Gertrude Stein's war years: Setting the record straight
Over the past several years, Gertrude Stein’s wartime 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 sixty-six 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: September 1942–September 1944) in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).
Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo, A letter to the editor, The Nation, December 5, 1987.
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.”
Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, “‘Courage to Be Courageous’: The Last Works and Days of Gertrude Stein,” from The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writers in Paris, 1944–1960 (New York: Grove Press, 1992; San Francisco: City Lights, 2001). [Added to the dossier 5/31/12]
Why the witch-hunt against Gertrude Stein? Renate Stendhal (June 4, 2013)
Václav Paris, "Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches by Philippe Petain" [Added to dossier 5/6/13]
Leon Katz, "A response to “Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches by Philippe Petain” [Added to dossier 5/10/13)
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 wartime record:
1. Bill Berkowitz, “Did You Know Gertrude Stein Allegedly Advocated Adolf Hitler for a Nobel Peace Prize? It Gets Worse,” The Buzzflash Blog, September 12, 2011.
2. Richard Chesnoff, “A Nazi Collaborator at the Met,” New York Daily News, April 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. [See also his July 12 letter in response to criticism.]
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,’” Politicker.com, May 1, 2012.
13. Barbara Will, “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein,” Humanities, NEH, March/April, 2012.