The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein

By Will, Barbara | Humanities, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein


Will, Barbara, Humanities


Was the den mother of modernism a fascist?

Why were so many prominent modernist writers and philosophers attracted to fascist or authoritarian regimes in the first half of the twentieth century? A list of those who were not - Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, or Robert Musil - pales in comparison to a list of those who were - Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsun, Faul de Man, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Filippo Marinetti, Martin Heidegger, Robert Brasillach, and a host of others. Add to the latter the name of Gertrude Stein, one of the most avant-garde of modernist writers in the English language, who was also - it turns out - a committed supporter of Philippe Pétain, head of state of the pro-Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime in France during the Second World War.

Gertrude Stein, a Vichy supporter? For most people, including those filling the rooms of several recent major museum exhibits on Stein, this news might come as a surprise. A Jewish-American experimental writer, friend of Picasso and muse to Hemingway, Gertrude Stein seems to embody high modernism in its most creative and progressive form. Her patronage of modernism's giants - Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse - made her a radical in her day. Her playful and innovative writing seems to anticipate much of postmodern thought. Her open, unapologetic, same-sex partnership with Alice B. Toklas belongs more to the liberal world of 2012 than to 1912. And yet throughout her life Stein hewed to the political right, even signing up to be a propagandist for an authoritarian, Nazi-dominated political regime.

Stein's Vichy past has long been known to scholars of her work, if not to the public at large. In 1970, Stein's biographer Richard Bridgman revealed not only that Stein was a fan of Pétain but had even spent a good part of the war translating his speeches into English in the hopes of having them published in America (they never were). Janet Hobhouse, another early biographer, noted the ironic dissonance between Stein's fierce critique of the Japanese attack on America at Pearl Harbor and her "sanguine" acceptance of the Nazi occupation of France. And Linda Wagner-Martin, though insisting on Stein's ties to the Resistance (claimed by Stein herself after the war), also referred to Stein as an apparent propagandist for Vichy.

Yet surprisingly, most of Stein's critics have given her a relatively free pass on her Vichy sympathies. Others have tried to ignore or justify equally inexplicable events: for example. Stein's endorsement of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934, or her performance of the Hitler salute at his bunker in Berchtesgaden after the Allied victory in 1945. Until recently, in tact, the troublesome question of Stein's politics didn't really figure in debates over her legacy - as opposed, for example, to the vehement debates surrounding Mussolini supporter and modernist poet Ezra Pound.

Stein's obvious vulnerability as a Jew in Vichy France - a regime that sent more than 75,000 Jews to concentration camps, of whom only 3 percent survived - explains some of this critical response. Even if we acknowledge that Stein was a Vichy propagandist, what right have we to condemn her for doing what she could to save herself in a terrifying situation? Hiding in plain sight might have been the best way to deflect attention away from herself. Given that many of Stein's neighbors in the small southern town where she lived during the war were Pétainists makes this argument even more convincing. And the fact that Stein apparently joined her neighbors in supporting the French Resistance after 1943 further underscores these formative ties to her community.

On the other hand, we have no evidence to suggest that Gertrude Stein was anything but an enthusiastic supporter of the Vichy regime. In her correspondence during this period. Stein explicitly refers to herself as a "propagandist" tor the "new France.

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