Today in fiction
On March 7, 1856, Mr. Francis writes in his journal that he fainted when Dr. B. changed his dressings.
— “The Voyage of the Narwhal” (1998)
By Andrea Barrett
From “The Book of Fictional Days”
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1967 Alice B. Toklas died, at the age of 89. Toklas spent her last 21 years without Gertrude Stein, but with the same idiosyncratic devotion to Stein’s genius as she had throughout their 33 years together. She had a gravesite designed in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in order that Stein would lie with the other great French dead — although the gravestone turned hometown Allegheny, Penn, into “Allfghany,” and got the day of death wrong. She gathered up all of Stein’s unpublished manuscripts and commissioned their publication, at the rate of one work per year for the next eight years. Because “Gertrude would have despised and hated the idea” of her doing so, Toklas declined to introduce such volumes, forcing Stein’s own explanatory introduction to “A Novel of Thank You” into service:
“‘A Novel of Thank You’ means that at any time they are as much when it is widened by its being worn out worn and less worn then and everybody can say should it be what they came to do.”
Toklas also urged Virgil Thompson, who had written the music for Stein’s first opera hit, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” to complete work on “The Mother of Us All,” her opera on Susan B. Anthony. It could not have required an explanatory introduction:
“Men said Susan B. are so conservative, so selfish, so boresome and said Susan B. they are so ugly, and said Susan B. they are gullible, anybody can convince them … they are poor things, they are poor things … men are conservative, dull, monotonous, deceived, stupid, unchanging and bullies … they know how to drink and get drunk.”
At the age of 76, Toklas published her famous cookbook, with chapters on “Murder in the Kitchen” and recipes on hash fudge — this had been offered to her for the “Recipes From Friends” chapter, been innocently included by Alice, and gone unnoticed by the publisher. This book was more for money than homage, made necessary by the attempts of Stein’s nephew and niece (through their Baltimore lawyer, Edgar Allan Poe Jr.) to execute Stein’s will to their benefit. Eventually, at the age of 87, Toklas found herself evicted from the flat that she and Stein had shared for so long, and bilked out of any share in the fortune the relatives made on Stein’s collection of Matisses, Picassos and Cezannes. One who visited before her eviction commented on the bare walls, the blank spots still visible on the faded wall where the paintings had been taken away: She said that her eyes were to weak to see the blank spots, “But I can see the pictures in my memory, I remember each one and where it was — I don’t need to see them now.” Nor was there any denying her at the very end: She was buried alongside Stein in Pere Lachaise, her name on the backside of the gravestone, where she felt it belonged.
– Steve King
To find out more about “Today in Literary History,” contact Steve King.