Poetry News

Fascinating Piece on Gertrude Stein's Pro-Vichy Politics, 'Innocence' of Intellectuals

By Harriet Staff


The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities has a great piece up on the strangely pro-Vichy, quasi-Fascist politics of Gertrude Stein, written by Barbara Will, Stein scholar and professor of English at Dartmouth. Apparently, "Stein’s Vichy past has long been known to scholars of her work, if not to the public at large. In 1970, Stein’s biographer Richard Bridgman revealed not only that Stein was a fan of [Philippe] Pétain [head of state of the pro-Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime in France], but had even spent a good part of the war translating his speeches into English..." Furthermore:

[M]ost 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. Until recently, in fact, the troublesome question of Stein’s politics didn’t really figure in debates over her legacy—as opposed, for example, to the vehement debates surrounding Mussolini supporter and modernist poet Ezra Pound.

Stein’s obvious vulnerability as a Jew in Vichy France—a regime that sent more than 75,000 Jews to concentration camps, of whom only 3 percent survived—explains some of this critical response. Even if we acknowledge that Stein was a Vichy propagandist, what right have we to condemn her for doing what she could to save herself in a terrifying situation? Hiding in plain sight might have been the best way to deflect attention away from herself. Given that many of Stein’s neighbors in the small southern town where she lived during the war were Pétainists makes this argument even more convincing. And the fact that Stein apparently joined her neighbors in supporting the French Resistance after 1943 further underscores these formative ties to her community.

On the other hand, we have no evidence to suggest that Gertrude Stein was anything but an enthusiastic supporter of the Vichy regime.

Will goes on to detail this support. She also recalls Janet Malcolm's recent Two Lives, which "began raising crucial questions about the intersection between artistic modernism and political fascism." Will explains that her own work on Stein and Bernard Faÿ (pronounced fah-ee), a Frenchman "who may have led her into the orbit of the Vichy regime," looks to "[mine] the archives to find an exact historical context for this unlikely intersection."

Faÿ’s central role in the Vichy regime undoubtedly had an effect upon Gertrude Stein’s fate during the Second World War. According to Faÿ himself, he prevailed upon Pétain to protect Stein and Toklas and to give them special dispensation to be left undisturbed during the war. Faÿ apparently secured perks like bread tickets and driving privileges for Stein, and possibly intervened when Stein’s name appeared on the third and final installment of the Nazi’s list of banned books in May 1943. Faÿ also stepped in—at the request of Picasso, who somehow knew exactly whom to contact—when the Nazis showed up at Stein’s apartment in Paris to seize her art collection (it was left undisturbed). In crucial ways, therefore, Faÿ was an indispensable friend to Stein during a period in which she was in considerable danger.

Why did Stein choose to stay in France during these dangerous times, when she was urged to leave both by American officials and by friends and members of her own family? As she explained it in “The Winner Loses,” an essay she wrote about the armistice and published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1940, Stein was tempted to flee France for America but decided not to because of the assurances of local neighbors. Furthermore, she writes, “it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food.” In the same essay, Stein notes that she relied on prophecies and astrological signs to reassure her about the course of the war, most of which promised a swift German defeat. We can assume that Stein also understood something she never mentions in “The Winner Loses”—that her friendship with Faÿ would offer her a great deal of official protection during the regime.

However, Will continues, "[h]er Pétainism appears to have been a bit more complex than that of Bernard Faÿ. "And for Pound and Stein at least, the surging movements of European fascism promised a renascence of that old, idealized America." Moreover, she asks, "So what? What do the political views of these and other great modernist thinkers have to do with their art or writing? Not much, we could say, in the case of someone like Stein, whose most experimental writing seems highly abstract, patently disconnected from views and opinions, or even from politics. Or maybe her political views, in fact, have a lot to do with her experimental writing..." Read the full piece here. It also calls out Wyndham Lewis, whose work and stance Frederic Jameson has criticized in terms of the "systematic 'innocence' of intellectuals that gives a free pass to those whose work we admire, regardless of the context in which it was written or its ultimate aim."

Originally Published: May 4th, 2012