Gertrude Stein’s collaboration with the fascist Vichy government was never a secret. But, until now, many have simply ignored it; or, to use the critic Frederic Jameson’s phrase, given over to the “innocence of intellectuals.” Stein’s avid support for Petain, the Nazi collaborator who headed the Vichy government, has often been written off as merely the tragic consequence of many a brilliant artists. What mattered was her prose, not her politics.
But the scholar Barbara Will, a professor of English at Dartmouth, is trying to change that. In her new book, “Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fäy, and the Vichy Dilemma,” of which an excellent excerpted essay appears here, Will argues that it’s time we stop letting artists off the hook when it comes to their politics. For one thing, many other fascist supporters—Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Knut Hamsun—have had their fascist politics thoroughly checked. Why not Stein? And more to the point, a closer look at her appeal with fascism can tell us something significant about her art.
Will focuses on the influence that the right-wing French historian, Bernard Fay, had on Stein—who, needless to say, was Jewish. It was Fay who began translating Stein’s work in French, and he who got her to work on the failed project of publishing Philippe Petain’s speeches in America. She not only translated Petain’s pro-Nazi speeches, which often attacked Jews, but also wrote a thoughtful introduction to a collection of his speeches she had edited. American publishers refused to touch it, but Will has gone through those manuscripts, and 20 years worth of letter-writing between Fay and Stein, to ascertain what it was the two had in common—one, a conservative, royalist, Catholic (Fay); the other a progressive Jewish artist (Stein).
What Will finds is a shared reactionary zeal against the liberal reforms brought on by the industrial revolution, or 19th century “modernity.” Instead, both believed a new revolution was needed to counter it, one that looked to a new future by recasting a mythic past: specifically, the 18th century. For Fay, that century represented the tradition, law and order of strong Catholic state, before the radicalism of the French revolution tore it asunder. For Stein, however, it was the American Revolutionary era itself—Washington and Franklin were icons for her, and in her writings about Petain, she insisted he represented a new and improved version of America’s Founding Fathers.
In Will’s words:
While Faÿ saw in Pétain a set of traits familiar to the French right, Stein seems to have wanted to make Pétain relevant to a wide American audience. For Stein, Pétain’s National Revolution offered a blueprint for a new kind of revolution in the United States, one that would negate the decadence of the modern era and bring America back to its eighteenth-century values. … Stein’s introduction to Pétain’s speeches urges Americans to see the dictator as the very embodiment of an American Founding Father. The composite figure of Washington-Franklin-Pétain allows Stein to create a line of connection between present-day France and a lost eighteenth-century America. Regardless of his skills in leading contemporary France, Pétain’s real strength lies in the fact that he is a throwback. Stein’s introduction to Pétain’s speeches not only works as Vichy propaganda, but more importantly—and bizarrely—presents Americans with a model of leadership to emulate.
But what affect should her politics have on how we view her writing—or how we view her profound influence on 20th century art? (As the Met’s current exhibit, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” reminds us, the last century of art would not be the same without her, and her brother Leo.) In her modernist fiction and her championing of modernist artists, from Picasso to Cezanne, it’s possible to see something radically liberal—a willful disdain for the traditional rules of grammar, prose and aesthetic expectations, say. But, as Michael Kimmelman writes in his review of the Met exhibit and Will’s new book, we can more readily see her latent fascism.
He writes of Stein’s modernist prose: “with its inward-turning focus on its own formal means and devices, its willful divorce from the sort of close social observation and proletarian politics that caused writers like Dreiser, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis to be tarred as anti-modernists, [her writings] is not incompatible with the clean-sweep radicalism promised by fascism. Nor is it inconsistent with the notion of a centralized, supreme author, or authority.”
So perhaps, then, it’s time we stop giving artists—or certainly not Stein—a free pass when it comes to their politics. All art, as Orwell would tell us, is, after all, political.