The making of 'Tender Buttons'
Gertrude Stein's subjects, objects, and the illegible
In the summer of 1912, while vacationing in Spain, Gertrude Stein began to write short prose poems on discrete objects and little events (shopping, eating, talking) that comprised ordinary daily living. Generating poems from such mundane experience was not on its own anything too radical, but Stein paired such ordinary objects and experiences with an extraordinary new grammar.
Stein had earlier experimented in The Making of Americans with conveying normal life with non-normative poetics, but in this new writing the banal objects appeared to atomize or discombobulate while the grammar was split apart at the seams. Stein collected this work and published it as Tender Buttons in 1914, and from its first appearance up to today, no one has settled how this book should be read. What kind of book is it that people still read it after one hundred years and yet still question the meaning of the book and how to read it?
Tender Buttons is enigmatic on its own, but to add to its legend, few readers know that the manuscript was untitled until the final few weeks before publication, that Stein almost did not have the book reach publication at all, and that she would not publish another book until eight years later. A brief history of the publication of Tender Buttons can provide insight into Stein’s focus on composition, and offer some new directions for reading it.
Stein was first contacted by Claire Marie Editions to publish a recent work of hers on 18 February 1914. The letter opened with an offer: “I should very much like to publish in volume form the plays of yours that Mrs. [Mabel] Dodge has told me about. Will you let me do it?” Stein might have indeed published her plays before Tender Buttons, thus becoming first publicly known as an avant-garde playwright rather than as a poet, but friends persuaded her that the plays should be performed before being printed. Claire Marie’s letter came on business letterhead and appeared to Stein to be an up-and-coming press of some import. “My public is also the most civilized in this country,” the publisher boasted.
This was a bluff, and the publisher had no public notoriety; in fact, it was a vanity press run by Donald Evans, a New York–based literary hopeful and socialite. The press was named after the little-known actress Claire Marie Burke, who had no relation to the publishing venture. Evans had published only a few friends and his own melodramatic and not very modern poetry up to that point. Stein was under the impression during the whole publication process that she was corresponding with a woman. Recalling the letters in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes, “We took it for granted that there was a Claire Marie but evidently there was not.”
Evans had befriended Carl Van Vechten in New York City, who suggested to Evans that he publish something by Stein, perhaps her first plays. Upon Evans’s first inquiry, Stein instead sent a work in three sections, very similar in tri-part structure to her only other published book, Three Lives (in the Autobiography, Stein credits Evans for the idea to publish “three manuscripts to make a small book” [Writings, 814]). The three works Stein sent were published by Evans, beginning with “Objects,” then “Food” and “Rooms” — and the order has never changed since, even though there is enough archival evidence that “Objects” was almost certainly the last section written and never intended by Stein to be the first in order. In the bound volumes that Toklas later typed up to record Stein’s work in the event that it was lost, she begins with “Rooms.” In Stein’s cahier manuscript notebook, “Food” carries the subtitle “Studies in Description” and is the only section for which Stein compiled a table of contents (included in the published edition), suggesting an earlier intention to list the titles of the prose poems up front. All evidence points to Evans as the one who put “Objects” first, and Stein did not complain or demand any different ordering of the sections in any future reprint. For a writer who stressed exactitude and faithful reproduction of her work, this rather significant editorial contribution made an impact that Stein might not have foreseen, as it turned “Objects” into the center of attention and effectively made the other sections into secondary works.
Stein received a letter dated 18 March 1914, notifying her of the intent to publish her book along with a book contract containing financial details. This was to be the first book Stein would publish that she did not pay for herself, and it was also the first time Stein had an opportunity to participate in any detail in book design. By Stein’s choice, the book had little in the way of design at all. In the March letter, Evans writes, “There will be no illustrations or tail or head piece or introduction or dedication, as you ask” (YCAL). Tender Buttons is very visual, the poems full of colors and synesthesia, so it is curious that Stein wanted no adornment and no preface — something she often courted in her other publications. The lack of directive in visual design from Stein could have been a strategic way to dissociate herself from cubism, the main artistic movement her readers were already placing her into. Stein wanted Mabel Dodge to correct the proofs, but Evans insisted in response that he was in a rush to bring the book out by June for summer readers and stated, “you may feel assured that not a single error will creep into the volume.” This is also curious, because the book contract lists the book title as “Objects-Foods-Rooms” and, beside the issue of the order of the sections being changed, Stein never wrote “Foods” in the plural. If there was an error in the title, how could Stein trust the integrity of the rest of the text?
In the same letter, Evans asks Stein, “You have not provided a general title for the book. What do you wish to do in that regard?” Without this prodding, Stein would likely have kept to the titles of the three sections, as she had often gravitated toward factual rather than metaphorical titles in previous work (for example, Three Lives; Many Many Women). Stein responds in her letter of 15 April 1914: “Tender Buttons, will be the title of the book. On the title page after the general the three sub titles, Food, Rooms, Objects” (YCAL). Here “Objects” is last and “Food” is first, but again Evans ignores this request. Also, one wonders if Stein’s impression that Claire Marie was a woman played any role in her choice of a title that foregrounds female intimacy. The book came out in May, approximately three months after Evans’s first letter of inquiry. This was quite a quick turnaround, so different than The Making of Americans, which took nearly fifteen years from completion to appear as a book. Evans wrote a short note to Stein on 13 June 1914, saying with glee, “The papers here are simply rabid about the book. It is all very amusing — their stupidity and bewilderment.” Evans relished ruffling the feathers of the staid American literary reviewers but truly published the book as an act of love for Van Vechten, to whom he had begun sending copious love letters by early 1914. Evans fell hard for Van Vechten, offering him gushing love poetry, drinking heavily, pleading to Van Vechten for a book of his to publish, and hardly mentioning the Stein book.
If “Objects” was not written first and not intended to be the first chapter of Tender Buttons, this puts into question the way this book often is taught. It is common pedagogy to state that the first object, the carafe, in which the sentence “The difference is spreading” appears, is meant as the flagship statement for the book when it was never meant to be so. If “Food” is first, the first sentence reads: “In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling” (Writings, 327). If “Rooms” is first, the opening sentence is: “Act so that there is no use in a center” (Writings, 344). Both sentences are about space, movement, and surrounding environs, rather than fixing central focal points. Furthermore, each of these three sentences implicitly argues that no sentence is primary or more titular than any other.
A second common theme in teaching Tender Buttons is to note how the objects and meals and rooms show us the intimate interior of the domestic life of Stein and Toklas. This is certainly a relevant reading, as Toklas’s presence suffuses the work, which is laden with sexual innuendo and the aroma of her cooking (although most of the food was prepared by hired cooks). Yet while the title of the book suggests such intimacy informed the work all along, when we consider that the title was chosen at the last minute it is just as fair to say that Stein envisioned these poems as concentrated “studies in description” with the mindset of a researcher, as much an impersonal figure as a subject of desire. While the private lesbian home and semipublic salon that Stein had begun to build with Toklas are certainly part of the text, the figure of the lesbian pair coexists with the researcher of the curious and uncanny “life of things,” as per Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey.”
The Claire Marie 1914 edition, viewable at Open Library.
It turns out that much of the life of objects turns on the commodified, impersonal, indeed nonhuman aspects of things. Objects are repeatedly singled out as precious commodities like nickel, silver, and copper along with the stone malachite — which makes the word “tender” a pun on money but also a verb involving the act of “giving,” “obligation,” and “borrowing” (Stein’s words), evidence of how economy always weaves through intimacy in a depersonalizing way. Many of the goods listed have colonial implications, such as Japanese tea sets, coffee, cocoa, cigarettes, and sugar. Objects like feathers, cotton, silk, coal, and all of the food imply global and local marketplaces. The domestic then appears as one node in a larger system of networks, exchanges, and contacts: “all this is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success” (Writings, 316).
For the reader, urged by Stein not to choose a center of purpose to the book, to pick one interpretive framework and foreground it above anything else as the most meaningful, reliable, or insightful would be to arrest the ambulatory movement of the work. Instead of isolating one reading from another, we should be able to lay out multiple readings, spread them before us, following Stein’s declaration that “The difference is spreading” (Writings, 313). I propose then that we make use of the object of the table, both metaphorically and literally as a thing upon which we put meaning.
Tables appear in all three sections of the book. On a table, we can place many readings to see how they look on their own or in juxtaposition. In “Objects,” Stein writes, “A table means necessary places and a revision” (324). “Food” opens with a table of contents, and ends with the last section titled “A centre in a table” (344). A case could be made that all of the foods and objects in these poems find themselves sitting on a table, among other possible locations. Tables play key roles in Stein’s daily living, including providing a material foundation for her writing — she is frequently photographed seated next to one, implying the photograph was taken as she wrote at the table. Activity in Stein’s Paris apartment/salon often coalesced around a large rectangular wooden table for dinner parties, and later the same table would turn into a desk for Stein’s nightly composition. According to Stein, she set objects on the table to prompt her writing: “I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen.” Such relationships happen on the table according to different ways for which the table is used: a meal, to arrange a still life, a stand for a sculpture, a place for conversation, a place for procrastination (“table it for later”), or a place to reveal something to a public, as in laying cards down on a table. Tables anchor rooms and define spaces by surface and volume. They also define access to spaces, as in getting a seat at the table. Much of early cubism took place on a painted table. Finally, Stein later wrote a play, Objects Lie on a Table (1922), which revisits some themes from Tender Buttons, declaring, “The objects on the table have been equal to the occasion.”
To put meaning on the table means one does not need to reject previous meanings and readings in order to assert another — there is enough room for conflicting or just different interpretations with multiple causes. There is enough room on the table for readings based on representation, be it symbolic or cryptographic, and for writing that goes beyond representational aspects of language. Recent readers have certainly been right to emphasize the female and lesbian world encoded in the poems, and I do not mean to displace these readings, rather only to juxtapose them with others. Certainly many of the food and objects Stein describes have attached phallic, vaginal, or anal symbolism, from “A mounted umbrella” to the petticoat stained with “a rosy charm” (Writings, 322). As Kathryn Kent points out, the title of the book sonically conveys the message “tend her buttons,” and many of the poems playfully allude to sensual domestic pleasures, from eating to sex, in effect recreating Stein and Toklas’s intimate lesbian life on the page. Kent adds that as the poems move back and forth from markets to interiors, public to private, everyday items to fetish objects, abstract to concrete, they “wrestle with the dominant conceptions of what counts as sex and the sexual.” Kent’s readings rely on a form of referential realism — the poems depict Stein’s personal life, even if coded through symbolism and word play.
But we also clear the table too quickly if we assume that representation plays a strictly realist or symbolic role in these poems. Marianne DeKoven is right to declare that referentiality is thoroughly undone: “It seems to me pointless to suppose, for example, that the virtue of Tender Buttons is its clarification of our notions of roast beef or asparagus or purses or cushions, or even to suppose that the virtue of Stein’s portraits lies in any information they give us about Picasso or Matisse or Mabel Dodge.” DeKoven argues that Tender Buttons is composed of presymbolic signifiers, celebrating linguistic play, pleasure, and meditation. Yet if play and pleasure are the experiences of the texts, if not what they are about, referentiality still reasserts itself as we interpret what play could signify (in DeKoven’s reading, it is a rejection of patriarchy).
Stein’s writing will always make and unmake itself available to meaning, something she admitted in the transatlantic interview she did with Robert Haas. “I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible,” she confesses. “Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.” The referent inevitably guides, misguides, disappears, and reappears — the carafe is never fully present or absent. Every sentence is both doing and undoing, attaching and detaching. Each sentence sensitizes, but sense quickly recedes as the next sentence comes in. Sensation at times lines up with and at times diverges from cognition. As Jayne Walker describes, “One complex of images asserts the fundamental princple of difference — breaking, shattering, division, pieces, remainders. Another invokes a ‘wholeness’ that is based on the mingling of heterogenous elements: collections, mixtures, reunions, stews.” Words scatter at the same time as they gather, and the poem is what emerges in the attempt to convey the movements of these differences. Meaning is just out of reach, and right there on the table. Sometimes the “content” of the referent is just the table of contents.
Another reading that puts meaning on the table is the recognition that there is an irreducible and structural illegibility in Stein’s writing that is immanent to her work. Stein provides her own disclaimer to this effect: “Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession” (Writings, 330). Writing that is “claiming nothing” claims no meaning and no readability, although this claim itself is readable. Craig Dworkin points to how nonsignifying language can still be interpreted in his Reading the Illegible, where he states, “every text threatens to sacrifice itself in an ecstatic loss of meaning, at the same time that its meaninglessness can always be accounted for (even if only as the meaning of ‘meaninglessness’).” Dworkin points to a “strategic illegibility” in modern poetics that forces the reader to read against the norm. This partially characterizes Stein’s writing, but structural illegibility differs slightly in that it implies a minimal level of indifference to reference (“claiming nothing”). It is not that Stein intends outright nonsense; rather, she writes in a state prior to a determinate distinction between sense and nonsense: “there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense” (Writings, 314). In practice, this means Stein writes in a way that is sincere and concentrated on an object or a moment or a person, but is nonjudgmental and nonpossessive about what words appear while in this state of concentration.
This factor of structural illegibility has several implications. While immersed in composition, Stein typically writes without knowing where she will go and when she will finish, and sometimes it is the page length of a notebook that seems to determine when a piece is finished (though she often does some revision). Contrary to The Making of Americans, in Tender Buttons Stein writes without a predetermined theory of total comprehension or absolute knowledge. A minimal amount of illegibility remains unyielding in a writing that recognizes an inherent indeterminacy of cognition and experience. We will never know all of what can happen or how all writing can be written, we can only continue to compose. We can only wade through the continuous present, orienting ourselves by the material or symbolic aspects of words as they appear in a state of writerly concentration. In this manner of word-driven, concentrated indeterminacy, Stein’s writing performs immersion and emergence rather than thematizing these. Tender Buttons features words like “a,” “and,” “of,” or “there is,” words that have meaning only due to their attachments, but that when read on their own do not suffice for coherence. “A question of sudden rises and more time than awfulness is so easy and shady. There is precisely that noise” (Writings, 335).
Opening pages of Gertrude Stein's manuscript for Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale
Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photograph courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
To read Stein, we must put illegibility (“that noise”) on the table along with interpretation. Illegibility is partially structural in that Stein does not allow meaning to settle on one interpretive system, instead continually moving between sound and sense, normative and nonnormative grammar, familiarity and alienation, immersion and exclusion. Things are domestic, humanized, but also at turns recalcitrant, alienated, or lost rather than consumed. Sense is made and unmade; indeed, both predication and nonpredication are forms of truth. It might be more correct to say that Stein writes in a way that is prior to making these binary distinctions. Here is where Stein is perhaps in closest attunement with William James’s philosophy of experience or the “radical empiricism” that aims to provide an account of the world prior to arbitrary and conventional distinctions between subject and object. Normative grammar relies on subject and object distinctions, and to the degree that Stein generates a writing that is prior to this binary, she also reaches for a form of experience prior to normative legibility.
The structural factor of illegibility is also due to the fact that Stein’s writing may not really be for us. The illegible faithfully leaves a minimal margin of otherness intact. It also conveys a refusal to reduce all things to thematization. We may not be the recipient in part because we are not being wholly invited into Stein’s domestic lesbian world, or because we do not know all her inside references, many of them sexual and guarded as private by Stein. In combination with a personal, subjective secrecy, Stein develops the strange expressivity of objects in writing. Illegibility at the level of the signifier thus occurs because Stein gestures to the writing of a nonhuman language, if such a thing is possible. Stein experiments with writing that does not just represent but hypothetically speaks the language of objects or events that are prior to subject/object distinctions. The relation of objects to other objects cannot be reproduced in a human-based subject-verb-object grammar. Thus, if objects themselves could talk, perhaps indeed their speech would sound like the subjectless segments of Tender Buttons.
In a later analysis of her own poems, Stein wrote that “I did express what something was, a little by talking and listening to that thing,” hinting that she was writing as if having a conversation with an object, listening to objects speak. Of course, inanimate objects have no thoughts and no mouths, but this still does not mean that objects have no bearing on matters of concern in the world. Objects have narratives of their own, narratives not dependent on our observations and our language. Objects themselves do not have their own intentions, but this does not mean they are entirely reducible to the realm of human intentions. Bruno Latour has discussed repeatedly how objects need not be recognized as full-fledged subjects but still perform as agents, doing things in the world.
Furthermore, the stories of objects are not necessarily reducible to the normative rules of our language — hence the need for a new language and new form of communication, giving modernist form a particular mandate. That this communication will be at least partially anthropomorphic does not defeat its relevance for representing nonhuman language. The existence of things is defined by activities and conditions such as use, disuse, juxtaposition, being out of reach, contact, breakdown, repetition, etc. These relations, which do not necessarily line up with normative grammatical sentences that require a clear subject-verb-object distinction, are everywhere in Stein’s book. Words can replicate these relations and not appear to make sense, from the viewpoint of standard grammar. But from the viewpoint of things, these relations, written as words, are descriptive fantasies of the world objects exist in. Stein uses so much repetition in part because this is a primary mode of existence of technical objects, especially modern machines. Indeed, there is something inhuman about repetition to begin with — computers will ponder forever the difference between a zero and a one.
The 1990 Sun & Moon Classics edition.
Talking with things in Tender Buttons is also possible because many of Stein’s objects are animate or pass through animate states, as in all the food, many of which once had mouths of their own and will end up in others’ mouths. In “Milk,” Stein writes, “Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging” (Writings, 336). In this clever short poem, every verb can convert into a noun and vice versa, as meaning points in multiple causal directions or “guesses” that are “hanging.” It is possible to read the beginning of this poem as describing someone or something climbing up into an utter. Utter points to the cow (or another lactating animal), as well as mouthing words in speech, an utterance that could still very well be the cow’s. In Stein’s lexicon, cows are also metaphors for female sexual acts, and encode a sensuous moment of domestic lesbian life.
Yet even inanimate things speaking need not be far-fetched — modernist objects as various as newspapers, telephones, gramophones, and dolls emit language shaped partially by their material qualities as things. Here is how Stein describes the world of “A paper,” perhaps understood at first as a newspaper or a notebook: “A courteous occasion makes a paper show no such occasion and this makes readiness and eyesight and likeness and a stool” (Writings, 321). The paper does not speak from the first-person subject position, but the paper participates as an active and “courteous” agent while being read, with the words “show” and “occasion” acting as both noun and verb. In this poem, paper ends with “stool,” suggesting the act of reading taking place on a kind of chair or a toilet. If a toilet, perhaps this is the first poem ever written as an ode to toilet paper. Stein often emphasizes politeness and courteous behavior, a politesse applicable to persons and things, even in seemingly vulgar situations. Politeness is her default mode of attention to persons and things in a writing that does not decide beforehand who or what can or cannot speak.
The refusal of reference in Stein is also a refusal to make language centered on human usage. Why do this? Modernists experimented with narrative forms that did not necessarily center on the self or the human species. Daily experience is composed of a variety of animate and inanimate interactions, many of them not directed to humans or not yet legible to the recipient. Writing that really reflects daily experience must somehow capture the simultaneous knowledge, limits of knowledge, and other forms of knowing that are not directed at us. If we talk of the perspective of the carafe according to the carafe itself, what would we say about food, which includes an animate component? Stein’s short poem “Roast potatoes” offers only three words — “Roast potatoes for” (Writings, 339) — to ask the reader an open question about what sort of potential purposes make up the composition of food that also make for the composition of writing. Several of Stein’s food poems register the uncanny world of food as a curious mixing of lives and interests. “Celery tastes tastes where in curled lashes and little bits and mostly in remains. A green acre is so selfish and so pure and so enlivened” (Writings, 340).
This essay has placed on the table several ways of reading Stein’s legendary Tender Buttons. Stein’s preferred keyword to describe her work is “composition.” A composition is something material, such as a page of sentences on a given topic or a musical score, but also a term that describes relationships, positions related to other positions. Still life art, or indeed any set of objects on a table, comprise a composition. Composition applies to things intentionally constructed or unintentionally combined, things artificial as well as natural, a landscape painting or the nutritive ingredients in a soil. Stein composed her work out of whatever ingredients she came upon, from commonly used words, everyday objects, personal sensations, and local affairs, to major historical figures and events. These all constituted a continuous surround around her. This surround did not feature Stein as the “center” or the code through which everything passes. Instead, she wrote in an aesthetics of surrounds, observing them and living in them. This sense of composition is a near synonym to environment as the context and condition of the life one is living, the “continuous present,” as Stein declared.
1. Claire Marie to Gertrude Stein, 18 February 1914, in The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein, ed. Donald Gallup (New York: Knopf, 1953), 95. The original letters are held at the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (cited hereafter as YCAL). Stein’s response is not in the Yale archives.
3. Dodge herself harbored deep suspicions of Evans, labeling him a “decadent.” Dodge thought him untrustworthy and recommended not publishing with him in a cable she sent to Stein on 15 March 1914. Stein still had not figured out that Claire Marie was Evans at this point. Dodge sent an expanded letter to Stein on 29 March, disclosing Evans as the person behind the press.
4. Another curiosity to note is that there is a slip of paper in the Stein archives at Yale that lists several corrections for the book, none of which was ever made or added to subsequent editions. These corrections seem minor, such as changing “Excellent” to “Excel lent” (as it is written in the cahier and in Toklas’s typescript), and do not mention the order of the sections.
5. Here is just one example, a letter sent to Van Vechten on 14 February 1914, just a few days before Evans’s first letter to Stein: “Dear Beloved: I am now happy. I know you are near by. The cup of happiness runs over. I shall write you many sonnets. Donald” (YCAL).
13. Elizabeth Fifer, Catherine Stimpson, and Lisa Ruddick each connect Stein’s only partial legibility to her strategic use of secrecy regarding her sexuality. See Fifer, “Guardians and Witnesses: Narrative Technique in Gertrude Stein’s Useful Knowledge”; Stimpson, “The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein”; and Ruddick, “A Rosy Charm: Gertrude Stein and the Repressed Feminine,” all in Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, ed. Michael J. Hoffman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
14. Gertrude Stein, Writings 1932–1946 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 303. In this same discussion, Stein insists heavily on the role of looking in her writing as integrated with talking and listening. “I lived my life with emotion and with things happening but I was creating in my writing simply by looking. I was as I say at that time reducing as far as it was possible for me to reduce them, talking and listening” (303). She concludes that such insights transferred to here plays and other work, such that “I had also come to have happening at the same looking and listening and talking without any bother about resemblances and remembering” (304).