restricted access "We Are Americans": Gertrude, Brewsie and Willie
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“We are Americans”:
Gertrude, Brewsie and Willie

Those few who have commented on Gertrude Stein’s final work, Brewsieand Willie (1946), have divided sharply for and against her account of the American G.I.s in France and Germany at the conclusion of World War II. John Malcolm Brinnin, for example, dismisses the book as “probably her least” effort (391). Yet Richard Bridgman considers Brewsie andWillie “a remarkable achievement” (337). 1 But both Brinnin’s and Bridgman’s primary concern—the primary concern of everyone who has commented on this work—is whether Stein accurately represents the G.I.s. Brinnin insists on the book’s failure because, “She did not, as she had hoped, capture the rhythms of G.I. speech, and the subjects her soldiers discuss . . . are . . . beside the mark of any but the most marginal of G.I. interests” (391). Yet Bridgman praises the work because, “encounter[ing] her countrymen at a crucial juncture in their history—as they moved to the center of the world stage . . . she listened carefully to them” (337). Brinnin rejects Brewsie and Willie because, he complains, Stein dominates, “figur[ing] in the book as a kind of rentier mama who knows best” (391). But Bridgman presents Stein’s text as if it were a transparent record of the G.I.s’ “talk [which] ranged from the trivial to the momentous. . . . All of it . . . directed to understanding themselves” (337). So although they disagree about Stein’s relation to Brewsie and Willie, Brinnin and Bridgman nevertheless [End Page 508] agree that the presence of the G.I.s, and therefore the work’s success, depends on Stein’s absence from her own text. 2 That is, they both refuse the claim of her final sentence, “We are Americans” (114).

What is at issue in these readings of Stein’s relation to the G.I.s of Brewsie and Willie is Stein’s relation to America. The resistance to Stein’s claim on America that the responses to Brewsie and Willie reveal has also surfaced in the past half-century as resistance to Stein’s interest in the nation. Stein appears repeatedly in late-twentieth-century discussions of nationalism. But she always appears as a figure who marks the limits of the nation. So Benedict Anderson, in the process of offering his now famous “definition of the nation” as “an imagined political community,” invokes Stein to illustrate the “philosophical poverty and even incoherence” of nationalisms as well as the “condescension” this “emptiness” produces “among cosmopolitan and polylingual intellectuals”: “Like Gertrude Stein in the face of Oakland, one can rather quickly conclude that there is ‘no there there’” (5). As one of a company of “cosmopolitan and polylingual intellectuals,” Stein is represented here as antinationalist. She is only an American insofar as it is a part of America she is repudiating. She is certainly nothing so particular as a woman or a lesbian.

While Anderson announces that “in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender” (5), his nationality—as others have already noted—is ostensibly uninflected by gender or sexuality. Yet even when Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yeager, in their capacity as the editors of Nationalisms and Sexualities, take up these gaps in Anderson’s analysis, they conclude that “the representation of lesbianism in national discourse [has] remained largely off-stage” (7), a conclusion only reinforced by the contents of their anthology. 3 Yet Stein also appears in their work. And there she “has” an “expatriate hyper-Americanness” as well as a “lesbian identity.” But, they claim, these are “contradictory constructions” (17).

There seem to be two contradictions here: Stein as “cosmopolitan” and Stein as “hyper-American”; Stein as “hyper-American” and Stein as “lesbian.” But just as the opposition of Brinnin’s and Bridgman’s views of Brewsie and Willie is illusory, there is little disagreement here. Insofar as the editors of Nationalisms and Sexualities see a contradiction between Stein as American and Stein as lesbian, they remain in agreement [End Page 509] with Benedict Anderson, as well as with these readers of Brewsie and Willie, that there...