Gertrude Stein was not my aunt, although I sometimes fantasize that she was. The notion that I am her relative and a member of her charmed circle is 100 percent crazy, but it’s not 200 percent crazy. Gertrude and I share the name Stein, and we are both Jewish. And I have recently discovered another affinity. We are both Republicans.
The idea that this revolutionary in literary style, this patron of bohemians and radicals, this most famous lesbian since Sappho was a Republican is staggering and delicious. Just imagine what Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, and Jerry Falwell would think if they knew! Other avant-garde writers were conservatives of a type: Ezra Pound was a fascist conservative; T.S. Eliot a high-church, elitist conservative; William Faulkner an antique Southern gentleman conservative. But Gertrude Stein, whom I will call “GS” for brevity, was a mainstream, middle-America, small-government Republican. She was not a Rockefeller Republican, even though Rockefeller endowed the Museum of Modern Art, celebrating the artists she was among the first to recognize. She was more like a Coolidge Republican, even sharing her literary style with Cal. He sounded like GS when he said, “When people are out of work there is unemployment.” The superficial simple-mindedness of the statement makes one think there must be some deeper meaning beneath it.
In January 1934, GS said that Republicans “are the only natural rulers” in the United States. What was special about the United States was that its individuals were free and its government was small, something Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt did not understand. “When I say Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt are not American I mean they do not feel America to be a very large country around which anybody can wander and so although a government is there it is not always anywhere near but they feel it to be a little country which they can govern, and so it is European and not American.”
Theodore Roosevelt was, of course, a Republican, but GS did not consider him an authentic one. “It is not that Theodore Roosevelt destroyed the republican party that might have happened anyway.” She saved her real dislike for Franklin Roosevelt, saying that Democrats were elected president only if they had a “singular seductiveness.” “Roosevelt [Franklin] was honestly elected, but he is not half as seductive as his predecessors, so I don’t think he will be elected a second time.”
Her dislike of FDR was based partly on economic policy. “Is Franklin Roosevelt trying to make money be so that it has no existence that it ceases to be a thing that anybody could count, so that nobody can any longer believe in it or is it all electioneering,” she asked. If his goal was ridding people of the belief in money so that they would no longer believe in it, GS thought it might be a good thing. But what FDR really wanted, she believed, was a lot of money at his disposal so that he could control everything.
GS gave the most extensive view of her thoughts on economics in a series of articles published in 1936 in the Saturday Evening Post, the house organ of Main Street Republicanism. Her basic theme was that governments spend too much. According to GS, the unemployed do not want to work, and if there were fewer rich people, there would be more poor people. Although FDR is not mentioned by name in her pieces, it’s evident that he is the main culprit.
The first article, “Money,” starts with this simple brass-tacks statement:
Everybody just has to make up their mind. Is money money or isn’t money money. Everybody who earns it and spends it every day in order to live knows that money is money, everybody who votes it to be gathered in as taxes knows money is not money. That is what makes everybody go crazy.
GS’s point is that the government officials who tax and spend do not realize what money is to the people who earn it. But because money really is money, those who tax and spend should treat it the way that the earners treat it–but they don’t. There is trickery or confusion in GS’s argument. Of course, money is money, but there are different kinds of money, and the different kinds need to be regarded and managed differently. Each soldier in an army division is someone’s son, but we do not expect the commanding general to manage all of them the way their mothers would.
Governments may be wasteful in managing money, but the only evidence GS provides is in the story of Louis XV, who, when accused of spending too much, said, “After me, the deluge.” The story was singularly inappropriate in 1936–the deluge had come after Coolidge and Hoover, and Roosevelt’s spending was an effort to stem the deluge, or at least to keep some people from drowning in it.
GS’s Saturday Evening Post articles eerily suggest words we were to hear 50 or 60 years later. The Louis XV story reminds me of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorites–about the Muslim philosopher who said that the king came to the throne with high taxes and departed with low revenue. “Is money money” similarly presages Bob Dole on the 1996 campaign stump reminding people, “It’s your money! It’s your money! It’s your money!” And when GS asks, “who is to stop congress from spending too much money. They will not stop themselves, that is certain,” I imagine her testifying before Sen. Orrin Hatch about the balanced-budget amendment.
How did this unconventional woman arrive at these conventional ideas? I never spoke to my aunt, and I am not a student of the large literature by and about her. But if she could write about fiscal policy, perhaps I can speculate a little about her.
She was either terribly ignorant about economic affairs or terribly foresighted. She lived abroad continuously from 1904 until 1934, when she returned for a U.S. lecture tour and then departed, never to return. She missed the worst part of the Great Depression. She did receive American newspapers in Paris (which we know because of the story of her giving the comic pages to Picasso), but we–or at least I–don’t know what news accounts she read. Had she been more aware of the despair of the Depression, she might have been more understanding of Franklin Roosevelt.
One might say that GS had such great understanding of human nature that she could see beyond the Depression, beyond World War II, beyond the Cold War, to the fiscal problems we would have in 1997. One could say that, but I don’t believe it. She was not a woman of great foresight about public events. Living in France in the summer of 1939, she rejected the opinion of well-informed people that war was imminent.
However ignorant of economics she may have been, there is one economic fact that all Americans living abroad know–the exchange rate. Before FDR devalued the dollar, GS could get 25.6 francs for each dollar of her American income. After the devaluation, the rate was 15.2 francs to the dollar, a drop of 40 percent. I can easily imagine her being greatly annoyed at FDR for that.
GS was not the stereotypical poor and alienated intellectual who was an enemy of capitalism. She always had a comfortable income, derived from her inheritance and supplemented after she turned 60 by her publishing royalties. She also had great investments–in Picassos, Matisses, and other paintings. Far from being alienated, she was the internationally recognized grande dame of a group of rising geniuses. And she was not an intellectual, having little interest in general ideas about economics or politics. “The real ideas,” she said, “are not the relation of human beings as groups but a human being to himself inside him and that is an idea that is more interesting than humanity in groups.”
It seems to me that her view of society was “cubist,” like the paintings she was early to appreciate and the literature she wrote. A cubist painter tried to decompose an object into the atoms that were its real essence. He could paint a violin as a number of superimposed geometrical shapes of varying shades of brown. GS tried to reveal the essence of communication by stringing together heavy words without the punctuation, connectives, adjectives, adverbs, and allusions we are accustomed to. She understood society, or was interested in society, only as a collection of individual human beings not bound together by any political or economic system.
This attitude has its merits, but it also has its drawbacks. No one can play music with the cubist’s idea of a violin. Very few people could understand GS’s writing. Her atomistic view of society nourished her assignment of a high value to individual freedom, but it limited her ability to understand much that was going on in the world.
As GS might ask, what is the question to which this essay is the answer? Perhaps there is none. Every answer doesn’t have a question. But one lesson of this essay is that the Stein family, like every other family, contains some surprises.