I am not who "I" pretend to be: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and its photographic frontispiece

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Date: May 2005
From: The Comparatist(Vol. 29)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,693 words

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A photograph by Man Ray (fig. 1) serves as the frontispiece for the first edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). (1) In the image, a severely cropped version of Man Ray's original composition, a waifish Alice B. Toklas, in a loose-fitting, floor-length dress, enters the study where Gertrude Stein sits at her desk, enveloped in her work. Although Stein dominates the foreground of the photograph, the caption fails to acknowledge her presence. It simply reads, "Alice B. Toklas at the door, photograph by Man Ray."

With the frontispiece, Stein establishes a comparison between two purportedly direct modes of referentiality: autobiography and portrait photography. The medium of photography, in general, complements Stein's deconstruction of autobiography as a genre. The frontispiece, in particular, reads as The Autobiography en abyme. (2)

The frontispiece, with its seemingly askew caption, highlights the discrepancy between the book's title and its content. According to Stein's own specifications, her name did not appear on the spine, front cover, or title page of the first edition. Since the first publication, publishers have exhibited a palpable anxiety about this absence. While not a household name, by 1933 Stein had achieved a literary reputation in the United States. Toklas, in contrast, was completely unknown. The title, therefore, failed to deliver autobiography's usual pledge; The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas did not promise to provide the details of an exemplary or otherwise extraordinary life. To this day, republications of The Autobiography almost always feature Stein's image (sans Toklas) on the cover and Stein's name on the spine, front cover, and title page. In other words, Stein's transgression of autobiographical convention still requires considerable explanation in publishers' eyes.

In 1933, the Literary Guild of New York introduced the book to its members by means of a brief, clarificatory letter. The revised title became The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: The Life Story of Gertrude Stein, by Gertrude Stein. As editor-in-chief Carl Van Doren states in the letter: "It is important to know from the outset that while this book is called the autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (a companion of Miss Stein), it is actually the story of Gertrude Stein's life since 1903." (3) Van Doren does not want the reader to judge the book by its cover. With a tone of urgency, he attempts to purge from the title the very ambiguities Stein wanted to project.

Van Doren places Toklas within parentheses in more ways than one. For one thing, his introduction dismisses Toklas's importance both as a narrative persona and as Stein's lifelong partner. Perhaps more importantly, Van Doren's imposition hampers the reader's participation in the construction of the text's meaning. The "by Gertrude Stein" decreases the reader's active skepticism about the "I." Van Doren's decided explanation of Stein's ruse of authorship undermines the latter's interrogation of (self-)representation.

Readers expect autobiographies to "tell all," and Van Doren assures potential readers that while The Autobiography does not occupy itself with the details of the lesser-known Toklas's life, it does...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A140242264