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Portrait of a National Fetish: Gertrude Stein's "Introduction to the Speeches of Marichal Pitain" (1942)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 3, Number 3, September 1996
pp. 69-92 | 10.1353/mod.1996.0053

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Modernism/Modernity 3.3 (1996) 69-92

Gertrude Stein's "Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain" was drawn out of the Random House papers held at Columbia University by Wanda Van Dusen, a former Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego. I say "former" since in the fall of 1995 Wanda took her own life and thus ended what looked to be a promising academic career. The reasons for Wanda's suicide probably will never be known, and this is not the occasion to speculate on them. Rather, it is time to present --and celebrate-- the work of a remarkable scholar, someone highly regarded within the Literature Department at UCSD and a friend to her fellow students and professors. As someone who worked closely with her in seminars and then as her dissertation director I respected her intelligence, resourcefulness, and humor. Her death has stunned and saddened us all.

Wanda was well on her way to completing her dissertation at the time of her death. Her project involved the gender of modernism as seen through the optic of three authors: Irmgard Keun, Michel Leiris, and Gertrude Stein. The exceptional qualities of this dissertation can be seen in the essay that follows, which would have formed part of a dissertation chapter. Wanda's work on Stein is particularly important since it deals with the thorny issue of the author's relationship to the German occupation of France as well as her attitudes toward race, national identity, and anti-Semitism. Wanda's use of unpublished manuscript materials as well as her use of current critical models ( feminism, psychoanalysis, film theory) creates a cultural context for reading Stein that integrates the best of historical criticism and contemporary theory.

I am grateful to the Gertrude Stein Estate and its executor, Calman Levin, for permission to publish Stein's "Introduction." I would also like to thank Random House for its cooperation.

Michael Davidson
Department of Literature
University of California, San Diego

At the top of a previously unpublished manuscript by Gertrude Stein, held in Columbia University's Random House collection, Stein's editor, Bennett Cerf, handwrote the following comment: "For the records. This disgusting piece was mailed from Belley on Jan. 19, 1942." The four-page, double-spaced, typed manuscript is listed in the collection under the title, "Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain." Between 17 June 1940, Philippe Henri Pétain's first address as chief of state, and 19 January 1942, when Stein sent her "Introduction" to Cerf, the Maréchal delivered approximately sixty speeches, most of which were broadcast to the French public by radio. Stein's piece raises both ethical and theoretical questions, the first of which is how much she may have collaborated with the Vichy regime to protect her and Alice Toklas's lives as Jewish American lesbians in the French countryside at Bilignin par Belley. In other words, to what extent could her narrative portrait of Philippe Pétain as the essence of French national heroism have prevented their deportation? The second question is the degree to which the essentialization of subjectivity in the "Introduction" calls into question deconstructive tendencies in her earlier experimental writing.

The "Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain" rekindles the debate over the depth of conviction behind Stein's "anti-patriarchal" experimental writing between 1906 and 1932 in light of evidence of her political conservatism. On the one hand, Stein is defended by critics like Marianne DeKoven, Maria Diedrich, and Lisa Ruddick as subversively deconstructive, feminist, and pacifist. On the other hand, she is portrayed by some like Blanche Wiesen Cook as a Jewish anti-Semite, misogynist lesbian, and bourgeois antisocialist. The question is perhaps better formulated as to what degree and at what times Stein fits any or all of these descriptions, and how they relate to her theory of human subjectivity as a combination of stable, interior "bottom nature" and shifting, exterior manifestations of what she terms mere "emphasis."

In her "Introduction," Stein eclipses her Jewishness by presenting herself as an unmarked American, citizen of a country that has not yet declared war against Germany. In this way, she displaces...

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