Commentaries - May 2012

When I lived in New York, my favorite weekend escape was the town of Beacon, just up the Hudson. DIA, fresh air, and a change of pace were always a draw for the family, but my favorite part of the trip was invariably the Hermitage bookstore. It was located on a hill off the main drag in a small house by a silo of some sort, and it specialized in poetry, mostly American small press editions of the 50s, 60s and 70s. There was usually a record playing in the back room, a small, but meticulously curated collection of books on the shelves and tacked to the walls in mylar bags. Jon Beacham ran the store with a then-girlfriend whose name escapes me. For a while it seemed that everyone was going up there to buy a few books and grab some soup with Jon. Jon had a Pilot press that he used to print a couple books and ephemera to accompany the exhibits—the Zephyrus Image and Auerhahan Press were most memorable. When a Vandercook 4 came up for sale, Dan Morris of The Arm in Williamsburg and me drove up to give Jon a hand moving it into his place.

Eventually Jon closed the shop and moved back to New York, and gradually, printing began to take precedence over book selling. Jon’s knowledge of artists’ books and private press editions is vast, and it shows in the work he produces under the Brother in Elysium imprint. Check out the work at:


PS: If you're looking for a tutorial in letterpress printing in New York, or you're in need of the facilities to print your own book, you couldn't do better than The Arm, located a couple blocks off the first L train stop in Brooklyn. Information about classes and studio time are available at:

tr. Molly Weigel, now out from Action books

Jorge Santiago Perednik, editor of the essential Xul magazine, from Buenos Aires, is a poet of transformations and intimacies, gestures and jests, epochal lyrics and lyric epics, lurid lines and luring stanzas. The sheer intelligence of his social critique brushes constantly against the shine of his poems' sounds and cuts. Molly Weigal offers a perfect introduction to this great poet of the Americas.

Tribute to Jorge Santiago Perednik
with Molly Weigel, Ernesto Livon Grosman, Charles Bernstein, James Sherry, Lila Zemborain
6:30 pm, Saturday, May 12th, 6:30pm
Bilingual Event, book launch, and video poem with Perednik/Bernstein by Grosman.
McNally Jackson Books | 52 Prince Street | New York, NY | 10012 | 212.274.1160

S/N: NewWorld Poetics published a section of the work in our second issue, with an intoduction by Molly Weigel: pdf.

from the publisher:
Is it "shocking" that Sergio and Pablo Shoklender, two teenage sons of privilege in 80s Argentina, should murder their parents, stuff them in a car trunk, and ride off in different directions on horseback? Or is it consistent with the violence with which capitalism and privilege direct and protect themselves, through oppression, theft and the dirtiest of wars? As the late Argentine poet Jorge Santiago Perednik has written, "Terror settles in people and affects them in unforeseen ways; in the case of Argentine poets, whatever they wrote about, even if they didn't intend to, they wrote about terror." His long poem, "The Shock of the Lenders," is a tour de force in the truest sense of that term, going blow for blow, spectacle for spectacle with the implacable, immoral Power that maimed and split society during Argentina's Dirty War and continues to make and split the world today. Perednik meets language at the end of its tether and makes it speak the unspeakable.

order from SPD

 Jorge Santiago Perednik (1952-2011) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. An influential poet and literary critic, he was also a publisher and a translator of English and American poetry. He founded several literary journals, two of the most influential being XUL and Deriva. The former was an important poetry journal that started publishing during Argentina's last military dictatorship in 1980; it continued until 1997 with the printing of its 12th issue. As a journal, XUL provided regular compilations of some the most innovative poetry of its time. The journal was also one of Argentina's best sources of new critical writing. It was dedicated to publishing the most diverse poetics within the experimental tradition. Perednik's work as a poet and editor reflected his interest in many of the poetics included in the journal: visual poetry; John Cage's mesostics; sound and performative texts—along with the most serious experimental works in Latin American poetry. Perednik's own writing was primarily associated with his always expanding interest in exploring language and its relation to poetry rather than with any particular literary school. He had a long career as a teacher and became an important interlocutor for multiple generations of poets. His reading of American poetry became the departure point for some of the most striking Spanish translations of poets such as T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Charles Olson. In the 1990s, he developed a series of editorial projects with Mexican and American poets. His poetry books include: Los mil micos (1978), El cuerpo del horror (1981), El shock de los Lender (1986), El fin del no (1991), El gran derrapador (2002), and La querella de los gustos (2007), among others.

In his Huffington Post piece, "Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art" (1 May 2012) Dershowitz writes:

Stein, a "racial" Jew according to Nazi ideology, managed to survive the Holocaust, while the vast majority of her co-religionists were deported and slaughtered. The [Metropolitan Museum of Art] exhibit says "remarkably, the two women [Stein and her companion Alice Toklas] survived the war with their possessions intact." It adds that "Bernard Fay, a close friend... and influential Vichy collaborator is thought to have protected them." That is an incomplete and distorted account of what actually happened. Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust for one simple reason: Gertrude Stein was herself a major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership.

Dershowitz seems to have forgotten that, unlike her “co-religionists [who] were deported or slaughtered,” Stein was an American citizen and the U.S. was not yet at war with Germany. Indeed, when the war broke out in September 1939, the United States immediately recognized the Vichy Government and sent an Ambassador—William D. Leahy-- to Vichy: the idea, originally, was to pry the Maréchal away from the Germans.   At the time that Stein and Toklas settled in the small village of Belley, near Bilignin, where Stein first bought a house in the early 20s, they were not yet in physical danger.  The US declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941—two years and three months later.  After that point, of course—think 1942-- American citizens were the enemy and were rounded up and imprisoned, and Stein makes clear that she and Alice were deeply afraid. Nothing happened, not because Stein was a “major collaborator with the Vichy regime”--an assertion that is simply absurd--  but because, as two old American ladies more or less hiding in the village where they were on good terms with their neighbors, they were left alone.  
Myself an Austrian Jewish refugee from Hitler in 1938 and knowing how complex the situation was in wartime France, I find Dershowitz’s blanket accusations appalling.  Maybe he now wants to pronounce Roosevelt a “collaborator” because he sent an ambassador to Vichy; our embassy there, incidentally, was open until the spring of 1942.

A dossier edited by Charles Bernstein

Over the past several years, Gertrude Stein’s war time record has been subjected to a stream of misinterpretations, distortions, and disinformation in the mainstream press. Most of these articles are written by authors who are hostile to Stein's literary works and who admit to their inability (and unwillingness) to read her work, including the works by Stein that directly address the issue at hand. In this Stein dossier, key documents are provided that refute the sensational tabloid accounts of Stein's activities, views, and affiliations during the war  years, when  she and Alice B. Toklas lived in Bilignin, France (near Lyon and Geneva). Stein's  connection to the Vichy government is complex and these complexities are fully explored in the essays and articles linked here. 

Edward Burns, in his essay published for the first time as part of this dossier, writes that “the translation of Pétain’s speeches has preoccupied Stein’s detractors in recent years; they have used it as the wedge (along with a clearly ironic remark about Hitler’s deserving the Nobel Peace Prize) to denounce her — the denunciation by extension extends to her literary works. How can one read this writer, they seem to be saying, when she has such odious pro-Vichy, pro-fascist views.  Each retelling of the story enlarges what Stein actually did, and rarely cites specific information, sources, or puts the translation project in an historical context.  By focusing exclusively on this aspect of Stein’s life, her detractors avoid confronting Stein’s published writings during the war.  If they did, they would find that her publishers were exceptional individuals who struggled to maintain the intellectual tradition of freedom of thought and expression.” Burns’s essay responds comprehensively to the mischaracterizations of Stein’s activities during the war years. It is a crucial work of scholarship, must reading for anyone interested in this topic.

As Joan Retallack writes for this dossier, Stein “was no fascist. That her clearly ironic statement about Hitler and the Nobel Peace Prize has been excised from its considerable context — which can leave no doubt of its irony, judicious or not — is a testament to the motives and intentions of certain readers, not to her own.” Indeed, as I note in my commentary, this willful, multiply repeated, misrepresentation of Stein's remark in a 1934 New York Times interview is a little like saying that Mel Brooks includes a tribute to Hitler in The Producers.

When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor's tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.

Stein's War Years: A Dossier

Edward Burns, "Gertrude Stein: A Complex Itinerary."
Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo, Appendix IX (War Years) to The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder  (Yale University Press, 1996): pdf.
Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo,  letter to the editor, The Nation, Dec. 5, 1987: pdf.
Joan Retallack on Stein’s war years from the introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
Charles Bernstein, "Gertrude Stein Taunts Hiter in 1934 and 1945."
Marjorie Perloff, "A short response to Alan  Dershowitz"

See also:
Douglas Messerli, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Stone: on Janet Malcolm's Two Lives),  Exploring Fictions (2011).
Renate Stendhal, "Was Gertrude Stein a Collaborator? " in The Los Angeles Review of Books, December 17, 2011; see also Stendhal’s blog and her article "Gertrude Stein, Hitler and Vichy-France: Process Notes" in Trivia: Voices of Feminism (2012)

Thanks to Edward Burns, Joan Retallack, Susan Bee, Wanda Corn, and Marjorie Perloff.
All materials © and used with the permission of the authors.

Here are links to a number of the recent articles (and one notorious older one) that denounce Stein for her war time record:

1. Bill Berkowitz, “Did You Know Gertrude Stein Allegedly Advocated Adolf Hitler for a Nobel Peace Prize? It Gets Worse,” The Buzzflash Blog, Sept. 12, 2011.
2. Richard Chesnoff, “A Nazi collaborator at the Met, New York Daily NewsApril 29, 2012
3. Alan Dershowitz, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art, Huffington Post, May 1, 2012
4. Allen Ellenzweig, “Auntie Semitism: Gertrude Stein’s ties to Nazis, revisited at the museum, shouldn’t eclipse her nurturing of young artists,” Tablet, May 8, 2012
5. Emily Greenhouse, “Gertrude Stein and Vichy: the Overlooked History” The New Yorker, May 4, 2012
6. Philip Kennicott, “Gertrude Stein in Full Form at the Portrait Gallery,” Washington Post, October 21, 2011
7. Michael Kimmelman, “Missionaries,” New York Review of Books, April 26, 2012
8. Janet Malcolm, “Gertrude Stein's War,” The New Yorker, June 2, 2003 (see also Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Yale University Press, 2007).
9. Sonia Melnikova-Raich, “Exhibit leaves out how Gertrude Stein survived Holocaust,” JWeekly.Com, June 9, 2011
10. Alexander Nazaryan, "Gertrude Stein exhibit at the Met will now allude to her Hitler-loving past and collaboration with Vichy regime," New York Daily News, May 7, 2012
11. Natasha Mozgovaya, "Obama corrects controversial Jewish Heritage Month proclamation," Haaretz, May 3, 2012
12. Hunter Walker, "Local Politicians Get Met to ‘Disclose Gertrude Stein’s Nazi Past,’", May 1, 2012
12. Barbara Will, "The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein," Humanities, NEH, March/April, 2012

(Sieg heil, sieg heil, right in der Fuehrer's face.)

On May 6, 1934, The New York Times published an interview by Lansing Warren, entitled "Gertrude Stein Views Life and Politics." The full piece is available on-line at the Times site.  A pdf of the article, as it appeared in the paper, in available here (useful given that the OCR version on the Times site has a few minor errors). Because of a remark made in this interview, Stein has been accused of being pro-Hitler in a number of recent articles. The accusation about Stein's view of Hitler has been made by Bill Berkowitz in  The Buzzflash Blog, Alan Dershowitz in the Huffington Post; Allen Ellenzweig in TabletMichael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books; Sonia Melnikova-Raich, in JWeekly.Com,Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Daily News; Natasha Mozgovaya in Haaretz; and Barbara Will in Humanities / NEH.  Even the Anti-Defamation League has repeated this defamation.

Saying that Stein endorsed Hitler for the Nobel Prize in the 1934 interview is like saying that Mel Brooks includes a tribute to Hitler in The Producers. In Stein's remarks  about Hitler and the Nobel Prize, she associates Hitler with all that is bad in Germany. Her remarks constitute an attack on Hitler. 

This is what is  quoted by Stein's detractors: “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize,” she says, “because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.” What is left out is Stein's explicit claim that “activity,” “struggle,” and contest (which she later calls competition) are necessarily good. According to Stein,  Hitler's “driving out everything that conduces to activity,” that is, to “contest and struggle” — by means of the ethnic cleansing of Jews and others — would result in a deathly peace, what she calls “dullness and stagnation.” In other words, it would be a bad thing. “What matters” in government, she says, “is competition, struggle, interest, activity that keeps a people alive and excited in accordance with the instincts which best provide excitement for the individual people.” In the interview Stein strongly endorses more open immigration — “constant activity, new blood”; indeed, immigration of the kind that allowed the Jews, including her family,  to become Americans, the  subject of her monumental work The Making of Americans. Stein’s views about immigration directly contest the ethnic cleaning (of non-Aryan, “new blood”) of Hitler’s Germany.  In the 1934 interview, Stein also, explicitly, expresses her distaste for Germans and her preference for the Americans and the French.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but I hope those who wish to quote Stein on this matter will not take my word for what she says, or the mischaracterizations of Stein's detractors, but rather will read the full interview. And keep in mind that the interview begins with a disclaimer that Stein's remarks should not be taken at face value (a warning not taken by those who denounce her for her comments in the interview).  Here are a few relevant excerpts from the interview:

Many of Miss Stein’s statements have an irrefutable terseness, though that terseness may conceal mystifying ambiguity such as characterized the utterances.

"There really are only two wholly sincere democracies, and those are the American and the French."

"The Saxon element is always destined to be dominated. The Germans have no gift at organizing. They can only obey. And obedience is not organization. Organization comes from community of will as well as community of action. And in America our democracy has been based on community of will and effort."

"When I say government does not matter, I do not mean that it cannot have bad effects. I mean that any form of government may be good, and any form of government may be bad. What matters is competition, struggle, interest, activity that keeps a people alive and excited in accordance with the instincts which best provide excitement for the individual people."

"Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. To the young people who, wanting to become writers, ask me for advice, I always say, 'Don't think it isn't possible to be senile at 22.' It is even very difficult to keep from becoming senile in youth. It is hard to keep one's self open and receptive to stimulation. Doing what other people tell you and being protected from this and from that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face life and struggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are not supposed to be good for one."

"That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition. There is no reason why we should not select our immigrants with greater care, nor why we should not bar certain peoples and preserve the color line for instance. But if we shut down on immigration completely we shall become stagnant. The French may not like the competition of foreigners, but they let them in. They accept the challenge and derive the stimulus. I am surprised that there is not more discussion of immigration in the United States than there is. We have got rid of prohibition restrictions, and it seems to me the next thing we should do is to relax the severity of immigration restrictions."

A related charge made against Stein is that she later actually nominated Hitler for a Nobel Prize. Edward Burns, in his essay for the Stein dossier, reports that the Nobel Prize Committee has denied that any such recommendation was made (see also p. 414 of the Burns/Dydo appendix to the Stein/Wilder letters).

In her National Endowment for the Humanities essay, Barbara Will writes: “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.” Edward Burns and Joan Retallack give a full response to Stein's complicated relation with Vichy. Will's denunciation of Stein for her ironic comment about Hitler and the Nobel Prize is mistaken. But there is one more issue, the Stein salute in 1945, which Will grossly mischaracterizes.

Gertrude Stein Life salute

Stein’s “Hitler salute” refers to the August 6, 1945 issue of Life magazine, which featured an essay by Stein called “‘Off We All Went to See Germany’: Germans Should Learn to Be Disobedient and GIs Should Not Like Them No They Shouldn’t.” Stein’s essays appears along with a photo-spread of Stein and Toklas. The photo referred to by Will appears on p. 46 of the issue, with a caption, “We all did Hitler’s Pose on Hitler's Balcony at Berchtesgaden. Miss Stein liked Hitler’s radiators, wanted to take one home as a flowerpot but was talked out of it.”

According to the caption, she and six G.I.s are mocking Hitler and his gang saluting on the step of Berchtesgaden.  But if Stein is indeed pledging her allegiance to the Fuehrer in this picture, as Will suggests, that would also go for the five G.I.'s making the same gesture as she is. And it would mean Life magazine was publishing a picture of pro-Nazi G.I.s at the moment of liberation in 1945. When Will says that Stein's motives in this picture are suspect, she is also casting aspersions on Life and  the American soldiers that liberated Germany from fascism. In this photo, Stein appears to be illustrating the point made in the subtitle of the Life spread: "Germans Should Learn to Be Disobedient and GIs Should Not Like Them No They Shouldn’t." (We'll leave aside the fact the Stein and the G.I.s seem to be pointing to the field rather than saluting.)

The Life spread is filled with Stein's enthusiasm for the American liberators, the G.I.s that are the subject of her affectionate and patriotic late work, Brewsie and Willie, which was published in 1946. The next time someone wants to talk about this photo of Stein with the G.I.s, let them quote what she told their general (as reported in the article on p. 56):

When General Osborne came to see me just after the victory, he asked me what I thought should be done to educate the Germans. I said there is only one thing to be done and that is to teach them disobedience, as long as they are obedient so long sooner or later they will be ordered around by a bad man and there will be trouble. Teach them disobedience, I said, make every German child know that it is its duty at least once a day to do its good deed and not believe something its father or its teacher tells them, confuse their minds, get their minds confused and perhaps they will be disobedient and the world will be at peace.

Lest someone accuse me of a pro-Hitler gesture in my subtitle, "Seig heil, seig heil, right in der Fuehrer's face" – it’s from "Der Fuehrer's Face," the 1942 anti-Nazi parody by Spike Jones and His City Slickers (featuring the inimitable Mickey Katz). (See the Movietone News short on YouTube.)  The song, by Oliver Wallace, was taken from Der Fuehrer's Face, the Academy-Award-Winning Walt Disney Donald Duck cartoon, which originally entitled “Donald Duck in Nuzi Land” (according to the Wikepedia article on the film). The cartoon was made in 1942 and released in 1943. In the cartoon, Donald Duck also gives the fascist salute, which may be why Disney kept the cartoon out of circulation, fearing what is happening to Gertrude would happen to Donald. (See the full film on YouTube.)

donald duck seig heil

"Why a duck?," says Chico Marx in The Cocoanuts.
"It's deep water, that's why a duck. It's deep water."
"All I know is that it's a viaduct."
"Now look, alright, I catch on: why a horse, why a chicken, why a this, why a that . . ."
"I no catch on: why a duck?"

I no catch on.

Why Gertrude Stein?
Why now?