of Disintegration (Vintage 1991).


BIO: Michael Farrell lives in Melbourne and is the Australia editor of Slope. ode ode (Salt Publishing 2003) is his first book. You can read his review of Clutch: Including Hockey Love Letters by Sawako Nakayasu in this issue's Alerts section.

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