Gertrude Stein “had a laugh like beefsteak.” At least according to one of her friends, Mabel Doge Luhan. “Gertrude was hearty…She loved beef, and I used to like to see her sit down in front of five pounds of rare meat three inches thick…” I’m not sure if Luhan meant for this passage in her memoirs to be so subtly derisive, to align our thoughts of Stein with the bestial, to shame her for being a masculine woman, a lesbian genius. Regardless, recent scholarship has certainly been pointing in this direction and I can’t help but agree. Since she first began writing, critics and even biographers have called an absurd amount of attention to her large size and her sexuality—oftentimes more attention than they were willing to give to her actual writing. And yet, I can’t help but be enthralled by that description. “She had a laugh like beefsteak.” Despite the degrading, bovine associations, there’s something comforting and exciting about imagining a medium-rare laugh that falls on a plate with a joyous, sinewy smack.
For the last month or so, I haven’t been able to get Gertrude out of my head. Not just her laugh but her words, especially those found in two particular works: her book of poetry, Tender Buttons, and her memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein’s poetry displays a diversity of voices that her alleged beefsteak laugh belies. While some poems certainly pack a meaty punch (see the poem “Peeled Pencil, Choke” which reads simply “Rub her coke.”), others flit effortlessly about domestic spaces looking at mundane objects from bizarre angles. Some have argued that this style is the literary equivalent to Cubism, her subversion of syntax and grammar forcing our attention on startlingly new combinations of words. However, her memoir is arguably the more fascinating work.
Written in six weeks and published in 1933, the Autobiography became her most commercially successful and most well-known work. In it, Stein documents not only her life before and after arriving in Paris in 1903, but also the life of her lover and life-long domestic partner Alice B. Toklas. Instead of writing the book from her own point of view, however, Stein shifts the perspective to Toklas’ making the Autobiography somewhat of a vanguard in creative non-fiction. We see the development of Stein’s famous salon and intimate portraits of the Parisian avant-garde through both the eyes of Toklas and the pen of Stein. The invasion of the knowledge of Stein’s authorship adds a tantalizing layer of complexity to the otherwise plain-spoken style of Toklas’ voice. Every time she enters into the memoir, Stein stands out against the rest of the characters described through Toklas; she is both character and author, a coy yet urbane presence that is constantly winking at the reader.
There seems to me to be an impulse to view the lives authors and artists as distant from the works they create. This is especially true of male artists. They have the privilege of having their fictions and non-fictions neatly sliced in two and considered separately before being spliced back together again. Meanwhile, female artists are written about as if their domestic lives and psychological make-up (which are often portrayed as weak or deviant) were more crucial to our understanding of them than whatever they might have created. Stein is certainly not the first or only female artist to suffer from this form of critical misogyny. It’s hard not to think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar without first thinking of her depression, her electroshock therapy, or her head in an oven. This troublesome tendency is a contemporary one as well; consider the recent debacle over Jonathan Franzen’s analysis of Edith Wharton’s work. However, Stein’s Autobiography presents a unique silver lining to such a mindset.
By presenting her memoir so plainly yet so artfully, she exposes the benefits—perhaps even the necessity—of viewing her writing within the context of her life and her voice. Or rather her multiplicity of voices. Assuming we are willing to give just as much critical attention to her writing as to her life, we can see Stein’s work as a consequence of not only her own talent, but of the people and events that impressed themselves upon her from the revolutionary work of Picasso and Matisse, to the devastating tremors of WWI, to the companionship and love of Alice B. Toklas. And this is essentially the benefit of memoir: an invitation by the author to glimpse into her life and consider it seriously. As Stein herself wrote in Tender Buttons, “it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely.”
— Joshua Palmer