The following is a 20-minute presentation I wrote for a lecture in the Graduate School of Art History at Yale, called “Women Make Modern,” organized by art historian David Joselit in the spring of 2012.
The original meaning of “stanza” is the italian word for “room.” One might begin to think of “stanza’s” etymological route in relation to Gertrude Stein’s book of poetry, Tender Buttons. The following presentation aims to show that her poems begin to take on the characteristics of a room containing the congenial relations of Stein’s early avant-garde coterie. Tender Buttons has less do with social spaces than it does intimate spaces between people that are secretive, hidden, latent. Thus the kind of social interaction implied by the text is more personal and even a reflection of the consciousness of a single, solitary individual, that individual being Stein, who gleans from her personal memories these interactions.
Tender Buttons evokes the actual domestic space in which the list-like format of this text’s first manuscripts were created, an imagined space created through its descriptions of objects, and a thirdly imagined social space arising from references to people and conversations. Arguably, the domestic, imagined, and referred to spaces in this book of poems and other poems of hers, evoke something like a room inhabited by an artistic coterie that promoted and supported Stein’s experiments in language largely disavowed during this time in her career. As mentioned in many histories of Stein, Tender Buttons was practically Stein’s first publication, and it was basically ridiculed when it was published. Not until The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (published in 1933), did Stein receive some kind of celebrity status.
Space and spatial relations is also an important way of understanding Gertrude Stein’s philosophical concerns about “seeing;” plausibly, it elucidates Stein’s belief in the non-differentiation of art and life that is integral to her view of the “modern composition” (Stein, “Composition as Explanation”). Real life, understood as that which occurs outside texts and writings, coheres with Stein’s ideas of “language that moves” as Stein creates literature situated in “living”—that is conversational. In doing so, Stein’s theories about “moving language” have a social bent, that points to communicative verbal exchange amongst friends. Moreover, a kind of domestic and shared space involving people in the process of different kinds of looking or different kinds of perceiving is suggested in Stein’s “looking.” Perhaps we might see the created and imagined space in her composition as something like the beginnings of art spaces in general that took in and valued modern art.
These images suggest that Stein began thinking about lists as early as 1910-1912, the time at which she wrote Tender Buttons, despite some sources saying it began around 1924 (Dydo 95). From these images one can see that Stein’s first manuscripts for Tender Buttons seem indistinguishable from shopping lists. Tender Buttons’s list-like format thusly evokes what one might call the “actual” domestic space of Alice Toklas’s and Stein’s domestic partnership, which began during the time Tender Buttons was created.
Three torn scraps of paper from two sheets part of the
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (2012)
Some of the foods listed above are, “Mutton,” “roast beef,” “rhubarb,” “cake,” “custard,” “sauce,” “salmon,” (Stein, TB). One might also go so far as to say that these foods are all comfort foods, and most are ingredients for comfort foods also listed (“milk,” “eggs,” “cream,” “cocoa,” for example, are the ingredients for “cake”) (Stein, TB). I think it would be unrealistic to say that the domestic space Stein conjures is discomforting.
Via associations conjured by these kinds of food, the listed items represent a protective, domestic enclosure. Moreover, Tender Buttons conjures the domestic space without any overt reference to an outside, external world. A trip to Spain is said in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as the time of Stein’s drafting Tender Buttons, but cosmopolitan Paris and Stein’s and Toklas’s excursions to Spain are not explicitly acknowledged in this text. By writing only on observations of domestic objects, Stein evokes the powerful sense of isolated protection one experiences in one’s own home. This feeling of oneness and singularity created in a domestic space is also conveyed throughout Tender Buttons, through the repetition and emphasis of demonstrative pronouns “there is” and “this is.” The repetition compels the feeling that “there is” actually, only these things with which one habitually interacts. Thusly, Tender Buttons suggests that the richness of experience is felt in the home, or in the home as much as anywhere else.
Also, it might be argued that a particular space containing a gathering of artists and friends within the home is imagined through the kinds of food listed. Stein’s lists of foods look like shopping-lists one is likely to buy for a dinner party: “Mutton,” “roast beef,” “rhubarb,” “cake,” “custard,” “sauce,” “salmon,” “potatoes,” and “asparagus” are some of the titles of her descriptions (Stein, TB). These rich foods invoke the feasts of holidays and celebrations, despite their being interspersed throughout other foods more quotidian. However, these foods are also many of the ingredients for the other ones, and are also rich in their unadulterated forms.
Stein’s food lists also evoke spaces for collecting different kinds of guests and attendees. Stein’s Tender Buttons references people she likes and those who have supported her; for example, Stein signals her friendship with Jean Cocteau for whom she also created a “portrait” poem. Jean Cocteau later translated in his Potomak, “dining is west,” which is a line earlier found in Tender Buttons and in the portrait Stein made of Cocteau that reads, “sign with as west west with as most” (Dydo 101). Stein’s friend wrote to her in an undated letter (perhaps around the spring of 1923) that “Cocteau told me he would like to translate your book” (Dydo 101). Gertrude Stein scholar, Ulla Dydo, comments that “which book is not clear, but what matters here is that Cocteau liked Stein’s work.” This is one example of the community of congenial relations centering around Stein’s work and the works of others within and outside her coterie.
The domestic space is expressed in Tender Buttons in more than one way because it carries the real life story of Stein and Alice Toklas’s moving in together to start their domestic partnership. The domestic space is thusly evoked to express not simply congenial relations, but intimate and erotic ones. Perhaps more obvious to some than the less overt allusions to platonic friendships and literary alliances are the thinly veiled sexual remarks, enhancing this text’s already cornucopian meaning. An example that more staunchly places Tender Buttons in genre of romantic literature is “RED ROSES.”:
A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and
a sold hole, a little less hot. (24)
Here Stein describes roses of varied color, one a “cool red” and the other, a “pink cut pink.” Perhaps the “collapse” of the rose is derived from the memory of its stems being cut after it was sold to Stein. Stein says in a revealing interview with poet Robert Hass that parts of her descriptions are re-fabricated from memory. The expression of a “hot” or a “little less hot” flower that is synecdochically described as a “hole” conveys the warm colors of “red” and “pink,” but also suggests body heat and bodily orifices. Moreover, Tender Buttons’s more erotic interests play out in the titular subject’s adjective, “tender,” which is, besides many meanings, an innuendo for “nipples.”
Having given an example of a communicative exchange in writing between artists with overlapping interests, it’s possible that Stein seems to have used her writing as means for acknowledging people who have supported her and her practice, thus producing work taken from real life experiences. For example, Stein gave a performative tribute to Edith Sitwell during her touring Narration lectures in 1934. In the conclusion of the address to Stein’s poetry reading, Stein performs “Sitwell Edith Sitwell,” a “portrait” of Sitwell, Stein’s friend, advocate, and the onstage introducer of her work. At this time, Stein incorporates the actual room which includes herself and her audience into her writing to make writing a part of “seeing.” As Ulla Dydo explains in Gertrude Stein: the Language that Rises: 1923-1924, “…Sitwell as subject of the portrait could be seen and ‘read’ directly by the audience while Stein read her own portrait of Sitwell…Stein read to those who were her own admiring audience about those who ‘sit when they sit around her,’ as she says of Sitwell’s audience in the portrait” (Dydo 96). Here the whole room and the social interaction therein is incorporated into Stein’s writing as a space for the reception of her work.
As the audience is compelled to look at Sitwell while hearing a poem about her, the idea of “reading” someone like one does in social situations becomes indistinguishable from reading a text. It’s also important to note that Stein did not see writing as any different from real life. She explains in “Composition as Explanation” that composition is “looking” based on how each generation is “doing something.” The term “composition” in this text applies to art, war, and daily life (Stein 21). The following analysis will show that that which occurs outside texts and writings, coheres with Stein’s ideas of “language that moves” through Stein’s creating literature situated in “living” that is conversational.
Perhaps Stein’s idea of “moving language” relates to her goal to revive language as social and enlivened speaking in conversation. Liesel Olson explains the “moving” language theory of Stein’s in Olson’s essay, “‘An invincible force meets an immovable object:’ Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago:’”
‘Moving’ language, according to Stein, rejects classical narrative structure, rejects a ‘beginning and a middle and an ending.’ Stein suggests that American writing poses a challenge to an Aristotelian concept of a work’s coherence.” (Olson 3)
Olson examines the ways in which Stein is more concerned with experience of the “middle” that already has within it the potential for the beginning and ending (Olson quotes Stein explaining that she simply finds the “middle” more interesting than any other part) (Olson 61).
To explore the said “movement” in Stein’s language consider any part of Tender Buttons, though I will underscore the beginning lines of “A LONG DRESS” which is midway through the first section titled “Objects:”
A LONG DRESS.
What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.
What is this wind, what is it. (17)
In the second and third lines which read, “What is this current. / What is this wind, What is it,” the term “what” indicates that these phrases might be questions, except that the lack of interrogative punctuation makes the subject of each sentence “what” and its subjective complement, “this current,” “the wind,” and “it.” Thus the pronoun “what” is presented as standing in for anything used in specifying something, because in most of Stein’s use of pronouns in Tender Buttons, the reference is almost always obscure, except for the titular subject (here being a “dress”). By placing “what” on one line, the next line, and then again after the comma, it literally “moves” through our act of reading the lines by “what” becoming the three different meanings, “this current,” the “wind,” and the indeterminate “it” (Stein 17). Ulla Dydo describes Stein’s grammatical units as creating “time” that is “‘followed and not surrounded’–that does not escape toward a vanishing point but is contained in surrounded circles, repetitions, and rhymes” (Dydo 96). The description of “A LONG DRESS,” like many of the descriptions in Tender Buttons, delimits its primary pronoun “it” to its subjective complement and the titular subject, and thus holds the reader’s attention of the term in this reflective space or “stanza.”
The sense of time for the reader is fixed, or “contained in surrounded…repetitions” which creates the idea of meaning that moves without a concretizing definition or endpoint. Repetition is an indication of “middle” in Stein’s writing then, or the non-narratological part of a story that has a similar inconclusiveness to it as a conversation has. Considering that conversation is a non-teleological, intersubjective exchange, a coming together of like-minded people on subjects of interest that aren’t necessarily conclusive or resolved, then the “middle” that Stein speaks of takes much of its cues from conversation.
For Stein, repetition doesn’t mean exactly the same, but rather that similar or the same grammatical units can be recognized differently. Perhaps the result is considered a “defamiliarization” or revivification of Stein’s language. The result of this might be that Stein conveys the vivid quality of conversation as well. Stein Scholar Barbara Will analyzes in her book, Gertrude Stein, Modernism and the Problem of “Genius,” Stein’s repetition in relation to Russian Formalism. Will evidences how a phrase can be underscored via repetition that differentiates it and thus revivifies it.
Applied to Stein’s use of civilities in her poems, Stein’s repeating phrases might create social and enlivened speaking one experiences in conversation. Repeating civilities in some of Stein’s poems, “set up,” as Will says, “and destabilize the basic equation,” which enlivens the reiteration by making it more interesting. Just as well, repetition and internal rhyming of terms like “pardon” and “to knock at the door” in other poems of hers, create the texture of daily life as repeating and habitual (Stein, “Gradual Making of the Making of Americans,” Stein, Portraits, Dydo). Similarly, “Thank you,” Gertrude Stein’s two-lined poem created in 1913, repeats “Thank you” six times (Bridgman, xiv).
The conversational texture of Stein’s theory of “moving language” as well as the enlivened, social quality of her reiterations suggest that Stein’s theories on language have a social bent. While they certainly reflect her belief in the non-differentiation of art and life, these ideas seem to also evoke a community in which Stein’s work is accepted and reinforced.
Tender Buttons as an imagined space for the appreciation of art and different kinds of looking seems reinforced in reference to particular conversations Stein had with supportive friends and her partner, Alice Toklas. It’s also important to mention that Stein’s philosophical concerns about the “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms” of Tender Buttons seems involved with the spatialization of objects. The ramifications of this idea is that Stein’s objects at once evoke a space in which art is appreciated while also reinforcing new, and innovative ways to view objects. In this way, Stein’s different kinds of “looking” become vital to the reception of art in general.
Gertrude Stein reveals her philosophical concerns by evoking objects as spatial. In other words, in Tender Buttons, space is imagined through descriptions of objects that redefine their concrete, “knowable” identities. To recall Stein’s description of “A LONG DRESS,” one was lead to a conclusion that “what” can stand in for anything. This begs the question, how do we define and distinguish amongst its substitutes? If it is infinitely substitutive, then how can language be used to identify and distinguish objects? Perhaps Tender Buttons invites a new perceiving of identity, not so much as singularly understandable, but as experiences without obvious boundaries. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes that the descriptions in Tender Buttons were the beginning, as Gertrude Stein would say, “of mixing the outside with the inside and… in these studies she began to describe the inside as seen from the outside.” (Chapter six, The Autobiography.)
In other words, what one sees when one reads this work is the “inside” of the object understood from the “outside.” So the term “outside” refers to the space within which the object becomes meaningful rather than the object itself. This spatial perspective, or the poetics of space, is forged from Stein’s repetitive rhymes and patterns that focus less on a particular subject in the description which is reinforced by using demonstrative and interrogative pronouns with obscure references. To support Stein’s own interpretation of her work, take for example the beginning lines of verse in “A PIECE OF COFFEE;” “More of double. / A place in no new table” (Stein 12). The first line avoids a subject, while the second contains one, but “coffee” is not described as one typically knows it, that is, the drink, the seed, or the cup. It becomes “a place.” This object then is without definite boundaries, as “place” suggests, and is thus spatial and experiential. Stein scholar Richard Bridgman writes in Gertrude Stein in Pieces that “so far as Gertrude Stein could determine in her subjective isolation, all of these made up the object’s full and authentic existence insofar as it had any reality for her. The object could not be separated from its context. It was entangled in an infinite web of relationships.” (Bridgman 124)
Deduced from these observations on space in Stein’s writing is a kind of domestic and shared space of different kinds of seeing, or a place for open interpretation and “looking” (“looking” at this point comprises how one’s life is lived or ways of living, and observations that culminate to the creation of Stein’s art) that allows for positive reinforcement and the continued generation of this reinforcement in Stein’s art. Evidenced by these exchanges and Stein’s performative portrait of Edith Sitwell is that Stein, and perhaps many artists during this time, needed the support of others who believed in them. Richard Bridgman writes in Gertrude Stein in Pieces:
…in her letters she constantly solicited praise and reassurance from her friends, especially from Carl Van Vechten who was the most generous in providing it. When she referred to her work in correspondence, she countered her own doubts by insisting that the project she was engaged in was awfully good, was the best thing she had ever done, was sure to please the recipient. (Brigman 14)
Stein’s correspondence regarding Edith Sitwell follows suit with Bridgman’s observations. Stein later says “of course I do know that I am the best of it and I must say that no one has been more continuously and persistently certain of it than she [Sitwell] among the litterateurs” (Dydo, 104). This attempt to “insist,” Bridgman says, on Stein’s talent is perhaps a response to possible insecurities and as Barbara Will says in her book, Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of Genius, “anxieties,” regarding how Stein feels about her writings. Not until Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 did she receive some kind of celebrity status. It thus seems that Stein, during these trying times, reinforces her practice through writings reflecting on and preserving a group of people who had faith in her work.
Arguably, the idea of space in Gertrude Stein’s writings is intimately linked to the spaces in which her art was made and how her ideas were generated. Her friends, her living spaces, and the objects therein influenced Stein’s style toward social and experiential ways of writing to address greater theoretical ideas and concerns regarding how one is to understand space and time during the influx of technological advances that shaped how America “moves” within and across borders. It is arguable that Stein found spaces that are social and domestic intimately linked with new ways of conceiving of that space to generate cultural/artistic production.
In sum, the space Stein’s observations evokes, is a kind of domestic, shared space constructed via different kinds of looking to generate more different kinds of looking. This idea sheds light on how her art was produced during her time and how it finally gained acceptance from the greater public through self-promotion of one’s works and promotion of others’ works. We might see the created and imagined space in her composition as something like the beginnings of the first art spaces in general to embrace and accept modern art.
A direct link between these two “sites,” the imagined space this analysis suggests in Stein’s work, and art spaces or institutions in general is unsubstantiated. However, a connection remains because the kinds of relationships intimated in Stein’s writings, which predate modern art museums not yet formed, were some of the first to support art considered “modern.” It is significant for the idea of space in Stein’s work to begin to be associated with the Steins’ Salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, which housed some of the first art works ever to be considered “modern.” In this way then, art institutions, spaces for showing and housing works of art, don’t have to be “real” in the way we tend to consider them, but rather imagined or psychological, as they become the precursors for and reinforcements of the actual and eventual art institutions themselves.
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Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons: notes. Three torn scraps of paper from one sheet. Part of The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. YCAL MSS 76. Online. Retreived Dec. 18, 2011. < HYPERLINK “http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1138344” http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/ brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1138344>
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons: notes. Torn scrap of paper. Part of The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. YCAL MSS 76. Online. Retrieved Dec. 18 2011. < HYPERLINK “http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2038387&iid=1136741&srchtype=” http:// beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp? pid=2038387&iid=1136741&srchtype=>