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The Liberation of Gertrude Stein: War and Writing

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2001
pp. 405-428 | 10.1353/mod.2001.0075

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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 405-428

[Figures]
"I was just thinking of a good title for an art book. From Bismark to Hitler."

It is an unlikely title for a history of art, and yet, if we had read it when and where it first appeared, in England, in mid-June of 1940, in a little volume by Gertrude Stein called Paris France, we would perhaps have given it our grim approval. Paris had just fallen to the Germans, who now occupied virtually all of Northern and Central Europe. A couple of weeks earlier, a quarter of a million British soldiers had been evacuated from Dunkirk, and Germany's designs on England were obvious. German militarism and the ambitions of its leaders had done much to twist the century into its misshapen, modern form. We could have agreed that "From Bismark to Hitler" was an apt title for a great many books -- even those concerning subjects that writers of an earlier era might not have thought belonged under the aegis of a chancellor. Nevertheless, we should pause over the deliberate and forceful incongruity of Stein's wry suggestion. Particularly coming from this writer who had lived so fully, for so much of her life, in contemptuous disregard of explicitly political matters and the business of governments, who openly maintained her scorn for the "gross têtes," the "big heads [who] are ambitious that is the reason they are big heads and so they are at the head of the government and the result is misery for the people," the idea that Bismarck and Hitler might preside, not only over millions of people, but over her discussion of art, seems to constitute a terrible concession by Stein of her aesthetic domain (PF, 28).

But over the course of her life, Stein comes to understand how the story of art is also the story of armies, how accounts of artists and "gross têtes" belong together on the same vexed page. She spends the last years of her life living in wartime, musing on the causes and effects and experience of war, and working war into her art and her theories about art. I focus in this essay on three selections from her extensive writings about the second world war of her lifetime, conscious all the while that leaving any of Stein's war writings out of my discussion means that I have not addressed the full complexity of her response to that war. My selections, nevertheless, are Paris France, written before the German invasion of her adopted country, and two pieces she wrote after the defeat of Germany: an essay for Life magazine titled "Off We All Went to See Germany" (1945), and her final composition, published posthumously in the Yale Poetry Review, "Reflection on the Atomic Bomb" (1947). Although the works are written for different audiences, and although they bracket the war's beginning and ending, they all display Stein's understanding of war as an especially vehement and large-scale manifestation of difference. Literally, of course, those differences are geopolitical and military, and they occur between and within nations. But when Stein writes about war, other differences become crucial as well -- between private and public spheres, between past and present, between childhood and adulthood, between her own and others' points of view. Words themselves take on different meanings.

I frame my discussion of Stein's World War II writing by first looking briefly at concepts she develops before that second war, in texts written during the 1920s and 1930s. The peculiar view of World War II through Stein's eyes cannot be understood without first understanding her often anguished meditations -- composed for the most part following the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 -- on audience and intimacy, on self-possession and the self dispersed, on writing with and without reference, on being read by a necessarily alien public as well as by the few who know her. Insofar as Stein's war writings have received attention at all (and that attention has, with a few exceptions, only begun within the past few years), this late work has been insufficiently linked to her earlier texts...



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