“Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and the Eyewitness Problem”
Rachel Galvin, Johns Hopkins University
This chapter shows how the dynamics of gender have played a part in the reception of Stein and Moore’s wartime poetry. Their work reveals the persistence of the idea that the seat of literary authority in wartime is located in the body of the writer. I demonstrate that the eyewitness bind, which would seem to leave women little footing from which to write about war, actually fueled important developments in 1930s and 1940s poetry. Although Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits,” inspired by New York Times war reporting, is arguably the key World War II poem penned by an American woman, Moore was publicly criticized by veteran poet Randall Jarrell for lacking the authority of flesh-witnessing. (The authority of flesh-witnessing, as one military historian calls it, entails the assumption that knowledge of war is visceral and cannot be expressed in language: words are insufficient and bodily sensations are what produce and transmit knowledge, creating experiential truths.) I demonstrate that nevertheless, Moore was deeply concerned with the material supports of war information and the unreliable rhetoric of news, and far more self-conscious about her own role as civilian poet than her critics have credited her with being. I examine how Moore crafts an innovative poetics by citing newspapers and establishing an unstable position of authority that dramatizes her civilian position. Moore’s war poems are generally read as heavy-handed and rhetorical, yet I show that they are constructed to self-deflate and reveal the inner workings of their own rhetoric.
Whereas Moore was vociferously criticized for being too distanced from the events of war to have the authority to write about it, Stein has been condemned for not writing sufficiently about her experiences living in a small town in the Free Zone of France (1939-1945). However, I survey Stein’s wartime writing to demonstrate its profound engagement with the events of war that she lived through, and explore the literary stakes of her claim that she had the authority to write of the Occupation because she was a flesh-witness: “it is impossible to make anybody realize what occupation by the Germans is who has not had it.” I suggest that Stein’s prose diary titled Wars I Have Seen (1945), written in the absence of regular newspaper delivery, ought to be considered Stein’s own genre-bending “daily.” In it she recorded dates, statistics, and oral testimony from her neighbors. Drawing on recent reconceptualizations of the lyric, I argue that Stein crafts “reverse epiphanies” within the narrative: rather than signaling a sudden revelation, these lyric eruptions work to contain disturbing incidents and rein in what would otherwise be the intolerable perception of threat. Reading the work of Moore and Stein together illuminates the innovative ways in which civilian women writers worked within an epistemological framework that values flesh-witnessing as they crafted modern war poems.
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