Sunday, December 7, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "O Brave New World!" (on Stein's Brewsie and Willie)


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 stomach cancer in July, 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 writings.

     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 (see My Year 2012 for a fuller discussion of the genre), 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 nurses 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.” 

    Despite the serious doubts expressed by the most of the soldiers, and, in particular, by 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, having grown up as sons and daughters during the Great Depression, were open to their European experiences and interested in the post-war citizens of France, Germany, England and other countries. And, 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 doubted and even challenged the values they would 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 troubled abour how they might fit in 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 by some as “the greatest generation.” Stein projects these soldier voices in a discussion of edgy issues of race, cultural identity, immigration, religion, history, economics, 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 finds 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-born, might have spoken; and, more importantly, what is really being described throughout this section (part “Five”) is that in fighting beside 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 would 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 perceive that they now live in a very different world than the one  to they are about to return.


                      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 ‘em mad not really it doesnt.”
     These are Americans quite quickly coming to terms with racism almost without 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 post-war 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 apparent that many of the ideas the central figure, Brewsie, expresses arise, he puts it, 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. although they enjoy drinking with German men, they more highly admire the French women for basically refusing to fraternize with the Germans, even though 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, he insists, to become educated, to have more time to explore the differences between the European cultural ideas and those of his homeland. Others find some aspects of European life far more “up-to-date” than 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 articulates Stein’s ideas, is that the U.S. is doomed in its reliance on industrialism. Like England and other countries which have already gone through vast industrial growth, the U.S., he argues, will eventually use up so many of its resources and 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, no time and space in which to embrace the very activities they have now begun to enjoy and that have suggested to them new ways perceiving. They will become subjects to a system that ultimately will 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 struggles to intelligently express them. Speaking of the English, Willie begins a long spiel which we will continue and expand upon from time to time throughout the remainder of the book:

                     Well anyway they had lots of coal and iron ore and tin right there
                     on that island and they just made and made, and everybody 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 in-
                     dustrial and we got richer and they got poorer and their markets
                     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, said
                     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 summarization 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 won
                     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 were 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 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? At first Brewsie and others suggest an active participation in unions; and in connection to participation, 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 probably 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” actually entails 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 the very 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 frightening 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 monologue, it quickly grows into a chorus of contradictory voices, some throwing out ideas, others dismissing them, while others work 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 answer only yes or no like the questions in the Gallup polls, but are determined to challenge their contemporaries, 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, including my own Air Force-serving father waiting in Naples, and the thousands of others who soon returned home give up their voices to live out the “quiet lives of desperation” that writers and cultural observers critical of the next decade use to characterize their post-war existences? Like Brewsie, some clearly did speak out, people like John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger, and Jane Bowles, among hundreds of others went out to “pioneer” in one way or another. These men and women, as well as their contemporaries, like the numerous jazz musicians of the 1950s, sought out alternatives instead of 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 she could not have revealed it more persuasively than in this loving and moving document in which her beloved G.I.s speak out for themselves.

Los Angeles, February 4, 2015

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