Stein's propagandistic potential

A note on Gertrude Stein's 'La langue française' and 'Patrie'

Portrait of Gertrude Stein with American flag by Carl Van Vechten, January 4, 1935, from the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editorial note: This piece is intended to be a companion to Logan Esdale’s contribution to this dossier, which can be found here.

“La langue française” is a brief essay written in French by Gertrude Stein. It appeared in the short-lived French journal Patrie: Revue Mensuelle illustré de L’Empire (Fatherland: Monthly Illustrated Review of the Empire), which was edited and printed out of Algeria, officially sanctioned by the Vichy government, and came out with a total of six issues between June 1941 and 1942. Stein’s text was submitted in late May 1941 in response to a request she had received for a contribution to the journal’s inaugural number, but it ended up appearing in the second issue, published in August 1941. Stored in Stein’s papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the French original has to this point been directly accessible to interested readers only in archives and research libraries, and indirectly via brief summaries and translated fragments in scholarly accounts of Stein’s wartime writings. While few people today appear to have read it in its entirety, “La langue française” has, however, been ascribed a key position in several accounts of Stein’s writings, life, and politics during World War II, as it is the only text written by her that was published in an explicitly political context during the course of the war. 

The piece is reproduced here in its entirety for the first time since its original publication and for the first time ever accompanied by a full English translation. Including it in the present dossier will help clear up some of the mistakes, misunderstandings, and unresolved disagreements that have hitherto marked the discussions of Stein’s life and letters in the 1940s.

As the text is now available for readers to consult for themselves, I will comment only briefly upon the piece itself after recounting what we know about the circumstances under which it was produced and submitted. What regrettably does not become accessible with this publication is the highly remarkable context in which Stein’s text originally appeared, and the primary purpose of this introduction is to compensate for this absence. Accordingly, I will conclude with a discussion of the purpose Stein’s contribution served in this context, and a brief sketch of the nature of the content and aesthetics applied in Patrie, as the political — or propagandistic — potential of Stein’s piece is first and foremost found in its paratext.

The becoming of “La langue française” 

In Stein’s papers, the text is first mentioned in a telegram she received from Richard de Rochement of the American Red Cross in Marseille on May 28, 1941: “Jean Masson editor of new magazine Patrie appear shortly under patronage Marshal Petain asked me suggest prominent American writer who might do thousand word article on the importance or prestige of the French language for inaugural number and I took liberty suggesting you Stop article non political and will be paid for Stop.”[1] Stein responded to the request almost immediately, as another telegram dated May 29 from Masson to Stein confirms his reception of the typescript already the following day.[2] The notebook containing Stein’s handwritten version of the text stored in Stein’s papers is dated 1940 by the archivists of the collection, which could suggest that she had already composed the piece at an earlier date and that the request served merely as an opportunity to see it printed. No typescripts or other documents are preserved that can support or contest this assumption, but several other factors render it more probable that Stein sat down to write the text immediately after receiving the request, as she is known to have done on other occasions.[3] Foremost, Stein practically never wrote in French unless invited to, and both the word count and the subject matter of the text Stein submitted fits the request strikingly well. Further, Stein’s phrasing in a letter to Carl Van Vechten from May 31, 1941 — “I have been asked to do a little thing in french on the french language, for a new review called Patrie, an official thing under the patronage of Marshal Pétain”[4] — also supports the impression that she herself thought of the text as something produced on request. What the archival material does establish is that Stein submitted her text to a magazine she had not seen, as it was not yet in print, and that she was well aware of its ties to Pétain’s government. What it, on the other hand, tells us little about, is her intentions with and feelings about the submission, whether her text was edited before it was printed, how she felt about it once it appeared, and how she responded to Patrie once she had read it. 

“La langue française”

In compliance with the request Stein had received from Masson via de Rochemont, “La langue française” is “non political” insofar as it makes no direct mention of any overtly political issues, events, or specific persons. In approaching her requested subject — “the importance or prestige of the French language” — Stein in “La langue française”applies a vocabulary that has a long history in the autodiscourse of the French language (clarity, truth, profundity, etc.). In her brief essay, she discusses the timelessness of the language (“devoid of actuality”) and its particular claim to logic and clarity (“the language of logic and understanding”), all notions that are still fairly common among Frenchmen praising their native tongue: “Ce qui n’est par clair n’est pas français” (That which is not clear is not French), as a French proverb goes.[5] Further, a number of keywords also favored by the agrarian reactionary ideology associated with Pétain appear, as the piece states a close relationship between the language, the farmers, and the earth, and suggests a unique understanding between the farmers and the poets of France. 

More specifically, Stein approaches her topic by way of a discussion of the difference between written and spoken language. This is a difference that she had meditated extensively on several times before. In Paris France (1939) she suggests that French is essentially a spoken language, as opposed to English, which is a written language. In “La langue française,” the particular relation between written and spoken language is claimed to be understood better by the French than by any other people. In Stein’s most extensive meditation on the relation between speech and writing, The Geographical History of America (1936), written language generally comes out on the favored side of this dichotomy. Released from immediate purpose and from the audience that is necessarily present when language is spoken, only written language can be devoted to the free play of the human mind. In “La langue française,” in comparison, it is far more difficult to establish a consistent hierarchy between the two and even to pin down what the allegedly crucial difference between them consists of:

La langue écrite est la langue dénuée d’actualité, c’est là sa caractéristique la plus profonde. Et le peuple de France, étant toujours en contact étroit avec la terre, peut de temps en temps parler une langue écrite. Même assez souvent. Mais il ne confond pas. Il est toujours profondément conscient de la différence entre les deux.

[The written language is the language devoid of actuality, this is its most profound characteristic. And the people of France, being always in close contact with the land, may from time to time speak a written language. Even quite often. But they do not confuse. They are always deeply aware of the difference between the two.]

Here, Stein claims that the spoken language of the earthbound French farmers can possess the qualities of the written language, although the people speaking never do confuse the written and the spoken. But if we turn to the sentence that Stein subsequently quotes to illustrate the French’s deep understanding of this point — “Oui, c’est encore ce soir la nuit” (Yes, this evening it is night again) — it is strikingly enigmatic. It involves a temporal contradiction in terms, as it cannot be evening and night in the same grammatical now. This demonstrates the odd, elliptical strategy Stein assumes in constructing her “argument” about the French language. If her account appears to build up nicely along the lines suggested by the assignment, just as she is reaching a climax, in lieu of the promised conclusive evidence, she leaves a void. The piece thus demonstrates that Stein was well acquainted with the ideas and vocabulary of French nationalist discourse that the context of the officially sanctioned magazine called for but also seemingly reluctant to put them to use in an unambiguous manner. As a whole, “La langue française” seems to be constructed from all the right words and images but also strangely devoid of a clear message. 

Paratext: “L’empire de notre langue”

However, the paratext abundantly provides “La langue française” with the clear message that the text may be abstaining from making on its own. While the request Stein received from de Rochemont specifically asked that the text be “non political,” the very same telegram also gives away the explicitly political purpose behind the invitation. When de Rochemont writes that he was asked to provide a “prominent American writer” willing to praise the French language, he reveals that the editors were highly aware of the token effect of a prominent foreigner endorsing the Vichy regime by appearing in a magazine published in its support. In such a propagandistic context, the prestige, persona, and nationality of Stein are at least as important as the words she writes, and taking a “non political” stand within a so heavily politicized context is bound to be received as a hollow gesture, no matter how elliptical and inconclusive her text appears. 

In some respects, this dilemma resembles the crux of many of Stein’s other wartime writings, including “The Winner Loses” (1940) and Wars I Have Seen (1945), which, although they were written in the heavily polarized horizon of a war, insist on a civilian perspective refusing to take clear political and military stand, something to which several readers have taken offense but which can also be read as an extension of her nonhierarchical poetics. But in this case, if Stein’s writing makes a similar gesture, that gesture is effectively drowned out by the heavily politicized editorial framework this text is immersed in.

In Patrie, Stein’s contribution is put to use in a grand nationalist and expansive colonialist project with the purpose of inspiring new hope and pride in the French after the defeat that in the summer of 1940 had led to the Armistice between Pétain and Hitler’s Germany and the establishment of the Vichy government. This mission is stated clearly and repeatedly throughout the magazine’s first two issues, including in “L’empire de notre langue” (The empire of our language), written by the Swiss-born journalist and travel writer of the French colonies Georges Manue, which introduces the inquiry into the French language that commences with Stein’s testimony placed side by side with that of the Algerian-born francophone poet and writer Jean Amrouche (1906–1962). Here, Manue explains that the inquiry will be an ongoing, patient effort in the pages of Patrie to map the universal brilliance of the French language by collecting testimonials from Frenchmen and foreigners in order to continue the spiritual conquest of the entire world. While explicitly maintaining the French colonial project of conquering lands in Africa and the Far East, the mission knows no geographical limits, since the language has already planted its seeds all over Europe and the Americas as well, and these seeds are still spreading. As is stated by the title of the piece, in times of moderate military success for the French empire, the nationalist and imperialist project is explicitly resituated in the realm of language. If Stein by all indications did not read Manue’s introduction before submitting her text, neither is it likely that its content would have come as a surprise to her, as these ideas were directly associated with Pétain’s government and common in France at this point, not least in the region of southern France where she was living.

Immediately after Manue’s introduction, in a new spread, “La langue française” is printed vis-à-vis Amrouche’s “Éternité de la langue française”(The eternity of the French language) under the common caption “Cette enquête commence par deux témoignages écrits par deux poètes, américain et africain …” (This inquiry begins with two testimonies written by two poets, an American and an African …). Both “testimonies” are introduced by a small biographical notice of folkloristic coloring (not a service provided for the other articles in the journal), which in Stein’s case presents her as a carefree and picturesque American personality, and is remarkably faulty. It claims that she was originally a celebrated impressionistic painter who turned to writing and drops previously unknown Stein titles like Quatre pièces en trois actes (Four plays in three acts) and Ma vie à Paris (My life in Paris). Stein’s contribution is illustrated with a photograph of her at her home in Bilignin, although the caption states it to be Stein “dans sa maison de Long-Island, près de New York” (in her house in Long Island, close to New York). In the notes for the Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo suggest that this palpable error in the caption might be deliberate and meant to protect Stein — hiding out in the quiet village of Bilignin — by claiming that she was presently in America. This could certainly be the case, but the caption’s situating Stein in New York also fits the imperialist project stated in Manue’s introduction strikingly well, as Manue is explicitly claiming that the French world hegemony is building up via small enclaves devoted to the language already existing all over the world, also in the parts farthest removed from French regime. And viewed in the light of the other mistakes in the presentation of Stein, one could also speculate that the editors of Patrie appear too unfamiliar with and too uninterested in Stein’s writings and her situation for them to make an effort to protect her.

Context: Patrie: Revue Mensuelle illustré de L’Empire

In order to understand the nature of a publication like Patrie, it is essential to consider the historical context of the ongoing world war and the highly nationalist and militarist intellectual climate it bred. Patrie was an illustrated magazine in the lighter genre, consisting mainly of briefer articles and lots of topical photographs. Visually, it is similar to contemporaneous American periodicals such as Life, and likewise addressed to a fairly broad general — not necessarily highly intellectual or ideologically interested — public. And although there are multiple national differences, if you leaf through similar popular magazines from the early 1940s from almost any country involved at either side of the world war, you will encounter a nationalist rhetoric and a visual aesthetics of militarism that is strikingly harsh measured by our contemporary standards.

But there are also important points upon which a copy of Patrie deviates from a copy of Life from the same period. Patrie is an explicitly political publication, not just measured by today’s standards but also in its own self-conception and self-presentation. Each of the first two issues opens with handwritten appeals to the French people from a high-ranking government official. In the first issue the appeal is written by the Maréchal Pétain himself, urging the French people to gather around him and to trust in his guidance. Accordingly, the issue is mainly devoted to a nationalist narrative: focusing on the French mainland, the issue is preoccupied with spinning the military defeat of the Armistice into a new opportunity for hope and rebirth for France and promoting this narrative as personified by Pétain himself and articulated in his vision for an organically united France moving beyond differences of class and political interest. These goals are pursued through an extensive photo report, titled “De la défaite a l’éspoir” (From defeat to hope), which covers events from the year that had passed since the signing of the Armistice and is loaded with images of Pétain engaging with the people, followed by several directly agitating articles unfolding Pétain’s political vision and calling the people to action (i.e., “La Loi du Maréchal” [The law of the Maréchal], “Reconquête de la France” [The reconquest of France], and “Message aux Jeunes” [Message to young people]). In the unsigned editorial of the first issue, the goals of the journal are given their most poignant formulation in an explicitly racist recount of the glorious history of the French race which had been corrupted by decadence in the interwar period but is now ready to be reborn through the leadership of Pétain. The second issue opens with an appeal from Admiral Darlan, the commander of the French Navy, which as part of the Armistice had been prevented from falling under German control. In 1941, the navy was thus geographically spread out, with parts of it in the Sea of Norway and parts in North Africa. In accordance with these developments, the second issue of Patrie is more globalist in its scope, focusing on the achievements of the marines, on life in the French colonies, and on imperialist ambitions of a “spiritual” nature such as the language inquiry to which Stein contributed, all promoting the narrative that the colonies and foreigners will help France rise again.

Besides Stein, who is the only woman and the only nonnative French speaker, contributors to the journal’s first two issues include writers and journalists mainly of French or North African origin and representing a wide political spectrum, from liberal to very reactionary. Almost anything but communists can be found among them. Some of the contributors were directly involved with the Vichy regime in various ways, and some were convicted as war criminals after the war. Some abandoned Pétain after the Allied conquest of North Africa to support the Gaullist movement that mobilized there after November 1942, while others continued to support the Vichy government or simply lay low in the French mainland. Several became highly respected men of letters in postwar France, and thus, contributing to Patrie has not in itself been considered incriminating for its French or African contributors. For example, an obituary in Le monde from 1980 marking the death of Georges Manue, who authored the profoundly imperialistic introduction to the language inquiry, makes no mention of his sympathies during the war: it praises his life’s work and his ability to transgress his earlier colonialist involvement and to understand and appreciate the necessary process of decolonization in the postwar years.

In conclusion, we have little grounds for speculation regarding Stein’s intentions when producing “La langue française.” The political messages derived from the text itself remain ambiguous, while its publication context strongly collaborates the accusations made against Stein by Barbara Will and others for conducting Vichy propaganda. But does the text’s publication make Stein a propagandist?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols. Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas. The propagandist has a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these he deliberately selects facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and presents them in ways he thinks will have the most effect.” This definition fits the overall design of Patrie on all accounts. It seems fair to characterize the journal as propaganda and to conclude that its editors in their selection and arrangement of material, including Stein’s testimony and the framing of her as a Francophilic, colorful ex-painter in Long Island, were working actively to disseminate the reactionary, nationalist ideology of Pétain. With her submission of “La langue française” to Patrie, and knowing about the journal what she did, Stein consciously contributed to a propagandistic effort made on behalf of the regime. But whether this contribution was motivated by enthusiastic political conviction, by pragmatic realism, or by direct or indirect fear for the life and existence of herself and Alice Toklas, we can only speculate. The most likely answer is probably a muddled combination of all of the above. 

Gertrude Stein
La langue française

Dans tous les pays de cette terre ronde, depuis le commencement jusqu’à la fin, il y a une lutte éternelle, une lutte entre la langue parlée et la langue écrite, une lutte éternelle comme celle qui oppose le mâle et la femelle.

Dans les commencements de l’histoire de la langue de chaque peuple, la langue écrite était souvent une langue orale, mais, étant orale, elle était néanmoins, en son âme, une langue complètement écrite, différente de la langue parlée. 

Il est très curieux et très intéressant de noter que, dans le dernier siècle, alors qu’on avait partout une tendance à nier la lutte entre mâle et femelle, en même temps on ait essayé de nier la différence entre la langue écrite et la langue parlée. 

Les écrivains disaient qu’ils écrivaient comme ils parlaient, comme les hommes et les femmes disaient que la camaraderie a remplacé la lutte entre mâle et femelle. 

Mais, les Français savaient bien que cela était faux. Je me rappelle avoir été tellement frappée par le fait que le peuple en France disait très honnêtement :  « Non, je ne connais pas la langue française », même quand il s’agissait de gens parlant, pour nos oreilles américaines, bien français. Peut-être voulaient ils dire que le patois régional était encore présent dans leur langue quand ils parlaient. Mais je crois que la chose était plus profonde, Les Français, ayant toujours été tout à fait civilisés et logiques, ne pouvaient pas nier une vérité, et la vérité est que la langue parlée n’est pas la même que la langue écrite. 

Donc, les Français ne niaient pas cette vérité, et le résultat était qu’ils continuaient à être capables de faire en parlant des phrases tellement profondes et vraies que c’était vraiment des phrases écrites. Ceci a l’air d’un paradoxe, mais ce n’en est pas un.

La langue écrite est la langue dénuée d’actualité, c’est là sa caractéristique la plus profonde. Et le peuple de France, étant toujours en contact étroit avec la terre, peut de temps en temps parler une langue écrite. Même assez souvent. Mais il ne confond pas. Il est toujours profondément conscient de la différence entre les deux. 

Quand il vous dit, en passant : « Oui, c’est encore ce soir la nuit », il comprend cette différence. 

J’étais tellement frappée de trouver cette conscience dans le peuple de France que je me rappelle très bien avoir dit que, même si tous les Français du monde périssaient, et qu’il n’en reste que deux, n’importe lesquels, ils pourraient reconstituer la Comédie Française. 

Je me rappelle aussi une paysanne française voyant pour la première fois le Midi avec ses olives vers le coucher du soleil. Elle en fut tellement frappée qu’elle dit : « Oui, c’est l’heure où les poètes travaillent ». 

Cette idée que des poètes travaillent, que les poètes travaillent ne pouvait être dans le tête de paysans d’aucun pays, sauf la France. L’heure où les poètes travaillent. 

Oui, il y a une différence profonde entre le langage écrit et le langage parlé, et les Français ont été les seuls, au dix-neuvième et au vingtième siècles, qui fussent fidèles á cette conviction, profondément fidèles.

J’étais très frappée de cela en temps de guerre aussi. C’est que l’action violente et héroïque crée la langue écrite, et tous les Français, pendant ce temps héroïque, créaient des phrases écrites. Elles étaient orales, mais c’était de la langue écrite.

Et c’est pourquoi la langue française reste pour tout étranger une chose à part. 

Comme les Français n’ont jamais perdu le sens profond de la différence entre la langue écrite et la langue parlée, la langue française a toujours cette logique qui fait que ce n’est pas quelque chose à apprendre pour les usages ordinaires, c’est quelque chose qui consiste dans une connaissance profonde des différences entre une langue écrite et une langue parlée, différences qui font la vérité de la civilisation que les autres langues très souvent oublient. Les autres langues peuvent devenir la langue des actualités, la langue de la rhétorique. Non pas la langue française ; elle reste toujours la langue de la logique et de la compréhension, une langue qui comprend la différence vitale entre une langue écrite et une langue parlée. 

Quelquefois je me dis à moi-même que la langue française est comme cette dernière fabrication française, le sucre de raisin. Il a toute la saveur du sucre et du miel et il a la force du raisin. 

The French Language
translated by Solveig Daugaard and Logan Esdale 

In all the countries of this round world, from the beginning to the end, there is an eternal struggle, a struggle between the spoken language and the written language, an eternal struggle like that between male and female.

In the beginning of the history of each people’s language, the written language was often an oral language, but, being oral, it was nevertheless, in its soul, a completely written language, different from the spoken language.

It is very curious and very interesting to note that in the last century, when everywhere there was a tendency to deny the struggle between male and female, at the same time we tried to deny the difference between the written language and the spoken language. 

The writers said they wrote as they spoke, as men and women said that camaraderie had replaced the struggle between male and female. 

But the French knew that it was wrong. I remember being so shocked by the fact that people in France said very honestly: “No, I do not know the French language,” even when it was people speaking, for our American ears, good French. Perhaps they wanted to say that the regional patois was still present in their language when they spoke. But I think the thing was deeper. The French, having always been quite civilized and logical, could not deny a truth and the truth is that the spoken language is not the same as the written language. 

So the French did not deny this truth, and the result was that they continued to be able to articulate sentences so deep and true that they were really written sentences. This sounds like a paradox, but it is not one. 

The written language is the language devoid of actuality, this is its most profound characteristic. And the people of France, being always in close contact with the land, may from time to time speak a written language. Even quite often. But they do not confuse. They are always deeply aware of the difference between the two.

When they tell you, by the way, “Yes, this evening it is night again,” they understand this difference.

I was so struck to find this consciousness in the people of France that I remember very well having said that, even if all the French people of the world perished, and only two were left, no matter which two, they could reconstruct the Comédie Française.

I also remember a French farmer seeing for the first time the olive trees of Southern France in the light of the setting sun. She was so impressed that she said, “Yes, this is the hour when the poets work.” 

This idea that the poets work, that the poets work could not be in the minds of farmers in any country except France. The hour when the poets work. 

Yes, there is a profound difference between written language and spoken language, and the French were the only ones, in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, who were faithful to this conviction, profoundly faithful. 

I was very struck by that in wartime too. Because violent and heroic action creates the written language, and all the French, during this heroic time, created written sentences. They were oral, but it was written language. 

And that is why the French language remains for every foreigner a thing apart. 

Since the French have never lost the deep understanding of the difference between written and spoken language, the French language always has this logic that is unrelated to ordinary use, it is something that consists in a deep knowledge of the differences between a written language and a spoken language, differences that constitute the truth of civilization that other languages very often forget. Other languages can become the language of news, the language of rhetoric. Not the French language. It is still the language of logic and understanding, a language that understands the vital difference between a written and a spoken language.

Sometimes I say to myself that the French language is like this latest French invention, grape sugar. It has all the flavor of sugar and honey and it has the strength of grapes.    

1. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, qtd. in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, ed. Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 299n8.

2. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, qtd. in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten 1913–1946 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 725n1.

3. See Gertrude Stein, Ida: A Novel, ed. Logan Esdale (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 223.

4. Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, 725.

5. The phrase originally appeared in the French royalist writer Antoine de Rivarol’s 1784 treaty Discours sur l’Universalité de la Langue Française, a treaty frequently referred to in the articles in Patrie.