The Genius and Her Sanctuary

Pivotal moments in the pairing of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas


Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, by Janet Malcolm, Yale University Press, $25

In 2003 and 2005, Janet Malcolm published essays in The New Yorker about a great American couple, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Two different sets of responses chugged into my in box. The first, from a sampling of New Yorker readers, found the essays revelatory, a gift bag of surprises. The second, from well-versed Stein scholars, declared the essays old hat. Some of these people shrugged off the absence of any reference to their own chapters about Stein. Others whimpered.

Malcolm has now lightly revised her essays and issued them as a book, Two Lives. No doubt similar sets of responses will appear. Her title both plays with that of Three Lives—Stein’s first publication, a series of novellas about women—and announces that Malcolm’s interests are biographical. A brilliant journalist and detective, she pictures herself on a “journey into the Stein interior,” a psychological Steinian “I” that lies “submerged” within the writing and that might partially belie the jolly savant of Stein’s best-selling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. What, she asks, was Stein really feeling? Expressing and repressing? Stein is also a major landmark of modern culture. An ample woman in life, she left an amplitude of achievements that must still be entered, reconnoitered, and explored.

On her quest, Malcolm finds magister figures, teachers who can be quirky but upon whom she relies for insights. They include Leon Katz, a pioneering Stein scholar who has never released a long-promised book about her work; the scholars Ulla Dydo and Edward M. Burns, whom I think of as the superegos among Stein scholars; and their collaborator, William Rice, a downtown artist and actor who died in 2006. Of Malcolm’s six endnotes, two credit Dydo, one Dydo and Burns.

Stein, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1874, died in Paris in 1946. Toklas, born in San Francisco in 1877, died in 1967, also in Paris. There they are buried together in Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Privately, they thought of themselves in a rich complexity of ways. Stein was a husband, Toklas a wife and beneficiary of orgasms, often coded in Stein’s writing as “cow”; Stein was a baby, Toklas a protective caretaker. Publicly, Stein was a lovable, magnetic life force; Toklas her necessary and less appealing personal assistant and organizer. Privately and publicly, Stein was a “genius,” a concept she treasured, and Toklas was the creator of the domestic sanctuaries in which the genius could eat, sleep, bathe, talk, meditate, and scrawl. As Malcolm reminds us, Toklas was no patsy. She did more than type up Stein’s manuscripts and serve delicious pastries. She is a voice in Stein’s dialogic texts, and after Stein’s death, she incisively wrote her own autobiography, scads of letters, and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, published in 1954.

In a comic opening scene, Malcolm tells us that her journey into the interior began with that poised but extravagant text. She and a group of “pretentious young persons I ran around with” found it a sophisticated rebuke to United States provincialism. Yet, rereading it, Malcolm finds one chapter, the 11th out of 13, so untouched by food or finger stains that she might never have read it in the 1950s. The chapter, “Food in the Bugey During the Occupation,” is about eating in the villages in southeastern France, where Stein and Toklas had summered and then spent World War II. Happily, the last recipe is for “Liberation Fruit Cake,” which Toklas baked and sent off to the general “whose army had liberated the Bugey” from the Germans and their Vichy collaborators.

One of the persistent themes in Malcolm’s work, here and elsewhere, is the precariousness of knowledge, which the bossiness of a recipe can conceal. The more we learn, the more we must revise previous ideas and interpretations of reality, a conviction no less plausible for being widely shared. She writes: “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.” Among her defenses against error and stupidity are doing her research and slicing apart the games we play and the gambits we deploy when we pass ourselves off as knowing smarties. Malcolm’s style—the metaphors, polish, glitter, and sharpness, the ruthless paring of verbal gluts and waste—also seems like a hard-won compensation and consolation for cognitive frailties, stains, and messiness.

Armed with such beliefs and such skills, Malcolm wants her journey to end not in a standard biography but in the recovery and analysis of three pivotal biographical moments, the hinges of a life. One is the beginning of Stein’s career when, with Toklas’s support, she realized she had genius. Succinctly, wittily, Malcolm makes her way through The Making of Americans, an immense saga/autobiography that Stein composed during and just after the first decade of the 20th century. Its heart is the tale of the making of Stein as an American writer. A second moment is after Stein’s death, the physical end of the twinned lives of Stein and Toklas. Increasingly fragile, Toklas stayed on alone, burnishing Stein’s reputation, turning to Roman Catholicism, and counting on a reunion with Baby in heaven.

The third moment is those World War II years in the Bugey. Malcolm asks, as others have, how two aging, Jewish-American lesbians could possibly have survived them. Why were they not rounded up and killed as millions of other Jews were? Indeed, they were once warned to leave France within 24 hours or be sent to a concentration camp. They remained where they were. Although Malcolm does not say so, their experience—that of American Jews who stayed alive in Nazi Europe—is a reversal of her own. Born in 1934, she escaped in 1939 from Czechoslovakia with her Jewish family and settled in America.


One of Stein’s most profound books, Wars I Have Seen, is about the World War II years. Malcolm reads it beautifully, probing beneath Stein’s cheerfulness and resilience to find anxiety and fear. The war years changed Stein. Her capacity for stupid political judgments, a mark of the 1930s, shriveled. She gives some reasons why she and Toklas survived. For example, they had helpful neighbors. They were also in a center of the French resistance. She does not or cannot tell us what was perhaps the most powerful reason: Stein and Toklas were protected. Their guardian/savior was Bernard Faÿ, a close friend, a gay man, a translator of Stein into French, a literature professor, and an odious human being. After a Jew was fired from the post in 1940, he became director of the Bibliothèque nationale. He was an archcon­ser­­vative, an anti-Semite, and a murderous collaborator with the Gestapo and other Nazis.

Malcolm is scathing about Faÿ, but Stein and Toklas were passionately loyal to him. At once sardonic and baffled, Malcolm picks at the bonds between Jews and anti-Semites. In so doing, she asks how much Stein and Toklas thought of themselves as Jews, what Stein wrote and said about Jews, and to what extent Stein knew about the murder of other Jews. Informed by such scholars as Brenda Wineapple and Barbara Will, I find many more Jewish themes and references in Stein’s work than Malcolm does, but she is far more engrossed in what she has discovered about this aspect of the Stein-Toklas identity and self-identification than in their lesbianism. In occupied France it was their Jewishness that put them most at risk.

As information inundates the 21st-century world, and the categories of knowledge that organize information shiver and crack and change, it becomes more and more imperative to say why something matters, why we should bother with it. Two Lives reflects on modern storytelling, literature, creativity, reputation and memories, love and sexuality, and Jewish responses to the habits and horrors of the anti-Semite and anti-Semitism.

Moreover, Stein was a genius, a revolutionary of the word whom the 21st century must claim as such. Unhappily, Malcolm does not find the “harder” Stein texts “congenial,” which may be why she underestimates Stein’s vast influence and the power and range of her prose, poetry, and plays. Despite the teachings of Dydo and Burns and Rice; despite Malcolm’s awareness of Stein’s inventiveness and the half-tribute that she is “saturated with some sort of elixir of originality,” her heart does not belong to Stein’s incessant experiments with language, perception, time, and space. Malcolm writes with erring accuracy that “Stein’s influence on twentieth-century writing is nebulous. No school of Stein ever came into being.” Then she adds more charitably, “Every writer who lingers over Stein’s sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.”

No school of Stein? No, no, no, this is not really so. Not only does much writing and theater after Stein follow her suggestive examples of form and process, but she provides bursts of oxygen that artists can now breathe. From the beginning of her career, she excited both hostile, ferocious critics and admiring, ardent advocates. Her supporters form two sprawling, overlapping groups: the commentator/critics and the artists. In the beginning, the former tended to be friends, fellow modernists, and readers who fell in love with her newness. After her death, she accumulated biographers, anthologists, scholars, and critics, the canniest of whom realize that Stein was always her own best explainer. A turning point in Stein scholarship occurred in 1970 when Richard Bridgman, reading her as a whole and cracking her sexual codes, published Gertrude Stein in Pieces. Four years later, James R. Mellow followed with a major biography, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. Then came the torrent of feminist criticism, gay and lesbian criticism, queer theory, poststructuralism, and brilliant close readings—like those of Marjorie Perloff.

As for the artists of all genres, the unruly modernists and postmodernists always got Stein. She showed them how to go beyond fixed conventions of thought, feeling, and comprehension. The essentially orderly modernists—like T. S. Eliot—were far more suspicious of her. In the 1930s, John Cage was writing music to Stein’s texts. In the 1940s, her plays mattered to the Living Theatre and the Brattle Theatre Company in Cambridge, whose members included the poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. She was a stimulus to the downtown arts scene in New York City, to Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson and the Language Poets. Bonnie Marranca, in her introduction to a 1995 edition of Last Operas and Plays, correctly calls Stein the “mother” of the American avant-garde, but her generativity stretches out globally.

Malcolm, whose independence I respect, does not fit easily into either of these groups. Having finished Two Lives, I returned to Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (first series, 1925). Woolf’s essays wear their learning lightly—they are dazzlers, quick, vivid, irresistible. She draws on Dr. Johnson to imagine a common reader who is neither scholar nor critic, but a reader with common sense, “uncorrupted by literary prejudices,” who reads for pleasure and who conjures up, no matter how fallibly, a sense of the whole—of an author, a work, a culture. This reader helps to determine who shall have “poetical honours.” Malcolm alloys her pleasure with what Thomas Hardy called the “ache of modernism” and with her refusal to be soft and sweet. She is a common reader for this moment. I am glad her journey has given Stein and Toklas some honor.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.


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