American Grammar in Paris

Stein and Toklas

The  Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an entertaining and captivating reading provides a sharp contrast in very writing style to other, earlier writings of Americans in Paris. While Twain’s Innocents Abroad excerpt is written in a similarly modern, clear prose style, I found the writing less engaging, the story more dull, and in general I would say there is no comparison. To be frank I wasn’t very much interested in in the Innocents Abroad excerpt at all except that it sparked discussion of Twain’s relationship to Sherwood Anderson, a recurring figure in Alice B. Toklas who I found more engaging and sympathetic than Twain in any fashion.

I have some background with Gertrude Stein, chiefly in that one of my close friends is very much a wide reader and for example is knowledgable and well-read in critical literary theory, and he has shown me examples of Stein’s work, specifically excerpts from her treatise on commas and grammar. In comparison, Alice B. Toklas’s style is absolutely normal. But I think that the voice of the earlier Americans in Paris, as early as Jefferson and Franklin, is still preserved. An excerpt from Franklin’s letter included in  the anthology Americans in Paris, indeed from page one of the anthology, reads:

Franklin wearing a Coonskin Cap in Paris

I am always pleas’d with a Letter from you, and I flatter myself you may be sometimes pleas’d in receiving one from me, tho’ it should be of little Importance, such as this, which is to consist of a few occasional Remarks made here and in my Journey hither.

For a letter dated 1767, Franklin’s writing is still very modern-sounding clean prose. But the capitalization makes a reader think of how the sentences would be spoken aloud by reminding the reader of spoken emphasis, even if the capitalized words to a modern reader do not seem as if they would be emphasized in common speech. I find similar in tone Stein’s writing when recounting conversations, as from page 152 in Alice B. at a lunch:

Alice B Toklas

She said solemnly to Gertrude Stein, Miss Stein you are I understand an important person in

Paris. I think it would come very well from a neutral like yourself to suggest to the french government that they give us Pondichéry. It would be very useful to us. Gertrude replied politely that to her great regret her importance such as it was was among painters and writers and not with politicians. But that, said Mrs. Bishop, would make no difference. You should I think suggest to the french government that they give us Pondichéry. After lunch Gertrude Stein said to me under her breath, where the hell is Pondichéry.

Franklin’s same conversational tone is found in Stein’s transcriptions of conversations, although I would say that she goes even further into integrating speech and prose with her exclusion of quotation marks. I also think Franklin and Stein’s excerpts contain both distinct but similar and amusing humor in the details they recount.

The capitalization of specific nouns in the style of 1767 letter writing is also interesting to contrast with Stein’s style of both punctuation and capitalization. Stein in Alice B. has not completely sworn off commas, and while they’re not as frequent as perhaps Franklin’s or Abigail Adams’ commas, they’re still used and their absence isn’t jarring. But her treatment in capitalization is totally different from the style of Franklin’s. The 1767 letter follows the fashion of capitalizing certain nouns, a practice long out of style by Stein’s writing, but she also neglects to capitalize some proper nouns, specifically nationalities. England will be capitalized but next to English is not. In this way I think Stein makes a point of remaining true to the essence of the word.

An excerpt from Tender Buttons

An excerpt from Tender Buttons

While the 1767 style draws attention to key words, Stein uses the lack of capitalization in this case to deflect attention from unimportant words. I distinctly remember a specific lesson when I was learning grammar in which we were given a worksheet with sentences that had implied words in them, and I believe that Stein is using this principle with her de-capitalization of nationalities. When one says “English” one is really saying “the English,” which is really saying “the English people.” So the implication of a nationality like English is really people, which is not capitalized in running prose, and so Stein does not capitalize the nationality.

In the previous discussion concerning style with the quote of the Pondichéry conversation, a nationality is used as an adjective. One could say that the uncapitalized “french government” is uncapitalized because it implies “french (people’s) government” and I think this interpretation would follow from the above paragraphs. However I would also argue that by keeping such adjectives lowercased Stein is streamlining and making the language more consistent; one does not after all ever write “the Brown dog’s bone.” An adjective is not a thing in itself but a condition of another thing. On those terms as well Stein writes.


Interestingly enough, Harry Crosby’s Paris Diaries also use unique capitalization. He does not employ Stein’s de-capitalization but instead seems to hark back to Franklin’s day, the 1776 style of the capitalized emphasis. While Franklin’s was an organized and widely used style which indicated education, breeding, and decorum, Crosby’s is entirely its opposite. His style provides a context for his capitalization choices in which they emerge from the tepid water of a feverdream, shouts of either lucidity or heightened madness from the bacchanal of his diaries. Before writing of Crosby I did some light research in order to find a list of his works in order to make sure his capitalizations after all weren’t just proper names of a novel he wrote at the time (1923-1929) and discovered that while several pieces of Crosby’s included the word “sun” which I will discuss here, none of them were only titled “sun.” But the real fruit of that research was a remark in an article which referred to Crosby as “obsessed” with the imagery of the sun.

Franklin capitalizes from a sense of style and fashion; Stein with a sense to the deconstruction; Harry Crosby capitalizes in Paris Diaries from an obsession. Only once in the excerpts given does he neglect to capitalize the word sun, and I would argue such a break in the consistent capitalization in fact proves the rule. The sentence in question is as follows: “A princess perhaps whose hair was of sun and whose eyes were of fire” (Gopnik 337). The sentence uses “of sun,” notably not “the sun,” in which case Crosby would have capitalized it. In this sense he shows that his capitalization is not just the product of a whimsical obsession but a deliberate and dedicated one, an obsession with structure. In an equal but opposite gesture to Stein’s, he makes of the sun a person where before it is an object.

Poem from Harry Crosby

Later in his Diaries Crosby capitalizes other words: City, Eight, Students, Punch Bowl, Party, Gay, Noisy Noisier, Ten O’Clock, Gin Gin Gin, Costume, Dark Princess, Eleven, Zebra Skins, Leopard Skin, all but one (City) appearing in the 1927 4 Arts party entry and nowhere else in the other entries. To Crosby the Sun is the recurring figure, but for this specific year’s party he seems to elevate other words into personhood. Each seems to have a specific context, in this way less stylistically dogged like Franklin’s and more carefully chosen, like Stein’s.

City becomes capitalized through its association with the Sun; the rest seem to be tied in an emotional aspect to similar foundations as Crosby’s use of Sun, that is, as things which become people or ideas. Some of the capitalized words on the other hand read as a parody of speech and in that turn a parody of the party that Crosby is reveling in: the repetition in Gin Gin Gin like the chant of American drinkers, Gay the overheard snatch of conversation, and all the time markers are capitalized so as to give a sense of jarring importance and mention. What time is it, Crosby’s other sentences seem to beguile the reader to ask, and just like a libertine in the midst of a party Crosby fairly shouts when he realizes oh, Eleven, Ten O’clock, Eight.

AGallatinnother anthology writer with whom I’d like to compare Stein is James Gallatin. Gallatin’s Diary, as excerpted in the anthology, is from 1837 and still a hundred years precious to Alice B.’s publication. Of course by 1933 when Alice B. was published Stein had been active for many years. But I draw a comparison between the two in their lighthearted conversational style, and also because both writers are clearly having so much fun. Even in passages where Stein discusses the war, she doesn’t linger on atrocity or horror which are the primary accepted subjects with which to describe war. Instead she focuses on her and Toklas’s experiences and discuss them in much a lighthearted way although much of their work had to do with wounded soldiers.

What I found most charming about Gallatin’s diary was the utter lack of pretense. But Gallatin was not writing for an audience, just himself, and so the confessional and honest quality of the entries is by accident while Stein’s writing in Alice B., though similar in its frankness, was explicitly created to be read. In this Stein is braver, but then Gallatin didn’t want to be a writer, just a flashy rich person.

I also find the two pieces have in common the fact that they do not moon over Paris. Many of the other excerpts in the anthology more or less come to an American visiting Paris for the first time and talking at length about how beautiful everything is, how different it is from America, and so on. Neither Gallatin nor Stein-as-Toklas bother: they tell their life in Paris and elsewhere as it happens without idealizing their location. Gallatin is so blasé about living in Paris to the point where he meets the king and a sentence in his first paragraph is “the King is old and very fat” (Gopnik 32). Had Mark Twain or Henry James met the king in their excerpts I can be sure they would have talked of nothing else for pages, both in their sardonic fashions but of course still in taking so much time they would be edifying the vision of Paris.

Tender Buttons Excerpt

An excerpt from Tender Buttons

The quality that Stein spends very little time glorifying Paris can be attributed to her long residence in the city—once you live somewhere for long enough, it can’t be that exciting. And, like Gallatin, Stein-as-Toklas is less interested in telling about the beauty of landscape and atmosphere and culture than in slinging gossip and parading a list of names before the reader. In this fashion I think Gallatin and Stein encompass a facet of French culture that some of the other American writers fail to grasp: the endless obsession with names and status. Stein spends little time on the actual rank of the names she drops while Gallatin, as a dignitary, loves to expand on them, but in Stein distinguishes the people in her piece by rank of skill or talent. Often a painter or writer is dismissed as being good but lacking a key element, an appreciation of the meaning of a line and its attempts to encompass humanity and other similar abstractions which Stein finds most important in an artist. In short, a grand vision, even if that grand vision is contained to a small detail.

Gertrude Stein

In this way the reader becomes more engaged and fond of Stein/Toklas and Gallatin than is possible with the other writers. Twain, for example, writes his excerpt so that the truth of the situation is impossible to know and everyone is being made fun of. Stein/Toklas and Gallatin do not vilify anyone despite the many details of personal lives they give. Stein will simply state that she did not like someone, or found them uninteresting, their work lacking.

But she is never outright cruel. Even when Andre Salmon eats a decoration off Alice’s hat, the language is never condemning but only simple: “There on the couch lay Salmon peacefully sleeping and surrounding him, half chewed, were a box of matches, a petit bleu and my yellow fantaisie” (Stein 107). Stein never returns to Salmon with even a jokingly damning epithet; he is mentioned in other sections as he comes up and the incident is never referred to although Toklas is clearly distressed by the destruction of one of her few victories in fashion.

Gallatin has a similar moment when, after months of anticipation, he finally finds himself invited to a grisette ball. Although he is more emotional, calling the men at the party “wild beasts from their behaviour,” he does not discuss this at  length and he never brings them up in subsequent entries (Gopnik 39). Gallatin finds them not to his liking, says so, and moves on.

Abigail Adams is similar, more to Gallatin than Stein, and maybe it is that the latter two were so successful as Americans in Paris because this trait is at its purest a form of politeness. It is more polite to say “I do not like him” and leave it there than to say “I do not like him” and then launch into a retelling of the offending party’s terrible behavior and demeanor. The politeness of the French is much talked about by the other authors. Perhaps they notice it only in comparison to themselves.


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