Gertrude Stein was a lesbian, and is applauded as such on many Gay and Lesbian websites. She is seen as a pioneer of gay liberation who would therefore presumably have approved of gay marriage etc.etc. Gay-and-Lesbian readers are left to assume, from such websites, that she would have seen the world as homosexuals in the early 21st Century do. Open, inclusive, rainbow LGBTQ coalition and so forth.
But there is a big problem with this. If one reads The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, one soon discovers that Stein was in many respects a conservative, indeed reactionary, person. She may well have been an avant garde writer of her time in terms of style, but she was more on the Right than on the Left of the political spectrum.
It’s no secret that this was true of many of the Modernists, from T.S.Eliot (“Anglican, royalist, classicist”) to W.B.Yeats (aristocratic elitism and a taste for Fascism) to D.H.Lawrence (basically Blut-und-Boden-mit-Sex) to Ezra Pound (broadcasts from Fascist Rome etc.). In fact, this sort of conjunction was more-or-less inevitable when the Modernists were reacting against mass-produced and mass-appeal literature and consciously creating something for the educated few. Assumptions of an elite and exclusivist sort were behind much of their thought.
I say none of this to belittle what they wrote. All the names I’ve mentioned here (except possibly the tiresome, phallus-obsessed Lawrence) were important figures in literature. All of them wrote significant and important things. And a part of me thinks that the social and political opinions they expressed were no more off-the-mark than those of writers on the Left at the time, who wobbled foolishly into the orbit of Stalin.
Nevertheless, it remains true that Gertrude Stein was no advocate of gay liberation and indeed sometimes spoke scornfully even of the women of “first-wave” feminism who had struggled for the vote. She thought of herself as “masculine” (her term), admired soldiers, and thought of Alice B. Toklas as her “wife”. Heterosexual women – especially married ones – she regarded as less than herself, and tended to dismiss or patronise when they came visiting with their husbands. Not much sisterly solidarity there. And on the political front, she greatly admired the soldier General Franco, whose side she supported (with words) when the Spanish Civil War was in progress. Ironical when you consider that she was an on-again, off-again friend of Picasso, whom she claimed to have “discovered”, but there you are.
ShareAnd then we come to the very messy part of the story. Though they were both ethnically Jewish (though non-religious), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas stayed in France throughout the Nazi occupation, 1940-44. They did have to leave Paris and move to a remote country area, but they were not molested and the art collection they had amassed in Paris was never plundered or destroyed, as other collections of “decadent” art were in Nazi-occupied countries. Why was this? (Read more.)