Monday, December 15, 2014


o brave new world!

by Douglas Messerli

Gertrude Stein Brewsie and Willie (New York: Random House, 1946)

In 1946, the same year as Gertrude Stein’s death of pancreatic cancer, Random House published what was to be her last book—with the exception of the numerous volumes published by Harvard University Press as part of the deal to house her archives. Brewsie and Willie stands almost like a comically effervescent Tempest when compared with the darkly brooding works of her other war-time writing.
     The intense conversation Stein had with American soldiers described in her Wars I Have Seen continued during the following year back in her Paris apartment, discussions which make up the entire of this dialogue fiction. Like many of such dialogue works, moreover, Brewsie and Willie is inherently dramatic—which I have already attested to in the wonderful production of Stein’s intense conversations between very young and somewhat older soldiers and WACS in the Poor Dog Production in Los Angeles of a dramatic treatment by Marissa Chibas, Erik Ehn, and Travis Preston in 2010 (published in that My Year volume)—becoming, as I put it, “a poetic chorus of fearful and thoughtful voices that links this [piece] to her most challenging work.”  
    But despite the serious doubts expressed by the all the soldiers, and, in particular, their lead spokesman, Brewsie, Stein’s work is a testament to the American future, particularly a future with will embrace the thousands of GIs about to be “redeployed” back to their home country. As Stein had made clear in Wars I Have Seen, there was something “different” about the soldiers she encountered after World War II from the former doughboys of the First World War. These soldiers of 1944 and -45, unlike their silent, more drunken, and ruminative World War I brothers, these sons and daughters growing up in the Great Depression were open to their European experiences and interested in the post-war citizens of France, German, England and other countries. But most importantly, these men talked and listened; rather than simply accepting their new experiences and their collective re-internment to the country of their birth, they questioned and even challenged the world their face upon their return. Although, in Stein’s telling, they were nearly all eager to get back home in order to start over again, they were also afraid, worried by changes in their country’s economy and politics, and in how they might fit among the others who had not had gained their war-time experiences.    
     Convincingly using the language of the soldiers, sometimes so eerily on spot that it is difficult to imagine that behind these young voices is a woman of 73 years of age, Stein is not afraid to breach a wide range of issues, some of them quite controversial, particularly given the fact that these were men and women who even decades later would be described as “the greatest generation.” Stein projects these soldier voices to discuss edgy issues of race, cultural identity, immigration, religion, history, economics, and politics, and the failures of the American imagination. 
     One may certainly wince at hearing Stein’s lead character, Willie, ruminating about Blacks:

It’s funny, said Willie, the way a nigger always find
some little nigger children to talk to, you’d think there
were no niggers anywhere and there he is, he just is
sitting on a chair in a garden and two darky little boys
talking to him and they talking French and he talking
to him and they talking French and he talking and go
on talking French and does talk the same to them, and
I do think it is funny. (p. 28)

But one quickly recognizes that that is precisely the way soldiers, particularly several of them being Southern soldiers, might have spoken; and, more importantly, what is really being described throughout this section (part “Five”) is that fact that fighting alongside with Blacks throughout the War, these men are no longer surprised to see Black soldiers dining among them, talking with the French (even possibly in French) and doing everyday things alongside them that will not be permitted for many years in some of their states back home. 
   Even the everydayness of living and being with Blacks suddenly begins to make these G.I.s think of a very different world that the one they are about to return to.

Does it make one mad or doesnt it make one mad, said
Willie. What you mean, asked Jo. Well, said Willie, I
saw a Negro soldier sitting on a bench just looking out
into the street, and next to him were three white women,
not young, not paying any attention to them and I didnt
know whether it made me mad or didnt make me mad.  
(p. 41)

Jo rightfully argues that it “doesn’t make ‘em mad not even when they see a white woman walking with one of them, the boys like to think it makes ‘em made but it doesnt really make’ mad not really it doesnt.
     These are Americans quite quickly coming to terms with racism almost without them quite comprehending the significance of what they see and hear. The character Brock (one of the most unforgettable figures in the early part of Stein’s dramatic conversations) expresses a statement by another Black soldier that is so searing in its critique of American race relations that it seems to have pulled out of today’s headlines: 

You know the other day I heard a colored major say, he
hand no children, although he was married nine years and
I said, how is that, and he said, is this America any place
to make born a Negro child. 

     It’s clear that much of the central figure, Brewsie, expresses ideas that, as he puts it, come from being “kind of foggy in the head.” For one wonderfully comic instant, Brewsie even ponders the idea of a transgender existence:


I wish I was a girl if I was a girl I would be a WAC and if
I was a WAC and if I was a WAC, oh my Lord, just think
of that. (p. 11)

     More intently, Brewsie, his G.I. friends and nurses explore cultural stereotypes by throwing out pejorative terms such as “Frog” (for the French), Heinies (for the Germans), and Limies (for the English) while simultaneously questioning their own prejudices, wondering why for example they enjoy drinking with German men, that they more highly admire the French women for basically refusing to fraternize with the Germans, while the German women readily slept with Americans and Russians. One young soldier is determined to stay in Europe instead of returning home, to allow him, quite obviously, more time to consider the differences between the European cultural ideas and those of his homeland. Others find some aspects of European life far more “up-to-date” that the “old-fashioned” constructions and the concepts behind them of the United States:


Jo said, what do you think, one of those frog girls said, I
showed ‘em a picture of my wife and the baby in the baby
carriage and she said, what, do you have those old
fashioned baby-carriages with high wheels and a baby
can fall out, no we French people, we have up-to-date
baby-carriages, streamlined, she said. (p. 25)

Jo immediately wants to get home and buy himself one of the new baby-carriages. But much of the conversation between these soldiers, especially as Willie projects Stein’s ideas, is that the U.S. is doomed in its reliance on Industrialism. Like England and other countries who have already gone through vast industrial growth, the U.S., he argues, will eventually use up so many of its resources that it too will fall into decline. The very thing they all look forward to, to find a decent job that will permit them to buy new goods, will, in fact, give them no time to talk and think, to embrace the very activities they have now begun to enjoy and that have offered them new ways perceiving. They will become subjects to a system that ultimately steal away their possibilities for exploring the new potentialities with which they have just begun to come into contact. And it is these complex ideas that take up much of Stein’s dialogue, particularly since Willie is slow to intelligently express them. Speaking of the English, Willie begins a long spiel which we will continue and expand upon from time to time:

Well anyway they had lots of coal and iron ore and tin right
there on that island and they just made and made, and every-
body gave up every kind of way of living excepting jobs in
factories and mines, even little children, and they made all
their colonies and empire buy them, and it was swell just like
us and they got richer and richer. Well we horned in after our
Civil War we went industrial and we got richer and they got
poorer and their market that is the people in their empire
slowed down in buying and they used up their raw material,
and then they tried to take new places to sell to, like
Egypt which they took from the French and Africa from the
Dutch. The lousy Limies, said Willie. You just wait Brewsie,
and there we were getting richer and richer and why be-
cause we had our outside market right at home that is we had
emigration, thousands and millions in every year into our
country…(pp 35-36)

After a discussion of the developing Industrialization in Russian, German, and Japan as well, he continues:

And it’s all because everybody just greedy wants to manufacture
more than anybody can buy, well then you know what happened
after the last war we cut off immigration, we hoped to sell to 
foreign countries, foreign countries didnt want to buy and we had
the depression. …Yes and then we had to fight, and yes we wont
but we used up a hell of a lot of raw material and now we got to
make a club to make those foreign countries buy from us, and we
all got to go home of make some more of those things that use up
the raw material and that nobody but own little population wants
to buy. Oh dear, said Brewsie. (pp. 36-37)

     Oh dear, we might all proclaim, for whatever one thinks of Stein’s and the soldier’s quick summary of early 20th century economics, there is little question that the author and her characters was right in predicting that the soldiers of World War II would be destined to return home to buy up industrial goods, homes, and other possessions that would affect their lives and ultimately would result in the end of American industrialism. Today we are a country whose industrial goods are mostly manufactured elsewhere.
     But how can they effect a change back home? A first Brewsie and others suggest an active participation in unions; and in connection to that, one of the Red Cross nurses, Janet, argues that together as a generational force, “we got to make a noise, a loud noise, a big noise, we got to be heard” (p. 89).
     Brewsie and others soon recognize, however, that, in the end, they will be unable to change the course of American economics. As an alternative they suggest the possibility of “pioneering,” of each going their own way, living in a world apart from the corporate-dominated factories in which they are expected to find jobs. What their concept of “pioneering” might be is a little vague, at times sounding a bit like the alternative choices some of their own children would make in the 1960s—a kind of perpetual hippedom, a life lived apart, at least, as Lawrence suggests, from being middle aged:

I tell you old and young are better than tired middle-aged,
is so dead dead-tired, dead every way as middle-aged, have
got the guts to make a noise while we are still young before 
we get middle-aged, tired middle-aged, no we haven’t, said
Willie, and you know it, no we haven’t, said Willie. (p. 90)

Their fears of what they believe will be their future are so bleak, even frightful that it makes another nurse, Pauline, want to cry. All look to Brewsie for some sort of solution, but the more they wait for him to speak, the less he has to offer, and the more the others finally do speak out.
     The marvel of Stein’s dialogue is that, if it begins as a kind of one man-dominated monologue, it quickly grows into a chorus of contradictory voices, some throwing out ideas, others dismissing them, while others try to suggest various points of compromise. By the time they finally get their orders to move on, they have all changed from passive beings speaking in clichés to somewhat articulate individuals who no longer want to speak only yes or no like the questions in the Gallup polls, but to challenge their worlds, to speak out, and, most importantly, to listen. As future job-hunters, however, they doubt they will ever again be able to join others in such intense discussions in the future:

And tell me, said Janet, wont you miss talking when
you get home, you do know dont you all of you nobody
talks like you you were boys were always talking, not
back home. Yes we know, said Jo. Yes we know, said
Jimmie. Not Brewsie, said Willie, he’ll talk but, said
Willie, Brewsie will talk but we wont be there to listen,
we kind of will remember that he’s talking somewhere
but we wont be there to listen, there wont be anybody
talking where we will be. But, said Jo, perhaps they will
talk now, why you all so sure they wont talk over there,
perhaps they will talk over there. Not those on the job
they wont, said Willie, not those on the job. (p. 110).


     It depends on you read the 1950s and the history that followed upon which side you might join in their argument. Did the American soldiers, my own Air Force-serving father waiting in Naples, for example, and the thousands of others who soon returned home give up their voices to live out “quiet lives of desperation” that writers and cultural observers critical of the next decade use to characterize their behavior. Like Brewsie, some spoke, people like John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger, and Jane Bowles, among hundreds of others. These men and women, as well as their contemporaries, like the numerous jazz musicians of the 1950s, “pioneered” instead joining the industrialized systems into which most G.I.s were swallowed up. My own father—a rube from Iowa if there ever was one—returned after World War II to become a noted educator in his home state. 
    Stein saw the moment as a precipitous one:

…I am sure that this particular moment in our history is
more important than anything since the Civil War. (p. 113)

We have to find a new way, she argued, or we will go poor like other industrial countries before us. “Don’t think that communism or socialism will save you,” argued the conservative but perhaps prescient writer: “you have to find a new way out” (p. 113).
     If there was ever moment to care about one’s country, to be truly “patriotic,” Stein insisted, it was at this moment. “I have always been patriotic,” insisted Stein. And ever she revealed it more it is in this loving and moving document in which her beloved G.I.s speak up for themselves.

Los Angeles, February 4, 2015



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