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.
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.
It’s funny, said Willie, the way a nigger always finds some little
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.
Does it make one mad or doesnt it make one mad, said Willie.
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.”
You know the other day I heard a colored major say, he hand no
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
Jo said, what do you think, one of those frog girls said, I showed ‘em
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: