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"Even Cake Gets to Have Another Meaning": History, Narrative, and "Daily Living" in Gertrude Stein's World War II Writings

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 44, Number 3, Fall 1998
pp. 568-607 | 10.1353/mfs.1998.0060

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Modern Fiction Studies 44.3 (1998) 568-607

I. The Home Front

Gertrude Stein's experimental writing style has lead readers and critics to focus on her abstract treatment of language and on the ways in which she separates words from their conventional meanings. At the same time, Stein's expatriation reinforces the idea that her primary concern with modernist aesthetics left her isolated from and unconcerned with the culture and politics of the country she left behind. In recent years, however, Stein has become increasingly identified with the politics implicit in her modernist aesthetics. Scholars today want Stein to be remembered for her political leanings, namely for her support of the French armistice with Germany that established the Vichy government during World War II. Moreover, critics are investigating the connection between her support of Vichy leaders and the fact that Stein, a Jewish lesbian living with her lover in occupied France, survived the war unharmed.

Even before it could cause a stir in modernist studies, Wanda Van Dusen's article, "Portrait of a National Fetish: Gertrude Stein's 'Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain' (1942)," was heralded as an exposé in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "A Study Shows That Gertrude Stein Backed the Vichy Government During World War II" (Heller A14). The Chronicle, long seen as a journal that charts critical trends in academia, included Van Dusen's article as "part of a new examination of . . . [Stein's] ethnic politics" (Heller A14). Van Dusen reads Stein's unpublished introduction to a proposed translation of Vichy leader Maréchal Philippe Henri Pétain's collected speeches as evidence of her support for the collaborationist Vichy government and speculates that the project resulted from Stein's relationship with "persons influential with the Vichy regime" (Van Dusen 74). With her examination of the politics implicit in Stein's writings and relationships during the war, Van Dusen does the important work of countering critical readings that conclude that Stein's aesthetic concerns kept her from having a political program or that her war writings are inherently antipatriarchal and pacifist. To support a reading of Stein's war writings as specifically antipatriarchal, a number of feminist critics have focused on the statement Stein made in 1937 about the proliferation of "fathering" in the years just before World War II: "There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing. Everybody nowadays is a father, there is father Mussolini and father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin and father Lewis and father Blum and father Franco is just commencing now and there are ever so many more ready to be one" (Everybody's Autobiography 133). In her article on World War II and women's war writing, Susan Gubar cites this passage to argue that Stein's response to the war was representative of that of many women writers at the time who "experienced World War II as a resurgence of patriarchal politics" (227). Ellen Berry uses the same quote to begin her chapter on Stein's war writing, explaining that in this passage Stein, "depressed by the dominance of fathers and/in history[,] . . . expresses a desire to escape patricentric orderings of experience. . . " (110).

While feminist critics established decades ago that Stein's aesthetic practices challenge patriarchal politics, Van Dusen's work compels us to define the "political" in a fundamentally different way, that is, as it pertains to Gertrude Stein's response to political leaders and specific political events surrounding World War II. However, while Van Dusen's work exemplifies the current reexamination of the complicated relationship between modernist aesthetics and politics in Stein's work, it maintains an opposition between aesthetic concerns and the treatment of political events and issues. For Van Dusen, Stein's modernist aesthetics engage the politics of World War II only to the extent that Stein uses her experimental writing techniques to "mask the realities of Vichy politics" (81). While Van Dusen asserts that what Stein "masks" about the realities of the war embodies her political response to it, I would argue that Stein's writings about World War II reveal that she engaged in...

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