The Plain Edition

Gertrude Stein and modernist book history

Sarah Stone
Sarah Stone (center) at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

In 1916, seven years after her first book publication, forty-two-year-old Gertrude Stein fantasized about ways to see more of her work into print. She exclaimed in a letter to Carl Van Vechten, “where oh where is the man to publish me in series. […] He can do me as cheaply and as simply as he likes but I would so like to be done.” Fantasies of “being done” aside, it is in fact Stein’s persistent self-assertion that secured what limited publishing opportunities she had before the popular success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

The first book Stein saw into print, Three Lives, appeared at her own expense through the vanity publisher Grafton Press in 1909. From then until Brewsie and Willie, the last title released before Stein’s death in 1946, she created, alongside a remarkable body of literature, a record of how she saw her writing into public circulation. Her three-year career as copublisher of the Plain Edition (with her partner Alice B. Toklas) occasioned drafts and correspondence that show Stein engaging with the book as a material object. While her writing is now recognized as among the most innovative in the twentieth century, Stein’s paraliterary work in book design and publishing has gone largely unexamined. 

Between 1930 and 1933 the Plain Edition released five books: Lucy Church Amiably (1930), Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded (1931), How to Write (1931), Operas and Plays (1932), and Matisse, Picasso & Gertrude Stein (1933). The couple funded their venture by selling one, and maybe more, of their beloved Picassos.[1] The sale yielded cash and the promise that Stein might leverage one kind of sociocultural capital to acquire another. Having gained notoriety as an art collector and the charismatic hostess of the salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein nonetheless continued to feel profound frustration as her writing, which she considered her most important work, was repeatedly rejected by major publishers and ridiculed in the popular press. Trading a painting for “an Edition,” she hoped, might shift public attention away from her personality and toward her writing.

The Plain Edition books were the first over which she could exercise significant control.[2] Stein self-published by necessity, but gaining power over the physical production of her books had a significant positive by-product. Her early publication experiences had been marked by frustration and misunderstanding. The publisher of Three Lives, for example, insisted that her writing was riddled with “pretty bad slips” in grammar and urged Stein to make corrections. (She insisted that he print the manuscript just as it was.) As the publisher of the Plain Edition, Stein could make creative decisions about what her books would look like, how many copies to print, and where to distribute them.

Evidence from Stein’s papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library elucidates how Stein used the occasion of self-publication as an opportunity to extend her poetics to the book’s cover, title page, front matter, and advertising materials. Because paratextual spaces are normally controlled by a publisher, self-published texts offer a unique opportunity to see a writer negotiating the conventions of book design and marketing: commercial traditions parallel to literary composition.[3] As Plain Edition books are long out of circulation, and subsequent editions have obscured or eliminated Stein’s original paratexts, we have to go to the archive to see the Plain Edition books, as well as the drafts in which Stein worked out their design.

The vast majority of items in Stein’s 173 boxes of collected papers at Yale are accessible in person. Perhaps the difficulty of accessing the relevant materials is in part what led critic Jerome McGann to insist in his foundational book on modernist book history, Black Riders (1993), that while one could — and even must — write the history of modernism as a history of its book-objects, Stein’s books are not important to such a history.[4]

While McGann borrows the title of Stein’s famous essay for his second chapter, “Composition as Explanation (of Modern and Postmodern Poetries),” he dismisses her in his introduction, arguing that while her writing was innovative, “Stein did not utilize the physical presence of the book in any notable ways” (21). If one were to write a modernist book history, he says, “Ezra Pound would once again appear the crucial point of departure” (76). Having jumped from Stein to Pound in the white space between his chapter heading and first sentence, McGann traces the printing history of the Cantos without a backward glance to the allusion of his title.

McGann’s larger argument, that modernists’ turn toward material features of book design and typography as meaning-making components of their literary works was made possible by the late nineteenth century “Renaissance of Printing,” is both convincing and important. Renewed interest in fine press printing “encouraged writers to explore the expressive possibilities of language’s necessary material conditions” (19). McGann identifies two major styles that modernists combined as they carried on the legacy of the late nineteenth-century “Renaissance” — the medieval revival aesthetic of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the modern look of Bodley Head books. These two styles converge in the finely printed books of Yeats and Pound, books that fuse poetic project and book-object such that “the semantic content of the message is carried by their graphic features” (83).

For McGann, by contrast, Stein’s contribution was limited to the level of semantic content. She found “linguistic equivalents for the bibliographical innovations that were being developed and explored by others” (22). While McGann celebrates Stein as “a far more innovative writer than Pound or perhaps anyone else writing in English during the first two decades of this century,” he explicitly excludes her from the lineage he constructs (19). His dismissal recapitulates much modernist history-making to date, summoning Stein to view just long enough to account for her exclusion.[5]

While Stein’s Plain Edition books use modern typefaces and spare design rather than a synthesis of medieval and modern styles, they make decidedly innovative use of the physical presence of the book — arguably more so than those of Pound or Yeats. The subtitle of Lucy Church Amiably, for example, foregrounds the productive confusion of the verbal and visual aspects of the book that the novel and its physical form explore. While we do not think of the novel as a particularly visual kind of artwork, Stein’s subtitle, “a novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which looks like an Engraving,” insists with the words “looks like” that the novel must be visible. In order for it to “look like” something else, the novel itself must be something you can look at.

But what would it mean for a novel to “look like” an engraving? The idea that unlike media “look like” rather than are alike frustrates our conventional sense-making strategies, opening a range of possible literal and metaphorical relations among visual and verbal forms. Stein’s lifelong interest in visual art, and particularly in the links between cubist painting and her own writing, spurred her to draw connections between visual and verbal forms, and to understand writing through painting. In a 1946 interview with Robert Haas, Stein insisted, “I write entirely with my eyes. The words as seen by my eyes are the important words and the ears and mouth do not count.”[6] Stein’s self-published books testify to her understanding of writing as a deeply visual form of art. She uses the book’s physical form and paratextual conventions to draw unlikely things into surprising relation, extending her poetics to include both the writing and its presentation.

Take, for example, Stein’s brief description of her press, which through its deployment of her trademark repetition turns the convention of including publisher information into an occasion for meditating on what, exactly, publishing is. On a large piece of paper folded in quarters to make separate “pages,” Stein made drafts of various parts of the book’s front matter, including the press description. The handwritten version reads, “THE PLAIN EDITION / An Edition of first / Editions of all the work / which has not been printed of GERTRUDE STEIN.”

Stein’s draft of the press description for the Plain Edition, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Press description as printed in Plain Edition Lucy Church Amiably (1930). Photograph courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

In Stein’s tiny composition, several meanings accrue to the word “edition,” each corresponding to a different dimension in which she imagines her work as a publisher. First, as part of the press name, the word “edition” functions as an imprint, a brand name. At the same time, it is an addition, a series of titles, open-ended and accumulating. Stein’s use of “edition” yokes a fixed notion of identity to the motion of accumulation. Further, between the first and second uses of the word “edition,” Stein generates the counterintuitive possibility that there may be an edition of an edition. An edition of an edition might be at least two different things: a title that belongs to an imprint, or a single copy of a given print run of a book. Finally, in the third and final instance, the pluralized “first Editions” indicate either the first typesetting of a book or the particularly valuable individual copies of that printing — as in, “I have a first edition of Tender Buttons.” Stein’s reworking of the word “edition” through singular and plural versions paired with definite and indefinite articles teases out the multiple and changing nature of the functions and productions that cluster around “a press.”

Despite Stein’s wish for her books to be “read and not owned,” her description of the Plain Edition makes a point of the first-ness of her editions, highlighting the added exchange value associated with first edition copies of significant literary works. She thereby optimistically predicts, and perhaps helps to create the demand for, subsequent editions as she implicitly argues for the literary value of her work. Moreover, Stein’s unconventional capitalization scheme (in the print version), which demotes the first term of the press’s title and promotes the word “edition” in every instance, creates a visual association among the capitalized terms “Edition,” “Printed,” and “Gertrude Stein,” a typographical tip of the hat to the notion that “Gertrude Stein” becomes an author precisely by being “Printed” in “Editions.”

Stein’s deceptively simple eighteen-word description of the Plain Edition debuts in the press’s first book, Lucy Church Amiably, which furnishes the best record of Stein’s careful work as an author-publisher designing her book-object and its marketing materials. Over the course of two subsequent editions of Lucy Church Amiably — first in 1969 by Something Else Press, and then in 2000 by Dalkey Archive, the original cover, title page, and press description that Stein composed disappeared.[7]

A single page entitled “Advertisement,” bound in with the front matter of the book, however, appears in all the editions. An “Advertisement” conventionally offers a succinct and appealing summary of the book; it is the equivalent of what is now the inside jacket flap copy. Here is what Stein composed:

Advertisement / Lucy Church Amiably. There is a church and it is in Lucey and it has a steeple and the steeple is a pagoda and there is no reason for it and it looks like something else. Beside this there is amiably and this comes from the paragraph // Select your song she said and it was done and then she said and it was done with a nod and then she bent her head in the direction of the falling water. Amiably. // This altogether makes a return to romantic nature that is it makes a landscape look like an engraving in which there are some people, after all if they are to be seen there they feel as pretty as they look and this makes it have a river a gorge an inundation and a remarkable meadowed mass which is whatever they use not to feed but to bed cows. Lucy Church Amiably is a novel of romantic beauty and nature and of Lucy Church and John Mary and Simon Therese.

The title character, Lucy, is generated from a feature of the landscape — a church in the town of Lucey, near where Stein spent the summers in the French countryside. Stein begins from the cognitive dissonance created by the fact that the church has a pagoda (a many-tiered Eastern-style tower) where there would normally be a steeple (a Western-style spire). There is no reason for it, Stein asserts, and it looks like something else. Indeed, Stein’s entire novel — and her design of the book — works and reworks the possibilities of two things that oughtn’t be comparable “looking like” one another. The book itself, she lamented, was like a body. The cheap binding of the 1,000 copies of the book quickly began to disintegrate, and Stein lamented that “Lucy’s spine” had broken. Nonetheless, “Lucy” is a flexible entity, able at turns to become a character, a town, a book and a body.

Like Lucy’s multitudes, the French and English languages exceed their territories and intermingle. Characters named John Mary and Simon Therese make similar-sounding names in French and English into an opportunity to suggest that maleness and femaleness are not opposites, but rather similar, and even combinable categories. Hybrid personal names work similarly to towns, characters, and architectural features, the nature and limits of which all begin to look (and sound) fungible when they come into relation with more or less similar others.

“Painfully blue” copybook-like cover of the Plain Edition Lucy Church Amiably (1930), recently listed on eBay for $300.

Stein’s idiosyncratic conceptual matchmaking practice governs both the inside and the outside of the book, including its telling cover. The cover’s electric indigo color — one American reviewer called it “painfully blue” — alludes to copybooks. As Stein’s Toklas reports in The Autobiography, “Gertrude Stein wanted the first book Lucy Church Amiably to look like a school book and to be bound in blue” (emphasis added). A “school book” here means a copybook, a blank book where students write their assignments. Stein’s likening of a finished book to a handwritten artifact of learning, the copybook, undoes the clear division between her manuscript drafts?, which were composed in notebooks, and the final printed books.

The blank notebook or copybook was not merely a place to put down words, but a set of limits, opportunities, and organizing features. Stein often used a notebook as a unit of composition, making a piece last exactly as long as one or several notebooks, sizing her writing to the blank, bound space. She frequently worked in groups of copybooks with a series of related illustrations on their covers, filling in the printed blanks for the student’s name with versions of the private names she and Toklas gave to each other.

Lucy Church Amiably’s composition notebooks have solid black oilcloth covers, which suggests that Stein’s decision to stage the print version of her novel like a school book was not intended faithfully to reproduce the site of composition, but rather to stage a productive confusion of the different features associated with print and with manuscript. Stein’s design “looks like” a place to be written in rather than read. Her book design closes the gap between the privacy and singularity of the handwritten manuscript and the public-ness of the mass-produced, typeset book and its indefinite number of identical copies. Stein’s book design, then, brings into view the assumption that publishing, after medieval monks stopped copying things out by hand in scriptoria, is a forward movement from manuscript to print.

At the level of composition and of book design, things did not simply move forward for Stein without circling back. In fact, she often had a hard time accurately remembering her own publication history and was a notoriously poor bibliographer of her own work. There are substantive reasons for Stein to confuse the order in which her texts were written or published, chief of which is her tendency to return to phrases from earlier work, repeating and revising them, drawing them into relation with new contexts. Frequently, the repeated and reworked phrases appear first in one of her pocket-sized notebooks or carnets, where Stein doodled, recorded addresses and reminders, tried out short rhymes and phrases, and exchanged love notes with Toklas.[8] Stein wrote more elaborate and extended treatments of words and phrases from the carnets that intrigued her in larger notebooks, cahiers, where she composed full-length manuscripts.[9]

The most familiar of these phrases, “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” recurs not only across years and texts, but in various media. The phrase, arranged into a circle, was cast as a metal stamp for sealing wax, printed at the top of personal letterhead, and embroidered on the couple’s table linens. Another recurrent phrase, “when this you see remember me,” and its variations appear throughout Lucy Church Amiably and across Stein’s body of work. Lucy Church Amiably features a textual emblem of its own, a sentence that, with minor variations, appears on the title page, the cover, in the Advertisement and in the novel. On the cover and title page, two elliptical sentences in small italic type, justified right below the title, condense the Advertisement to a central gesture and mode: “And with a nod she turned her head toward the falling water. Amiably.” A slightly longer version appears both in the Advertisement and on page 19 of the novel: “Select your song she said and it was done and then she said and it was done and with a nod and then she bent her head in the direction of the falling water. Amiably.”

Stein composed the text and layout for the title page, including its elliptical mini-advertisement, in several handwritten drafts. In the first and most chaotic of them, she worked out the name and location of the publisher (at the bottom of the page), and fine-tuned the language for the subtitle (at the top of the page), which was ultimately printed in smaller type above the main title. In this second version, the layout began to crystallize, and the subtitle, “A novel of Romantic beauty and nature and which looks like an Engraving,” took its final form. In the third and final draft, Stein changes from pencil to pen, and from her everyday cursive — the script she uses in her carnets and cahiers — to print-like letters, each individual letter carefully drawn. It is as close an approximation to a mechanically reproduced page as she can manage by hand, suggesting an attempt to close the gap between handwritten and typeset compositions.

Stein’s first draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Stein’s second draft of the title page for Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Stein’s third draft of the title page for
Lucy Church Amiably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, YCAL MSS 76, box 36, folder 739. Photograph used with the permission of the Beinecke Library and Stanford Gann Jr., literary executor of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

Compare Stein’s painstaking individual letters to the looping cursive style of the word written on the right-hand side of Stein’s third title page draft, “Cochin.” This name, added to Stein’s draft by someone with different handwriting, appears to be a suggestion from the well-respected printer Maurice Darantiere, who was responsible for Stein’s Making of Americans, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the later Plain Edition books, among many other important modernist volumes. Darantiere’s handwriting appears on this draft of a title page, which he probably created during a consultation with Stein and Toklas about printing Lucy Church Amiably. Although they decided to use a cheaper printer, Stein took Darantiere’s suggestion to use Cochin, a serif font named for the eighteenth century artist and engraver Charles Nicolas Cochin and released in 1913 to popular success. It is also the font in which the cover and front matter of Lucy Church Amiably is set. Stein’s choice to use Cochin for the title page, which advertises the novel as a text that “looks like an engraving,” embeds a pun on the aspect of “engraving” in the very contours of the letters on the page. For Stein, whose surname denotes, in German, an engravable surface, it is a particularly fruitful pun. Just as Lucy may be a character, a town, a book and a body with a broken spine, so might Stein be the author, publisher and site of inscription for her writing.

Stein’s Plain Edition paratexts — her press description, cover design, title page, and font choice — contribute to, rather than passively carry, the meaning of her books. Their gradual disappearance in subsequent editions has obscured a significant part of Stein’s artistic work: her book designs, which extend her poetics from the level of the text to the level of the book-object. Given the opportunity to turn the commercial space of the book to her own uses, Stein extended her poetics of relation and multiplication to the material form of her books, making it as new as any of her contemporaries. “And then,” she said, “there is using everything.”[10]



1. Ulla Dydo suggests that more than one painting was likely sold to underwrite the publication of the five Plain Edition books. Stein’s correspondence evidences a reluctance to correlate her decision to sell paintings with her need for money to print the Plain Edition books. It is therefore difficult to trace the relationship between the proceeds from selling the paintings with the production of the Plain Edition books. Stein employed a euphemism — “the exigencies of country proprietorship” — when she discussed her financial need in letters to friends. Two Picasso paintings, Woman with a Fan and Girl on a Horse were sold in late 1929 or early 1930. Dydo writes, “[a]lmost certainly further paintings were sold, but I haven’t been able to document reasons, activities, sales, or prices accurately and completely and correlate them with the cost of the Plain Edition,” Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 418–419.

2. On Stein’s input regarding the design of Tender Buttons (Claire Marie, 1914) see Joshua Schuster, “The making of ‘Tender Buttons’: Gertrude Stein’s subjects, objects and the illegible.”

3. “Paratexts” are defined as “all the liminal devices — titles, signs of authorship, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, notes, intertitles, epilogues, and the like — that mediate the relationship between text and reader,” Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xi.

4. “In truth the history of modernist writing could be written as a history of the modernist book” (76), Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 76.

5. See Marianne DeKoven, “Gertrude Stein and the Modernist Canon,” in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (Houndsmill, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1988). DeKoven demonstrates that “[t]he most influential canonisers of modernism … have either left Stein out altogether, or might as well have, or they have included her as ‘personality’ and influence first, writer second, or, like Edmund Wilson, they have included her as an extreme point, a boundary which marks the limit of modernist discourse,” 15–16. McGann locates Stein “at the margin of the margins” (19).

6. Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces? (New York: Pitman, 1970), 104.

7. Stein, Lucy Church Amiably (Paris: Imprimerie Union, 1930), Lucy Church Amiably (New York: Something Else Press, 1969), and Lucy Church Amiably (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2000).

8. See Kay Turner, ed., Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

9. Ulla Dydo initiated the practice of referring to the notebooks as carnets and cahiers during her decades of meticulous work in Stein’s papers at the Beinecke Library. See Dydo, Gertrude Stein, 16–17.

10. Stein, “Composition as Explanation.”