Stein, Gertrude: Title Commentary

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Tender Buttons
"Patriarchal Poetry"

Tender Buttons


SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. "Tender Buttons: Cubism and an Alchemical Linguistic Trajectory." In Gertrude Stein, pp. 111-35. New York: Continuum, 1990.

In the following essay, Knapp discusses the themes, style, and technique of Tender Buttons with those of cubism, interpreting the volume's three parts in terms of the writing process, sexuality, and psychology.

Tender Buttons (1914) may be regarded as one of Stein's most innovative and most esoteric works. Like the alchemist who transmutes his metals and records his findings in iconographic representations, ciphers, and diagrams, Stein projects her continuously altering mental meanderings, meditations, visions, and free associations onto real objects, foods, and rooms. First viewed as distinct substances, the images she observes, like the chemical combinations studied by those ancient scientists, are depicted with great "exactitude."

Working with the word, rather than with the alchemists' metals, Stein's lexicon, when externalized and placed on the white sheet of paper, is explicit and redolent with clarity. Such clarity, however, is a strategy, a subterfuge, a springboard for the spawning of infinite associations and analogies.

Like the alchemists who purified the baser elements (lead) with which they worked by putting them through triturating tests, so Stein also experimented with words, requiring them to go through her version of trial by fire and water. Words that had become atrophied through centuries of use and misuse were dismembered, mutilated, stripped of their traditional and logical meanings, relationships, analogies, memories, and associations. Dross was shorn while the core, the primitive essence and melody, was retained by Stein to decant into fresh and heteroclite conjunctions of words. Such a process allowed her to receive the old word(s) in the now, as it had once existed long ago; in its pristine purity, dazzling, sparkling, glowing, ready for incantation in melody—in the poem.

Alchemists, who had to maintain strict secrecy concerning their experiments in order to protect themselves against persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, which believed their discoveries might in some way lessen its authority, coded their records, writing them in symbols, glyphs, and iconic signs. Stein, unwilling to reveal her most private thoughts and feelings to an unfeeling and destructive public, was likewise secretive. Accordingly, Tender Buttons, is a confluence of word/signs—a mystery.

For some, this slim volume may be looked upon as a religious work, but only insofar as the word religion is understood in its original Latin sense—Latin religare: to root, to bind, to link back, to reconnect with a collective past. Never, when referring to Stein, is it to be associated with organized religion. In this regard, Tender Buttons, divided into three parts—Objects, Food, and Rooms—may be viewed as an inner trajectory, Stein's descent into being, into the collective unconscious, the source of creation.

Painterly factors are also evident in Tender Buttons. Cézanne's influence, as previously noted, is primordial. As he had believed it was more important for the artist to reveal geometric structures hidden behind objects than to delineate the objects concretely, so Stein adopted a similar method with regard to the function of words. Once terms had been pared down to their essentials, the skeleton structure and bone marrow of the word and work could come forth full-blown.

Cézanne's attempt to "re-create nature" by simplifying forms, reducing them to their basic geometric equivalents, led to certain distortions, as in Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885-87). Likewise did Stein's signs, symbols, and glyphs appear disfigured, deformed, and because of such altered appearances, were disorienting to the viewer. Cézanne, after divesting his canvases of traditional perspective, allowed new spatial patterns to emerge, leading him to delineate objects from shifting rather than from a single point of view. The resulting interaction between flat planes, which encouraged minute transitional color tones to oscillate one against another, gave the observer the impression of vibrating surfaces. In like manner did Stein divest her words of perspective and hierarchies, endowing them, once juxtaposed, with continuous motility, and not allowing one to assume greater importance than another. Indeed, so active and vital did they become both as single and sequenced units, that she played one "lively word" against or with another in a continuous present.

Cézanne's views were also significant in the spawning of cubism. There were, understandably, affinities between Stein's writings, most specifically Tender Buttons, and the canvases of such friends as Picasso, Braque, and Gris. Like them, she emphasizes still lifes, with their commonplace objects like potatoes or asparagus, which also have their cerebral and spiritual equivalents. When embedded in the sentence, a potato or an asparagus is conveyed two-dimensionally, flatly, without adjectives; nor is memory called upon since it serves to highlight one or another element within a grammatically self-contained speech unit. Thus did Stein dispense, as had Cézanne and the cubists even more radically, with perspective and the illusion of depth. Fragmentation and dissociation of traditional literary forms and conventions allowed her the psychological and aesthetic freedom to re-create fresh verbal compositions, and in so doing, expand and implement their impact on the reader. Like the cubists also, she did not attempt to find meaning in the group of objects depicted in Tender Buttons. What was of import to her was the need to convey ideas and feelings relating to these forms in terms of their mass, color, texture, and line.

Stein had come a long way since Three Lives and The Making of Americans and the universal types ("bottom nature"), which she attempted to portray non-mimetically, by means of the repetitive use of verbs of being, genderless pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions. What she now sought to capture was the perception of that single moment when the mind comes into contact with the object of its consciousness, and the sensory experience it then conveys in a continuous present. Each such occurrence is viewed by Stein as unique: no memory of a past or of a special type. Stein's mental leaps, requiring intense concentration and discipline on her part, revealed an ability to verbalize and sensorialize the effect of the shock or head-on collision between consciousness and the object of its focus in a present reality.1

Tender Buttons, like cubist painting, is representational. Yet, paradoxically, its gleanings are increasingly abstract and hermetic. Words used to replicate an object emerge arbitrarily. There is, then, no defining or ordering of them into readily understandable groupings. As Picasso, Braque, and Gris created their collages, so Stein brought forth her own pictorial reality in the word, which she viewed as a thing in and of itself. Unlike the cubists in their collages, she did not include fragments of newspapers, cigarette wrappers, tickets, and other sundry objects drawn from the everyday world in her writings. Her architectonic structures were built instead on polysemous words.

In Tender Buttons, therefore, words are for the most part non-referential, non-relational, nonideational, non-illusionist. Devoid of descriptions and for the most part unintelligible to those whose world is limited to rational reasoning, the forward movement of Stein's lexicon is triggered by an inner necessity—by some mysterious energy. Although she did away with most of the connective signs of discourse (conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, articles, etc.), she reintegrated the noun, the very grammatical device she had abolished in an earlier work, The Making of Americans (see chapter 6). Why use the superfluous? She wrote: "A noun is a name of anything, why after a thing is named write about it."2 In time, her views changed.

And then, something happened and I began to discover the name of things, that is not discover the names but discover the things the things to see the things to look at and in so doing I had of course to name them not to give them new names but to see that I could find out how to know that they were there by their names or by replacing their names. And how was I to do so. They had their names and naturally I called them by the names they had and in doing so having begun looking at them I called them by their names with passion and that made poetry, I did not mean it to make poetry but it did, it made the Tender Buttons, and the Tender Buttons was very good poetry it made a lot more poetry.3

Since Stein names the thing and its qualities, but does not deal with the thing itself, her language is forcibly abstract.4 In that concrete nouns and adjectives are linked to one another in new and what appears to be arbitrary diagrammatical order and in a variety of arrangements, with seemingly no relationship to the world of contingencies, to decipher such poetry is difficult and depends for the most part upon the depth of the reader's projection.

Although Tender Buttons, like the works of the ancient alchemists, is a vas hermeticum, let us explore associationally some poems in the collection. First, its oxymoronic title. Both qualitative and quantitative, abstract and concrete, the appeal is to the eye, the pictorial element, rather than to the ear and sound, as in her Portraits. The eye, identified with the archetype of consciousness, is associated with the intellect and the cognitive use of words. It has also been identified, since ancient Egyptian times, with the spirit and soul; thus does it become instrumental in creating the sacred space (temenos) within which the glyphs will be imprinted. In that the eye is the organ that orders, selects, and differentiates levels of reading and understanding, the aura and vibrations it experiences pave the way for its relationships with the object (or objects) depicted in the poem.

The noun button (from the Old French, boton), is a bud, sprout, shoot, tendril; bouter means to push, eject. It may also be associated with a knob that one pushes as on a bell, or turns to open a door; with a button on clothing; or a pimple. That Stein appends the adjective tender (Latin tener) to buttons, adds a metatextual quality to the title. Buttons, as metaphor, represent something that is growing, burgeoning; its shoots and tendrils emerging from the earth, however, are still tender and must be cared for. Tender, therefore, suggests something malleable, easily cut, divided, masticated, vulnerable to feeling and affection. It was Mlle. de Scudéry who, in seventeenth-century France, dreamed up the Carte du Tendre, representing the various paths by which one could gain access to the land of love. Isn't this exactly what interests Stein? "Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns."5

By its very ambiguity, this metatextual title has almost infinite connotations, stemming from both matriarchal and patriarchal worlds. Divested of normal order, context, function, and semantics, the associations evoked by the title, along with the poems included in the volume, have been liberated from the limitations imposed upon them by the world of contingencies. As the eye focuses on the roundness of the button, the object may be used as a meditative device, taking the reader into a space/time continuum. From this vantage point, Stein took yet another revolutionary step in her stylistic ways.

Having freed herself, as she explained in The Geographical History of America, from her obsession with "human nature" that she now associates with linearity and the workaday world, she has penetrated another dimension, that of the "human mind," or the transpersonal realm that one may call the collective unconscious. From this new and more detached vantage point, she succeeded in endowing common, everyday objects—dress, petticoat, etc.—with a revitalized existence, thus transforming what had been dormant or latent into something with livingness. Not necessarily was the object's strictly utilitarian use focused upon in Tender Buttons ; rather, and most importantly for her, it was its essence that was revealed in the work of art. Marcel Duchamp had also expanded the simply functional nature of an object in his masterpiece Urinal; as had Picabia, picking out objects from the five-and-dime store, then signing his name to them, after which he labeled them works of art.

Stein's new verbal iconography, as revealed in Tender Buttons, transgressed the limitations imposed upon language. Disorientation resulting from her realignments of words and verbal patternings, triggered new sensations born from her humanization of the inhuman material world. Her inner trajectory, unlike Charles Baudelaire's in The Flowers of Evil, which was accomplished in six steps, or Dante's, in nine spheres, is undertaken in three. Segments from each level—from the world of Objects, to the domain of Food, and finally to the inner sanctum of Rooms—will be explained in terms of the writing process, sexuality, and psychology.

Step 1. Objects

Objects (Latin objectum: jactere, something thrown in the way of the observer), suggests anything that one sees, that affects the senses, occupies the mind, calls for attention, and sets a goal. Grammatically, objects indicate nouns or substantives that directly or indirectly receive the action of a verb; philosophically, anything that can be known or perceived by the mind. The verb, to object, means to oppose, expose, protest, remonstrate, expostulate, and demur. Such associations, and the many more that come to mind, suggest an intensely active, aggressive, excited, powerful, and even hostile mood on Stein's part. She seems ready to explode, to give vent, to expel her new and loving vision of language.

The fifty-eight poems included under the rubric "Objects" deal with visible, tangible, and commonplace items. Stein's asyntactical placements and alignments of words into melodic patterns and rhythms, trigger an emotional response in the reader as does a puzzle, acrostic, logogriph, or anagram. In so doing, the poems titillate, frustrate, as well as bedazzle the mind.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

The carafe—like the alchemist's crucible—is and contains mysterious elements. A bottle with a flaring lip used to hold beverages, wine, blood, or any liquid, it may be viewed in Stein's linguistic scheme as an ideogram: a picture, symbol, or sign used to represent a thing or an idea. No longer merely utilitarian, it has become an object of contemplation and meditation.

Pictorially, the carafe suggests the female body with its rounded, uterine-looking container at the bottom and the spreading outer lip or vagina at the top, which permits the entrance and exit of substances. Such an association is valid since Toklas moved into rue de Fleurus when Stein was composing Tender Buttons. It was the first time that either women had experienced a reciprocal love relationship. Unable to contain the joy of their union and fearful of revealing her sexual pleasures openly, she resorted to the ideogram to celebrate the excitement, joys, and fruitful nature of the female body.

Blind, indicating an inability to see in the outer realm, and therefore easy deception by appearances, permits on the other hand greater perception into those darkened, murky, and sometimes forbidding inner spheres. Homer, Tiresias, and Oedipus are all associated with blindness, the latter figure having gouged out his eyes in order to fathom the depth of his crimes. Were such emotions implicit in Stein's lesbian relationship? It is doubtful that she still felt guilt. Certainly, her pleasure encouraged her to intone her delight in poetry but always in a mitigated, restrained, and hermetic manner, thereby protecting herself from the aspersions of others. Was her love blind?

The description of glass a blind is a personification. It is opaque in its understanding of outer elements, but transparent for those who can peer inwardly, for the poet who knows how to secrete the contents of the glass. When hand blown, glass may be looked upon as an art object, worthy of admiration for its beauty, luster, color, tone—as is a beloved. If broken or chipped, as happens in relationships, the cutting, hard, and bruising edge may draw blood. The references to glass also suggests "spectacle"—eyeglasses make for better sight—but also a spectacle, an eye-catching public or theatrical display, an object of curiosity or contempt about which one may speculate. Because of Stein's sexual proclivities and her literary objections and rebellions against staid grammatical and syntactical conventions, she was vulnerable and open, like the carafe, to public shame were she to make a "spectacle" of herself.

"A kind in glass and a cousin," suggests a qualitative relationship, rooted in kindness and understanding. It may also intimate a type of bond to which a relative may be kindly disposed, though such a "spectacle" might lead some "to pointing" their finger at the object of their ire, thus casting opprobrium on the couple in question, despite the fact that there is "nothing strange" about such "an arrangement" or "system." Singly or individually, people "hurt" others for any reason at all—a different literary "system" or unusual sexual proclivities. In so doing, they draw blood ("color"), the "color," referring to wine contained in the carafe, which brings merriment, or as in communion, commemorates a bond or sacrament, thus uniting what had been divided and transforming the temporal into the atemporal. "A single hurt color" implies the pain of blood issuing from a cut or from menstruation, mirroring the bruising lot of women who are looked down upon in a patriarchal "system." Yet, this very liquid contained in the carafe/uterus is the sine qua non of life, that which permits its continuation. Redness, which intimates embarrassment and "not ordinary" passion is catalytic, but "not unordered," dissimilar "in not resembling" the behavior of the majority. While "The difference" between Stein's way as a lesbian poet and society may be increasing or "spreading," this sentence also refers to the lips of the vagina/carafe that, when opened up, allow the mysteries hidden within its liquid body to be decanted.


Although a mood of jubilation and excitement also prevails in "Glazed Glitter," a warning is offered to those who take the world of appearances at face value:

Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.

There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.

The alliteration in the poem's title, "Glazed Glitter," and the previous poem's "Glass," suggests an object with a mirrorlike, sparkling, glossy, and highly polished surface. Although hard and immobile, like fired clay or enamel, its bedazzling, scintillating, flickering, and rippling exterior infuse it with life and dynamism. Let us recall that alchemists used nickel, a silvery hard ductile metallic element capable of a high polish and resistance to corrosion, in their scientific transmutations. Because of its gray/silvery tones, it was likened to lead, a base or unrefined metal, identified by alchemists with Saturn, the God of Time, and thus of death. The German kupfer (nickel), deceptively labeled copper, accounts for the "red" in the second sentence, perhaps referring to the moon, thus symbolizing change when identified with the woman's monthly menses. With the flow of time, the once-brilliant coloration "weakens an hour," growing paler and more feeble with each passing moment.

"The change in that is that red weakens an hour," indicates flux and aging as well as the desire to be forthright and open, to be "rid of a cover." In that nickel is also change (five-cent piece) that passes from hand to hand, it is a common denominator, facilitating commercial transactions in the everyday world. So should the word and its object be plain and commonplace. "The change has come" implies a change in time but also of monetary values, referring perhaps to Stein's financial transactions with her brother. Their once-glittering and bedazzling works of art, food for spirit and soul, had, when sold, taken on functional value. A question of tender, they now resemble the impure and leaden metals rather than the solely golden and aesthetic ones. "There is no search" now for higher worth—that of eternal values in art. Yet, there is "hope" in the "interpretation" and aftermath of such a transaction, though "sometimes, surely any is welcome." The mention of "breath" (pneuma), a sublimating force, refers to spiritual and creative powers within a being; others see it as a "sinecure" to be viewed as a disease, sine cure, that is, without a cure. Idleness is "charming," as Leo and Stein knew only too well. Relationships change, however; emotions and passions have a "cleansing" factor; they "clean" away the rubble, the dross, allowing for the essence of kinship to emerge: "Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing."

That "There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine," intimates Stein's loss of expectation in science, relying more deeply at present on feelings as her guide. The "breakages in Japanese" may refer to Leo's collection of Japanese prints, also broken up during the division, thus mirroring the shattering of the brother/sister friendship. It was not so intended; there was "no programme" for such a happening. Nor was choice involved. Things had to be cleared up: anger, which "showed spitting," also viewed as a cleansing process for Orientals, reinforces Stein's frequent use of "washing and polishing," cleansing and cleaning. Nor was there any "obligation" that she share her life/art with her brother; no "borrowing," henceforth, between them. Her anger has dissipated. The need to be generous is uppermost now, "yet may there be some use in giving."

Stein seems to have traversed her Rubicon. The "glazed glitter" that prevails since Toklas moved to 27, rue de Fleurus, brightening, cleaning, and cleansing her life, bringing to it unheard of beauty, polish, and glitter, thus extracts the silvery and reddened tones from the object/life. The matriarchate had taken full sway over the partriarchate with its "handsome and convincing" autocracy of monetary values.


In "A Box," viewed as a feminine symbol because of its containing/uteruslike quality, may also be identified with the cranium, the home of secret, fragile, precious, but also fearful elements. Protective as well as imprisoning, the brain case is the seat of potentiality, the origin of infinite riches, but also of distress, disease, and all of life's iniquities. Yet, as in Pandora's box, there is hope. When identified with a coffin, as in Osiris' case, the box symbolizes decay that, in alchemical view, is the locus for transformation from unregenerate to productive matter.

What emerges from within Stein's box? Ideas, feelings, sensations revolving around a human body? a brain? Qualitative factors, implicit in the poems already analyzed, reappear: "kindness," for example, may be so unexpected for some as to elicit "redness" or blushing; "rudeness," may provoke the "redness" of rage. The "rapid" barrage involving the "same question" also provokes anger, redness, and rudeness. The "eye," the organ of enlightenment and perception, probes the emotions that surge forth. Its careful "research" and "selection," painful at times, eliminates the "cattle" or multiple riches that exist within the box/cranium and the box/body. "Cattle" may also suggest domestication: these animals, considered property, are raised for the masses, that is, society's lowest common denominator. "Cattle" are like the commonest of objects Stein uses in her ideo-grams and cubists in their paintings. She succeeds in creating a work of art by her discerning placement of these objects in her poem, thus altering both their meaning and focus. A writer, like a cook who cleans food by stripping it of its dross, must peer critically into everything that emanates from his box/cranium and box/body: idea, emotion, sensation. The conscious mind must control, edit, classify each single moment of experience. Never should emotions be allowed entry into the written work without having first been probed and purified by the eagle "eye." The first syllable of "Question," indicates a quest, a search, thus underscoring the mental operation of "selection," the notion of looking, finding, seeking, spying, thereby separating the wheat from the chaff. The multiple alliterations, (r, s, c, s, q, p), underscoring sibilants, labials, gutturals, palatals, sound out the intense struggle existing within the box: "rudimentary" contents within the unconscious, which seek so desperately to surface.

What does "order" outside of the box, that is, in the world, imply? What is the "white" (Steinese baby talk for right) "way" for the "cattle" to take themselves or be taken out of the pasture? The virgins, referring to traditional values concerning the body and mind, like "cattle" do not like to be led out of their secure and contented ways. Enclosed within the pasture, however, virginal views "disappoint" both the thinking and sexually active person. So, too, is it easier for the writer to adhere to conventional ways (imitate the nineteenth-century techniques) and for the virgin to experience the normal (heterosexual) act of intercourse, "suggesting a pin" rather than to try the different (lesbian) way. The world outside of the boxed-in world may disorient, one may lose one's way and go "round" in circles, thus paving the way for a visionless, nondifferentiated, intellectually and sexually blinding life. Cut off from dangers, one is also severed from the excitement engendered by "a fine substance strangely." Withdrawal encourages vulnerability to hurt, but also to pleasure of the most "rudimentary" kind. Reactions, therefore, must "be analysed," cognized, contemplated, sifted, pruned. The discovery of "strangely" delicate, subtle, sensitive elements within being are to be pinpointed. All factors in the life process are invited to be scrutinized: the "green point," suggesting fertility; the "red," implying pain and menstruation. Each factor must serve to transform what remains latent and dormant within the "box" into active forces, be it in the domain of art or in human relationships.


Although not an overt subscriber to feminism, Stein, in her one-line poem, "A Petticoat," clearly displays her ire against the patriarchal Judeo-Christian society with its hierarchy of unsavory and deficient values. While emphasizing the fine dividing line between acceptable ways—the pure, virginal "light" and "white"—as opposed to the usually black "ink spot," she is referring to the writer who strays from conventional ways and is considered a "disgrace" to society. The spot left from "menstruation," viewed as unclean, symbolizes a rejection of women. Yet, both have their "rosy charm." Who better than Stein understood the meaning of "disgrace"? Her writings had been refused by so many publishers, her ideas and behavior discredited. She was an outcast. Yet, even in pain, straying out of the "pasture" held its "rosy charm" for the writer and the woman.

"Peeled Pencil. Coke" and "This Is This Dress, Aider" are two essentially pornographic poems. The first consists of three words, "Rub her coke." An example of Stein's stripping of phonemes down to their bare essentials, the alliterated title, "Peeled Pencil," suggests another kind of fruitful defloration: the readying of the vagina for the insertion of the dildo. The creative process is implicit in the phallic symbol of the pencil: as used by the poet, this instrument serves to make its mark on the paper. In the old days, pencils had to be peeled to be sharpened. As layer upon layer was being pulled off, its slender black cylinder essence was made ready to "pin" point the author's glyphs on the virginal page. Like the sexual, so the writing process arouses passion. Excitement reaches such a pitch that some feel as if their windpipe had been blocked, causing near strangulation.

To Rub, an active verb, defined as subjecting to back and forth or circular action with pressure and friction, as in cleaning, polishing, and smoothing, also suggests the hand massaging the surface of the body, thus generating friction and heat. The writer likewise encounters difficulties as she moves her hand across the page in an effort to smooth and polish the words in the manuscript. So, in alchemy, after the flammable, volcanic, ebullient powers have surged forth, distillation must take place. "Coke," the residue of coal and used as fuel, is what remains following the burning, triturating, or cleansing operation. In Stein's poem, "coke" symbolizes the transformatory round that must take place for the quintessential experience (the poem or sexual act) to make its mark on body, psyche, and intellect. Only after the raw or primitive experience has been lived can "coke" be extracted: that active substance that fuels both the sexual and creative process. "Coke," short for cocaine, acts as a local anesthetic and induces intoxication as well—something Stein never abided. Lucidity was her guide. Rather than "Coke," implying cock and coitus, she uses cunnilingus for sexual fulfillment.


In "This Is This Dress, Aider," Stein not only decorticates her words of conventional meaning, but uses, as always, onomatopeias and multiple puns to strengthen the point she is trying to make. The noun Dress, an outer garment that serves to hide the body, used as a verb, depicts the act of covering, hiding, secreting—a sexually exciting thought. Like a fetish, the dress as object is endowed with its own energy and magical qualities, thus transmuting the image into a tantalizing power. A feeling of "distress" (this dress) counters the joyous mood of anticipation, opening up the writer to the fear and frustration arising from her partner's built-in inhibitions, which prevent sexual fulfillment.

Aider why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher, munchers.

A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let.

"Aider," is Alice, the active participant in this poem. Like eiderdown, her presence is soft, pliable, and comforting. It is she who comes to the poet's aid and aids her. As the poet's scientific and medical side ponders the question as to "why" rapture takes place during coitus, she realizes that for highs to reach their peak, intellectuality must be stripped. To yield fully to instinct and to feeling, to basic or primitive elements, allows her to go beyond the state of reason and self-control. Rapturously and repeatedly, she expresses her glee: "whow whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop." No longer is voice subverted; on the contrary, it is allowed to sing out the overwhelming, almost trancelike state she now experiences. The word muncher, someone who chews with relish, is an onomatopeia, its nasals and fricatives suggesting the action involved in oral sex and the sonorities accompanying such labial activities.

Fairy tales about Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Sprat, Jack-in-the-box, and many more, although frightening and humorous to children and adults, also trigger the imagination. So the writer's fantasy world is likewise aroused by the thought of sexual play, and the sensations evoked aid her in finding the word that will replicate the experience. A jack, is also a mechanical and portable device for exerting pressure or lifting a heavy body a short distance. The emphasis on this twice-mentioned "a jack in" recalls a similar heaving or hoisting motion in Stein's later "Lifting Belly," referring in both cases to the use of the dildo to bring on a climax. The word meadowed, associated with a tract of moist low-lying grassland, may be a metaphor for pubic hair. "King," ruler, master, and center of all he surveys, suggests the male partner—in this case, Stein, who always considered herself man, potentate, supreme consciousness, and creative principle, while Toklas was the woman, the homebody, and subservient in every way.

Step 2. Food

Stein's second step in her initiatic journey into the wonder-working elements of nature and of language, deals with food. Fuel for the body/mind, such nourishment as is mentioned in the fifty-one poems included in this section represents Mother Nature as both vital and destructive. The giver of life and energy, she sees to the propagation of the vegetal and animal worlds with which Stein now deals. Such a focalization suggests a need to regress to a primitive mode: the nonhuman psyche, the instinctual domain, in order to root out the very substance of word and sexual experience. Stein's desire to deal with common everyday entities such as foods replicates a similar movement on the part of the writer to "flatten out" poetic themes, as Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue had accomplished before her. In order to succeed, the writer must immerse herself in primal waters and bathe in the very source of existence. Only then can such vital questions as life and death be posed. These notions had always haunted Stein. Now, for the first time, they would no longer be posed from an intellectual, scientific, or philosophical point of view, but viscerally, via Mother Nature's fertility rites.

For the alchemist, food was energy—that is, the fire or catalyst needed to perform the operation that transmuted base metal into sublime gold. To effect such a change was arduous and painful, requiring the burning and water operations that stripped and cleansed the problem, thus isolating it from other elements. Stein's poetic needs may be examined similarly. Her intense search in the domain of language took her from the outer world, "the glazed glitter," into the very heart of physical being. Her trajectory, she believed, had helped her better assess her needs and her worth, thus aiding in the transmuting of feeling into its authentic container, the word.

Food also has a qualitative factor appended to it. Identified with agressivity, it is the mouth's task first to take it from the outside world, then masticate ("muncher"), ingest, digest, and finally eliminate it. So, too, must the word be internalized, experienced, sensed, palpated, prior to its implantation into the poem. Life and the creative process, then, require a combative, invasive, and militant stance.


A symbol for abundance and fertility, milk is nature's sustaining force par excellence. For mystics, such as the Orphics, it spells immortality; for the Druids, it was used for curative purposes. The inconographic representations of Isis, Hera, and Mary nursing their young, represent Mother Nature in her most fructifying form. The Philosophical Stone (Spiritual God), the summation of the alchemical operation, was referred to as "Virgin's Milk," for it brought immortality.

Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging.

The vertical act of climbing to the breast or "utter" (udder) to suck out the fluid of life—a natural act for infants—requires effort, exertion, striving. Stein's verbal portrait, "Picasso" comes to mind: her admiration for his valiant and continuous struggle in contrast to "Matisse" who, once fame was his, abandoned the battle and renounced the challenge. Be it in the artistic or love process, contention is crucial; passivity, lethargy, an inability to concentrate and focus on one's goal, is death.

The word utter, closely allied in Stein's punning ways to a cow's udder, conflates the intellectual and the physical worlds. Without such sucking activity, the physical energy needed in the practical as well as the poetic worlds would be wanting. That the cow image is implicit in utter/udder is not, in Stein's view, a derogatory epithet attached to womankind. On the contrary, having recourse to it in many of her writings, she uses it to symbolize the nourishing aspect of Mother Earth.

"Needles," used repeatedly in the first section of Stein's work, are phallic images, suggesting pain during the act of penetration. In that they are also employed in sewing, designed to bind together bits of disparate cloth, they fuse the heteroclite. Likewise, the word is interwoven or intertwined into the text. To needle someone is to annoy, upset; but the energy aroused in such activity is catalytic. It is worth recalling that the cubists stuck pins and nails into their collages, introducing a non-painterly element onto the canvases, thus rejecting while also expanding the prevailing logo-centric definition of art. Nor are Stein's texts devoid of such puncturing and piercing objects. Hurt necessarily plays a role in the creative process as well as in human relationships.

"A guess a whole guess is hanging" implies the world of the unknown that comes into being as the milk of life is suckled. Nor are the sexual pleasures derived from such an act to be overlooked by the sensualist that Stein was. Guess (from Middle English gessen) suggests get, which like Climb, allows for the fulfillment of the wishing, wanting, and needing. The food (omitting the g leaves essen, to eat in German) within the "hanging" breast endows the one who "climbs" with energy, to be expended in sexual, philosophical, or literary activity. Within milk/breast exists the potential for life; within it hangs the fate of the human (intellect) and animal (body) species.

"Hanging hanging" is a reference to breasts in general and, in particular, Stein's pendulous ones. Within them resides the unknown, the unforeseen—that creative power that makes her world go round. Metaphors for security, tenderness, intimacy, breasts are an offering as well as a refuge.


Stein's three poems dealing with potatoes, a spherical, bulbous root nourished within the heart of Mother Earth, visualize the notion of growth and creativity. That the French equivalent for potato, pomme de terre, or apple of the earth, is the terrestrial counterpart of paradise's forbidden fruit that hangs from the tree of knowledge, conflates what had been severed according to Genesis. Unlike the spiritual fruit that leads to transgression, the potato yields knowledge of another sort: it permits an ingestion of earthly and everyday matter, thus serving to fructify both mind and body. Existential, the potato symbolizes this present life—the now—rather than the Christian's view of future heavenly domain.

Potatoes "Real potatoes cut in between."

Potatoes "In the preparation of cheese, in the preparation of crackers, in the preparation of butter, in it."

Roast Potatoes "Roast potatoes for."

The three poems focus on the preparation of potatoes: from the raw and cutting phase, the cooking operation, to its final state in the serving.

The image in the first poem, reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe's many opening or severed flowers, replicates the dividing and severing process in making the potato ready for eating. The cutting open of the vegetable opens up its secret parts to the light of the eye. So, too, may the "cut in between" be applied to other areas, needing no profound decoding since its message is more than obvious. In terms of the poet, however, to articulate requires a cutting up, a trimming and slimming of syllables in the preparation of the word's implantation into the text.

That "cheese" and "butter" in the second poem are added in the cooking process not only increases the vegetable's succulence, but in that they are milk products, they increase its nutritive powers. So, too, must the poet include foreign materials, as had the cubists, to enrich a text. "Crackers" are not only a dry crispy bread product made of leavened or unleavened bread used to mop up the delectable sauce from a dish or platter, but they also make snapping or crackling noises. To the combination of potatoes, cheese, and butter, a feast for the taste buds, is added the agreeable crackling sonorities from the "crackers" being eaten, but also those emanating from the oven as the "roast" (referred to in the third poem) is cooking, thus also becoming food for the ear. Crackers broken down into crack-er (her), has a sexual allusion, referring back to "the cut in between" in the first poem; and to the effort made by the poet, cracking her brain to come out with the proper combination of words to be added during the cooking process.


That a fat and ungainly woman is alluded to as a sack of potatoes, an image that can readily be applied to Stein, may help to explain the poem entitled "Asparagus," referring, perhaps to Toklas's thinness.

Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.

Asparagus, (Greek spargan) meaning to swell, is iconographically tall and pencil-like, and thus a phallic symbol. A perennial plant of the lily family having many-branched stems and minute scalelike leaves, the asparagus is cultivated for its edible shoots. No longer dealing with an invisible and secret world with regard to the potato, Stein broaches an ocular and delectable one. That the object depicted is "lean" suggests skinniness, but also the act of inclining, bending, or casting one's weight to one side for support. In these cases, it alludes to Toklas: her skeletal appearance, her subservience, her bending and fawning when in the presence of her deity; also the awkwardness of the sexual position when making love to Stein. The "hot" refers to the heat brought on by the rubbing operation during the sexual encounter; the "wet wet weather," to the perspiration resulting from such friction; and "wet weather wet," to the vaginal fluids discharged preceding and following the climax. There may also be a literary allusion: the efforts expended by Stein as she leans first on one word or artistic form and then another. The intensity poured into the choices she must make in the writing process generates bodily heat, liquidity, and when completed, moments of Dionysian ecstasy.


Stein's many poems dealing with meats (roast beef, mutton, sausages, chicken) take us into the animal world, antithetical to Platonists and Christians who prize spirituality rather than instinctuality. Not so for Stein who loved animals, and especially dogs. In keeping with Western values, to allude to the animal in an individual is to refer to what is base or, in alchemical terms, is leaden and unrefined in that person. Yet, it is the animal as libido, raw energy, that empowers creation.

The "Chicken," the title Stein gave to four poems, is a barnyard animal, not too clean, not too bright, and easily scared. It may also refer to the coward, the young woman as a term of endearment, or to a prostitute, as well as to the young male homosexual.

The "Pheasant," unlike the common chicken, is a sought-after game bird known for its long sweeping tail and brilliant feathers. On the other hand, the chicken is "a peculiar bird," different, curious, odd, known for its eccentricities. Used in some religious, initiatory, and divinatory rites by shamans, the chicken symbolizes death and resurrection. In Orphic rituals, it is associated with the dog, friendly to humans. According to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the chicken leads the dead to the lower worlds—psychologically, to inner (unconscious) realms.

That Stein emphasizes the words dirty and third intimates an association between Christianity's (Trinity) view of dirt and women (the chicken is identified with the female). The emphasis placed by revealed religions on purity and virginity was anathema to Stein, as was their view of dirt as being synonymous with evil. Dirt and evil are implicit in the world of differentiation, thus of earthly existence. To reject these aspects of life is to seek to escape into the pristine purity of an afterlife, without ever knowing terrestrial joy. The same may be said of the writer's approach to his art. For Stein, all themes, all words, from the most commonplace to the most ethereal, fueled her pen providing they were picked, prepared, and served on the proper platter.

Like a collage, cooking and writing require the introduction of other ("more") foods into the dinner or completed text. Various plants in the mustard family, like "Cress," add a pungent flavor to the meat; as do "Potato" and "Loaves" of bread. The combination of foods and seasoning, like that of letters in a word or morphemes in a text, enhance the visual beauty of the arrangement on the platter as well as its aroma and taste during its ingestion.

As previously noted, eating is an aggressive act that in the case of the pheasant and chicken begins with the catching, continues with the killing of the bird (sticking), and then the depluming (sticking), cleansing of the inside ("sticking"); and then the "sticking" of it into the mouth, masticating, pulverising, digesting it. The repetition of stick, its strident sibilants, hostile dentals, grating gutturals, and ferocious fricatives, stick the ear with a medley of unpleasant cacophonies, thus replicating the murderous intent of the eater. This same analogy may be applied to sexuality, for example, during a sadistic act, with all of the "extra" "sticking" devices needed to bring on the climax. Nor should the writer be discouraged from entering into verbal sadomasochistic play, in the annexing, rejecting, and redefining of terms. For everything, positive and negative, must participate in the feast that is writing.

Stein has taken the mystery of matter from the world of objects to that of plants and animals. Her third step will deal with the inner sanctum, viewed in terms of body and mind (both conscious and unconscious). Like the alchemist working in silence in his laboratory, so the verbal draftsman fashions, shapes, colors, and texturizes his words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. The labors in both cases are conducted in the secret realms of remote climes.

Step 3. Rooms

The heart of the transformatory process takes place in the room/chamber/cavern. In ancient Egypt, initiates entered the most secret vaults within the pyramid to undergo their initiatory rituals: the transformation of the potential or unformed into the fulfilled and formed. Such a conversion was looked upon as a death of the old self and the birth of the new, purified, and elevated one.

The room in Tender Buttons represents that solitary area within the psyche into which libido (energy) withdraws in order to revitalize what has become worn and arid within being. Comparable to the womb, where the seed is nourished, or the vaginal area where the climax may be experienced, or the mind, replete with ideas, the room provides the seclusion and separation from the outside world that is crucial to the evolution of an individual.

Withdrawing into an inner space permits Stein to cut herself off from the excitement of the workaday world that drains and deletes her energies. Within the peace and security of her own mind/room, or vaulted cranium, Stein is able to sense and think authentically. Thus does she feel able to transmute the fruit of her meditations into the word. Within the mind (conscious and unconscious spheres) she learns to see, hear, listen, and palpate in a space/time continuum; thus does she feel competent to reorganize volume, space, and form, and all other inconstants. No limitations are imposed upon the senses, now reactivated by the inflow of energy into the psyche.

The tangled terminology and rescrambling of ideas and notions occurring in "Rooms," no longer made up of separate poems, but divided into paragraphs, is as esoteric, perhaps even more so, than the previous sections. No better paradigm of Stein's ambiguous views can be offered than her repeated use of centre. She warns ("Act so that there is no use in a centre") against imprisonment within a rationally conceived centre: that is, within concepts. According to Cézanne's vision of composition, the painter's and the writer's goal is to portray each object and all of its parts in positions that are equally responsive to his sensibility and to the livingness of his observation. All hierarchies within the frame, as well as the frame itself, are abolished. The center, therefore, is no longer the center of focus of anything; nor is it to be regarded as an organizing principle.6 No frame; no point of reference; no boundaries. A poem has no more a center than does a canvas. The cubists' dictum is: an "object is an object"; its place in the composition is "decentralized"; its ideations and iconography are transformed into the object of the composition.

The same is true of the centre in "Rooms" if viewed three-dimensionally, that is, as the focalizing point on a classical compositional canvas or the suspenseful line in a poem or novel. When viewed four-dimensionally, however, as in such age-old religious symbolic images as the Star of David, Cross, Circle, and so on, the centre is everywhere and nowhere. Some mystics refer to this transpersonal centre existing within a space/time continuum as the Principle, Absolute, or God. Pascal, quoting Hermes Trismegistus, wrote, "God is a sphere the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere." Stein, the nonbeliever, as God/the artist, must reach the creative center living inchoate and transpersonally within her. In this most sacred and unknowable region exists the beginning and end of all things in an eternal now. Forever spawning and disintegrating, life exists as a continuously reshuffling, redirecting, rebalancing, and rekindling process.

If the centre has the place then there is distribution. That is natural. There is a contradiction and naturally returning there comes to be both sides and the centre. That can be seen from the description.

Active and dynamic, the writer who plunges into a continuously shifting, expanding, and unlimited inner space, know chaos (the void). As conveyed in Genesis and in many creation myths, including Hesiod's Theogony, such fomenting mass yields, paradoxically, new insights while concomitantly dismantling nonfunctioning ones. Words, when inhabiting this dark, moist, and unlimited realm, expand in meaning, sensation, texture, and coloration. As their consistencies alter, so does their impacting upon other phonemes and morphemes in the sentence. Although word is one, it is made up of individual letters, each possessing its own identity, confluence, sensation, rhythms, and blendings, thus acting and reacting on the rest "of the herd" as the poet Stéphane Mallarmé used to say.

Body, psyche, and mind are energized by Stein's intuitive forays into and out of her centre. A redistribution in the placement of words in the sentence detaches them from conventional use, thus redefining them and pushing them to the extreme limit of language. Because of Stein's paratactical intervals, aided and abetted by her omission of punctuation, subjects, and objects, and the addition of a plethora of puns, extreme syntactical distortion and incomprehensibility are the result.

Metaphors, analogies, and associations to the pleasure and pain involved in the sexual and literary acts, for example, pepper the entire text: stress, distress, pain, joy, accomplishing, lifting, voice, centre, spreading, black line, distribution, kneeling, opening, rubbing, erection, swelling, open, four, startling, starving, husband, betrothed, sleeping, size, torn, sack, hangings, movement, bed, disorder, funnel, cape, conundrum, torn, target, breath, window, milk, water, empty, flower, cutting, clean, pecking, petting, asparagus, fountain, and so forth.

Coitus is alluded to in and of itself, but also its effect on mind and body is also suggested. The tremulous sensations triggered by climaxes and the sensual excitement generated, activates the poetic process. Described as an alchemical operation, Stein writes: "Burnt and behind and lifting a temporary stone and lifting more than a drawer."

The fire of passion produced during the sexual act heightens the flame or electric spark, which in turn, and in keeping with the alchemical process, not only burns off impurities, but dries out all moisture. Only "burnt" or charred remains are left "behind" (posterior), that is, the word's quintessence. Like a precious diamond, the word is no longer embedded in black carbon, but is polished, glittering, and gleaming with incandescent emotions, now that the old and unproductive perceptions and sensations have been killed.

The reborn and recrystallized insights are "lifting" (sexually and creatively) the poet into new areas of feeling and of expression. The "stone" that was raised suggests the removal of a veil: inhibitions have been dropped, adding to the impetus of the electric charge. An androgynous element, stone constitutes the wholeness and fullness of the primordial state, which has now been made accessible. But the experience of the sexual and verbal act, like unrefined and unshaped "stone," must be smoothed and polished, thus fulfilling its goal—the transformation of brute matter into the work of art. "Drawer," a boxlike entity used for storage, may be opened or closed. In like manner, ideas and feelings may be covertly or overtly conveyed in a poem. Stein's use of the comparison more suggests her increasing self-confidence in her talent as a writer.

Sight, always crucial for Stein, be it in her observation of paintings or words, is explicit in the following sentence:

No eye-glasses are rotten, no window is useless and yet if air will not come in there is a speech ready, there always is and there is no dimness, not a bit of it.

Within the secret space that is the room, the use of such devices as "eye-glasses" not only enhance vision, but protect the eye from the dirt outside. Since the "window" for Plato represents an opening onto the soul, such apertures increase the reception of Light from the spirit, senses, and mind on a variety of levels. Thus, every "window" serves the poet. Like eyeglasses, the "window," inviting air (spirit) to permeate formerly enclosed quarters, expands horizons. The eye/window may now indulge in a dual activity: to look out onto the world and within, into the deepest recesses of the room: body, psyche, soul. The world, like all other concrete or abstract notions, alters in meaning, consistency, texture, and coloration depending upon the light shed on it during the observing process. Such a seeing and looking activity is crucial. Such voyeurism helps her convey the carnality of language in social discourse.

"Air," a sublimated element, suggests height, spirituality, flight, an amorphous condition rather than the previously solid material principle. Such alteration of focus implies spiritual growth, an ability to abstract and conceptualize problems by divesting them of earthly entanglements. Air may be identified with "breath" (Hebrew ruh), the spirit of God as it moved over primordial waters in the beginning of time and created the world (Gen. 1:2). With breath, according to Judeo-Christian and Hindu belief, came the word and speech (John 1:1; Rig-Veda 1:164). Those who can see into matter and spirit sense the word; for them "there always is and there is no dimness, not a bit of it."

In another entry, Stein writes: "The time when there is not the question is only seen when there is a shower. Any little thing is water." Experienced as transpersonal and immanent, time, like the creative instinct, is both temporal and atemporal. As for the word imprinted on the page and embedded in matter, it too becomes abstracted, as thought. Question (from the Latin, quaestio), identified with quest (Latin quaestus), indicates a continuous search or process leading to fulfillment. The spirit of interrogation, so crucial to the writer, vanishes when the sensate world submerges the rational sphere. Yet, it has its positive attributes. Like the Flood, a "shower," identified with emotion, inundates. On the other hand, for the alchemist and poet, the water operation both solves and dissolves. In so doing, the unsolvable problem vanishes. What had been a stumbling block has been liquefied, as sugar or salt when placed in a bowl of water. A smoother or more objective and comprehensive attitude may therefore come into being. Problems, now viewed in particles, may be divided, thereby altering perspectives and approaches to them. The particular, rather than the whole, comes under scrutiny. If, however, currents are too swift, the "shower" leads to drowning, regression, and loss of identity. "Any little thing is water" suggests that rigid, fixated, and solidified attitudes and their accompanying words may be turned into a solution—that is, be allowed to flow freely. The poet, then, is given the freedom to evaluate and reevaluate, to position and reposition them, thus bringing a new reality into being.

There is no end to the meanings and interpretations one may glean on reading Tender Buttons. Each word imprinted on the page may trigger in the reader ideas, melodies, rhythms, colorations, codes, and the infinite reverberations to which these give rise. Stein's inner journey or descent into the mystic's centre, as conveyed in Tender Buttons, was a breakthrough—a turning point in her life as woman and writer. Successful in subverting the Westerner's logic and habitual modes of rumination, always anathema to her, she discovered her own working order. First visualizing her object, she then interiorized it by way of the cooking operation, through which she assimilated its energy. Finally, like the good alchemist she was, she sublimated and abstracted its contents, after which it was ready to be embedded in the text. Her bristling treatment of discourse and syntax, her polysemous meanings and meanderings, her subvocal nonsense, and her verbal and ideational fragmentations were spectacular examples of what could be called the cubist language.

As cubist and alchemist, Stein, the word stripper, offers her bewitching, puzzling, and frustrating brew to contemporary readers. May each and every one plunge into its infinite waters.


  1. Randa K. Dubnick, The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 35.
  2. Stein, "Poetry and Grammar," Lectures in America, 209.
  3. Ibid., 235.
  4. Walker, Making of a Modernist, 132.
  5. Stein, "Poetry and Grammar," 231.
  6. Katz, "Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein," Four Americans in Paris, 52.

"Patriarchal Poetry"


SOURCE: Watts, Linda S. "'Reject Rejoice Rejuvenate': Gertrude Stein's Feminist Critique of Spiritual and Literary Tradition." In Rapture Untold: Gender, Mysticism, and the 'Moment of Recognition' in Works by Gertrude Stein, pp. 131-44. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

In the following essay, Watts explicates the literary and spiritual politics of the essay "Patriarchal Poetry," investigating the feminist implications of Stein's syntax and typology for patriarchal language.

They do not ask what is religion but I do. I ask what is religion. I cannot ask too often, what is religion.

Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America

With its polemical title, "Patriarchal Poetry," this 1927 Stein text, invites a political reading. By no means does Stein avail herself of didacticism, here any more than she does elsewhere. Still, there can be little question that one of Stein's accomplishments in this now often-quoted composition is commentary on and subversion of patriarchal poetry. As she notes in this and other writings, Stein considers language to be a belief system in itself, comparable in that sense to a religion. Invoking the images of Catholicism, she writes of "Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday, Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday," linking the rituals of language and religion. (PP, ["Patriarchal Poetry" ] 259) When treated with such reverence, language cannot change. Without change, language loses its vitality, becoming merely "worn-out literary words."1 With an unexamined vocabulary, it also becomes a conservative social and political force. In her own writing, and particularly in a piece such as "Patriarchal Poetry," Stein rebels from literary traditions. To write as it has been written is to serve Mammon, and so Stein makes it her task to build a second, or alternative, form of literature, in which she "serves God" by resisting outside influence.2

Stein's declaration to serve "God" rather than "Mammon" is somewhat misleading, however, insofar as Stein's ideal writer serves no master but herself. Recall her insistence that creativity is "not being blown into you, it is very much your own."3 Creativity (and responsibility for that creativity) resides within the individual. A writer's creative authority must be her own; she cannot inherit it or receive it from some altogether external mystical force. Since Stein views writing as a solitary enterprise, even the influence of literary predecessors is best avoided. In much the same way Stein advises the individual against deference to canonical law in religious matters, she characterizes the writer "serving God" as one who, while writing, "does not remember" her literary forebears. The great books are a chronicle of, rather than a substitute for, creative talent. Laboring under the weight of a literary inheritance, the writer faces the task of revivifying language. That challenge becomes greatest when the poet uses words grown weak from repeated use.

Stein calls for the poet to speak not with old images, but rather with a new diction. Using the familiar Romantic symbol of a "nightingale," ("Ode to a Nightingale") Stein chastises the derivative poet, saying "Not to such a pretty bird." (PP, 257) Just as she maintains that a new poetic image may appear ugly at first, Stein implies that an overused image may be all too pretty.

Compare something else to something else. To be rose. Such a pretty bird. Not to such a pretty bird. Not to not to not to such a pretty bird. Not to such a pretty bird. Not to such a pretty bird. As to as to not to as to and such a pretty bird.

(PP, 257)

Stein expresses boredom with the stock images of poetic tradition, as she urges poets to "Compare something else to something else." Metaphors lose their power if used so often that they are simply another name for the object described. To clarify her point, Stein supplies underused alternatives for animal imagery (which also functions for Stein as sexual imagery), including the "fish" and the "cow," two images which appear frequently throughout Stein's work.

The writer must renew poetic language. Stein's objection to literary inheritance is not offered simply as a means for avoiding poetic clichés, though, but also stems from her awareness of the conservative function a literary canon serves. By elevating literary greats, the canon forms a hierarchy which reflects the class and gender hierarchies of a society. When honoring that canon, writers defer to and perpetuate not only literary styles, but also the ideologies, both social and political, those styles encode. In this respect, Stein's indictment of patriarchal poetry anticipated feminist challenges to the literary canon by contemporary feminist writers, critics, theorists, and activists.

As a case in point, Stein identifies this literary inheritance ["Their origin and their history" (PP, 263)] as masculinist, and is quick to note that her own language, literary standards, and literary influences are largely if not exclusively male in origin. While such women as George Eliot, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Louisa May Alcott impress Stein, the bulk of her references are to men: Carlyle, Dante, DeFoe, Fielding, Flaubert, Scott, Smollett, Shakespeare, Sterne, Swift, Wordsworth, Meredith, Hardy, and Trollope. While Gertrude Stein's immersion in male writing is indisputable, some would say inescapable, she does not accept blindly these writers' techniques, perceptions, models, or hierarchies. Stein writes as one keenly aware not only of the possibilities opened by past writers, but also the options their language and actions deny to her. To these limitations, "Patriarchal Poetry" stands as her manifesto. To alternative possibilities, it stands as her blueprint.

It is significant that Stein assigns a name to the works representing this traditional literature, for traditional literature does not acknowledge what it cannot classify. With her capitalization of that name, Stein makes the tradition seem even more staid and static. This 1927 composition takes the shape of a series of assertions, many of which begin by invoking the name, "Patriarchal poetry," as in "Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake." (PP, 263) For patriarchs, names imply status over people and possession of things. ["Come to a distance and it still bears their name." (PP, 264)] Patriarchs preside over traditional literature, and so "Patriarchal Poetry is named patriarchal poetry." (PP, 293) Each time speakers use the name, they reassert possession. In this way, patriarchs also may assure their own honor by insisting that "Patriarchal poetry be often praised often praised." (PP, 279) In order for Stein to set out an alternative literature, then, she must see to it that Patriarchal poetry is "renamed." (PP, 289)

Stein has numerous reasons for resisting traditional literature. The chief issue Stein takes with Patriarchal Poetry concerns its rigid order: "Patriarchal poetry should be this.…" (PP, 281) Stein mocks that order with its endless language rules: "Which is why is why is why.…" (PP, 262) In much the same way that St. Ignatius of Loyola in Four Saints in Three Acts imposes upon religion a hierarchical and paramilitary order, patriarchs expect poets to fall in step: "Patriarchal poetry left left left right left," (PP, 294) because "This is what order does." (PP, 262) Patriarchal poetry, with its rules and arbitrary distinctions, reduces creativity to habit. There are so many rules to follow that all "Patriarchal poetry is the same." (PP, 264) Art becomes too routinized. Writing, after all, it not a set order like a menu or a calendar:

… and not meat on Monday patriarchal poetry and meat on Tuesday. Patriarchal poetry and venison on Wednesday. Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday. Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday Patriarchal poetry and beef on Tuesday patriarchal poetry and fish on Wednesday Patriarchal poetry and eggs on Thursday patriarchal poetry and carrots on Friday patriarchal poetry and extras on Saturday patriarchal poetry and venison on Sunday Patriarchal poetry and lamb on Tuesday patriarchal poetry and jellies on Friday patriarchal poetry and turkeys on Tuesday.

(PP, 259)

Language rules produce standardization, and so "Patriarchal poetry makes it as usual," "Patriarchal poetry one two three." (PP, 274) If a writer is to become part of patriarchal poetry, s/he must accept its rankings, too, for Patriarchal poetry "makes no mistake in estimating the value to be placed upon the best and most arranged of considerations." (PP, 272) The writer must respect the literary canon and "Remember all of it too." (PP, 271) The canon must perpetuate itself in memory and deed.

It is, then, at the very least, convenient that Stein's spiritualized view of "creative" writing requires no knowledge of literary tradition or precedent. In so defining her ideal writer, Stein undermines the patriarchal shape of literary practice, recognition, and memory. By her standards, an original writer exists outside literary tradition, and need not fit into social categories to which that tradition's tribute has been exclusive. Stein's genius perceives in an "unhabitual way," free from the tethers of a literary past. Her expression is limited only by her creativity, and the value of her work resides not in its adherence to literary precedent, but rather in its own creative moment.

In comparing traditional (or patriarchal) literature to a religion, Stein does not overlook the connection between a literary canon and a religious canon. In her challenge to patriarchal poetry, Stein takes on the Bible, itself a sacred text. In particular, she deconstructs the gender roles of Genesis, asking

What is the difference between a fig and an apple.

One comes before the other.

(PP, 276)



Although she was not to enjoy widespread acclaim until The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1934, by the mid-20s Stein's early works had helped shape the literary development of Anderson, Fitzgerald, Wilder, and Hemingway, all of whom would later change or had already begun to alter the course of twentieth-century letters. Even Joyce was not immune to Stein's "little sentences." Indeed, the sweeping and fundamental linguistic changes suggested by Tender Buttons are echoed in Joyce's final work; but where Joyce's encyclopedic Finnegans Wake, the universal dictionary of language, is actually an index of fathers (Sterne, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Vico, etc.) sustained and upheld by a monumental cross-referencing of western civilization, Stein's work refers back to no one but herself.

Blankley, Elyse. Excerpt from "Beyond the 'Talent of Knowing': Gertrude Stein and the New Woman." In Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, edited by Michael J. Hoffman, pp. 196-209. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986.

Stein questions the distinction between Adam and Eve, making the difference between the two figures no greater than "the difference between a fig and an apple." At the same time, Stein uses the Biblical story to illustrate the tyrannies of a tradition ruled by "One [who] comes before the other." Patriarchal poetry is not superior to new poetry simply because it preceded the less traditional form. Indeed, by exposing arbitrary distinctions (such as that between Adam and Eve, or old and new poetry), Stein renders such attempts at classification meaningless. She asks of such distinctions:

What is the result.

The result is that they know the difference between instead and instead and made and made and said and said.

(PP, 264)

Stein constructs oppositions with equal terms so that an "initial boundary" melts away. (PP, 258) For Stein, there exist no absolute distinctions, and so she challenges the binary oppositions underpinning attempted distinctions.

Stein dispenses with the literary inheritance to which she refers as "Patriarchal Poetry." When finished, she resolves "Never to mention [or name] patriarchal poetry altogether." (PP, 263) The act of building an alternative literature liberates her from literary precedent, for that alternative "makes patriarchal poetry apart" rather than central. (PP, 265) As the name "Patriarchal Poetry" implies, Stein regards literary tradition as masculinist and laden with the perspectives of male domination. Such literature stands as a male province. Stein hopes to see "Patriarchal Poetry interdicted," (PP, 287) so that authors, especially women, might have options instead of simply being "Assigned to Patriarchal Poetry." (PP, 265) As Stein writes of this gender split, she encourages another mode of writing, particularly for women.

Let her try,
Never to be what he said.

(PP, 269)

Stein provides women writers with an alternative form of expression, in which they are no longer mere character/subjects of male writers, but rather valued contributors to literature. As she sets aside Patriarchal Poetry, Stein reprises her communion hymn, "When this you see remember me." Here she asserts that, "When this you see remember me should never be added to that." (PP, 282) To incorporate Stein in an existing (androcentric) literary canon would be to miss the point of her literary counter strategy and her efforts to see "Patriarchal Poetry replaced." (PP, 291) Stein writes of literary tradition "undone," (PP, 259) and needful of "rearrangement," (PP, 267) and "rectification." (PP, 264) Consequently, she considers it no tribute to be assimilated into patriarchal poetry.

Stein does not dismiss patriarchal poetry entirely ["These words containing as they do neither reproaches nor satisfaction.…" (PP, 265)]. She concedes to men that, "Patriarchal poetry might be what they wanted." (PP, 273) Stein does insist, however, that "Patriarchal Poetry makes mistakes" she finds unacceptable, and to which she does not wish herself or others to be subject. (PP, 280) Therefore, Stein calls for a new form of expression. Undaunted by anticipated objections from a male proponent of Patriarchal Poetry, Stein declares with the power of Biblical genesis, "If he is not used to it he is not used to it, this is the beginning." (PP, 362) With this declaration, Stein inaugurates a celebration of women's emancipation from patriarchal poetry, an emancipation whose impulses are plain in Stein's call to "reject rejoice rejuvenate." (PP, 262) Stein reclaims language from the patriarchal and oppressive uses to which it has been put. For this reason, she fills the piece with words in which the pre-fix "re-" depicts regeneration.

Patriarchal Poetry reclaimed renamed replaced and gathered together as they went in and left it more where it is in when it pleased when it was pleased when it can be pleased to be gone over carefully and letting it be a chance for them to lead to lead not only by left but by leaves.

(PP, 289)

By speaking in terms of claims, Stein points out the proprietary relation of patriarchal poetry to literary production. Indeed, within the composition, Stein appears to struggle with the patriarchs for power: "When this you see give it to me." (PP, 298) In renaming and replacing patriarchal poetry, Stein empowers new authors, providing "a chance for them to lead."

Naming as the Exercise of Power

Stein is best known, then, for her challenge to conventional syntax and word use. Stein's criticisms of androcentric religion must be understood as related to her challenge to androcentric language. In one of her works, "Woodrow Wilson," (1920), Stein makes explicit her critique of language as an instrument whose power is comparable to religion: "How can a language alter. It does no it is an altar."4 Her affront to reader expectation was so dramatic that many readers accused her of writing in code, or in a personal language they termed "Steinese." Even the headline of Stein's New York Times obituary suggests her notoriety in this regard:

Gertrude Stein Dies in France, 72
American Author Was Known for Her
'A Rose is a Rose is a Rose' Literary Style
Two Biographies Also Written in Lucid Form
Composed Plays and Opera Libretto.

Where Stein disturbs the orderly literary language of tradition, though, she does so purposefully, making points not only about language, but also about the culture of which that language is both a part and an expression. For example, Stein had an aversion to nouns, or, as she refers to the noun, "the name of anything."6 In a sharp tone she reserved for impertinent questioners at universities, Stein states the basis for her objection.

Now listen! Can't you see that when the language was new—as it was with Chaucer and Homer—the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there? … And can't you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written he could call on those words and find that they were just wornout literary words?7

Like other modernists, Stein argued that writers inherit from their literary forebears old words, tired from overuse. It is the task of the writer to restore language. For Stein, nouns represent the greatest challenge. It becomes her passion, for Stein maintains that great writing requires passion, to replace the noun. As Stein seeks models for this work, she rediscovers Walt Whitman. Here was someone who had done away with nouns. Stein writes of Whitman,

He wanted really to express the thing and not call it by its name. He wanted really wanted to express the thing and not call it by its name. He worked very hard at that, and he called it Leaves of Grass because he wanted it to be as little a well known name to be called upon passionately as possible.8

Stein takes note of Whitman, separating him from traditions of patriarchal poetry by determining that "creating it without naming it, was what broke the rigid form of the noun."9 The noun must be reconsidered.

Stein considers the overused noun as a symptom of excess in traditional literature. Each time an author applies a noun, s/he claims the right to create something by assigning to it a name. In this way, authors may employ nouns as instruments of authority.

Think of all that early poetry, think of Homer, think of Chaucer, think of the Bible and you will see what I mean you will really realize that they were drunk with nouns, to name to know how to name earth sea and sky and all that was in them was enough to make them live and love in names, and that is what poetry is it is a state of knowing and feeling a name.10

Stein links these nouns as acts of literary and religious creation. To name an object ("earth sea and sky and all that"), or assign to it an identity, is to create it. Fellow writer Anäis Nin also objected to the gender-coding of creativity (and so, generative power), whether earthly or divine, as male:

As to this "I am God," which makes creation an act of solitude and pride, this image of God alone making sky, earth, sea, it is this image which has confused woman.11

It is telling that Stein describes writers "drunk with nouns" in much the same way that she might describe one who is 'drunk with power'. The poet has the power to (re)create the world through language. Stein argues that with time's passage, however, writers have exhausted the possibilities of nouns, or names of things. Stein does not reject nouns so much as she laments the manner in which nouns become conventional through continued use, losing the freshness of meaning.

Stein's alternative to using conventional nouns requires the writer to engage passionately with objects s/he might otherwise choose to render with clichés. Only through contemplation can the writer break the habits of naming, for "slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known."12 Stein takes the overused noun, then, as a sign that a writer lacks the necessary level of engagement with subject matter. Nouns permit a writer to fall back on conventional meanings and symbolisms. They require no immediate experience of those meanings by the author. For Stein, writing instead should proceed from an intimate relationship to a subject. Explaining this difference, Stein draws on the emotion she believes to be universally experienced through love relationships. She writes, "Everybody knows that [engaged writing] by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity about whatever is the object about which he writes."13 According to Stein. love names, spontaneous and emotional, should replace traditional poetic nouns.

In this regard, Stein takes special interest in the application of nouns to people. Such nouns reduce human beings to references. She is aware of the degree to which these references tend to target specific populations on the basis of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and creed. In literature, for example, Stein notes that convention dictates that certain cultural groups be relegated to the background of one's fiction. In one instance, Stein claims (somewhat playfully), "I am afraid that I can never write the great American novel … so I have to content myself with niggers and servant girls and the foreign population generally."14 Stein's statement is no doubt a specific reference to her characters in Three Lives : the Good Anna, the Gentle Lena, and Melanctha. Despite America's claims of pluralism, when it comes to designating great literature, Stein observes that only works featuring members of the dominant group may receive consideration. It is most irregular for a work such as Three Lives to focus on three such characters and tell their life stories instead of reducing them to hidden references (in keeping with their confinement to servile and secondary positions in the world outside fiction). On the basis of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and creed, such individuals occupy the margins of an elite literary tradition. Within her own works, however, Stein frequently features those not part of the dominant population. In her letters, Stein refers to this process of shifting literary emphasis as making "foreground background."15 It is a subversive act.

Stein's objection to nouns, then, is not purely literary. As Stein reveals the sense in which these individuals (and authors who choose to write about them in this way) fall outside literature's "ideological scripts," she also uncovers the role language itself plays in their marginalization. Stein recognized that language serves the interests of those with the authority to apply language to (classify) others. The result is a political process of nomenclature, in which the powerful name the powerless. Regardless, for example, of how many racial groups exist, the privileged status of whites in the literary canon reduces all other races to non-whites, forming a binary opposition. The same is true of gender, in which case there are males and not-males; class, in which there are haves and have-nots; ethnicity, in which there are Europeans and Orientals; and religion, in which there is Christianity and everything else. Once relegated to this secondary status (not-x), an individual's characteristics blur, rendering them interchangeable with any other member of that secondary group. They are equal in their perceived inferiority. This political process of naming interested Stein early in her career. It takes a striking form, for instance, in the revisions to the manuscript of The Making of Americans. Referring to a study by Leon Katz of the manuscript sources for Stein's epic novel, Richard Bridgman argued that

By the time she was working on The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein had already become ambivalent about her Jewishness. In successive revisions, the qualification "Jewish" became, first, "German," and then "middle-class."16

Although it may be true that Gertrude Stein was "ambivalent about her Jewishness," her series of substitutions suggests how, for Stein, the categories of analysis (religion, ethnicity, and class) are interchangeable examples of the ways in which typological systems may tag groups for "oppression."17 Human complexity may be reduced to a label based on a single perceived characteristic: black, woman, Jew, lesbian, German, and the life. This particular example further demonstrates that a single individual may fit into numerous such classifications at once. (Stein herself was both a German-American and a Jewish-American.) In this way, the individual may represent a target on multiple bases. Throughout her career, then, whether writing about an "apostle of the middle class" or a "chinese christian," Stein calls attention to the embattled status of individuals on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, or religion.

One might doubt that someone of Stein's wealth, status, and eventual fame could understand or identify with society's outsiders, yet Stein did have reason to see the culture through an outsider's eyes. She was a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, an expatriate, and, due to her unconventional writing style, a self-proclaimed literary "outlaw."18 At the very least, one can say that Stein experienced anti-Semitism and homophobia firsthand. Although Stein herself does not make many references to anti-Semitism, testimony by those around her strongly suggests its influence on her life. Leo Stein, her brother, writes frequently about his own "Jew complex," or "pariah complex" which dates back to childhood in California. In an autobiographical writing, he remembers that "There were almost no Jewish families in East Oakland and most of the time I was the only Jewish boy in school."19 Gertrude Stein's memories of Oakland were probably not altogether different from her brother's. Once she went away to Cambridge, there are indications that Stein's college years, too, may have been marred with anti-Jewish sentiment. In his correspondence with Gertrude Stein, Arthur Lachman makes quips and remarks which hint at their shared experiences of anti-Semitism at Cambridge. In one such letter, Lachman writes from his new home in Eugene, Oregon, telling Stein, "My Hebraic descent is pretty generally known, as I have freely told it. There is quite a colony of your co-religionists here—I am sure you would feel quite at your ease."20 Stein also encountered objections to her lesbianism. She shared this information with Samuel Steward, who recalls the conversation:

"It bothers a lot of people," Gertrude said. "But like you said, it's nobody's business, it [the objection] came from the Judeo-Christian ethos, especially Saint Paul the bastard, but he was complaining about youngsters who were not really that way, they did it for money, everybody suspects us or knows but nobody says anything about it.21

As the above case reveals, Stein also was aware of the hostility of Catholicism to her own way of life. Stein knew very well what it was to be rejected and judged harshly by others' standards.

It was in this spirit that Stein described singer Paul Robeson as one who "knew american values and american life as only one in it but not of it could know them."22 No one knows the structure of a society better than one forced to occupy its lowest ranks ("in it but not of it"). As a black man, Robeson knew all too well. Stein, too, was aware of the inequalities in American society, such as those based on race and class, by which individuals are born into oppression. She links this caste system to one's name, noting that, "After all occupation and your name and where you were born and what your father's business was is a thing to know about any one, at least it is for me."23 Stein shares her society's curiosity about others' lineage, and acknowledges that such information often may be deduced from a name. As a result, she rebels against the tendency to emphasize the surname (or patrifocal family name), deciding that it is of "no importance."24 Instead, in keeping with her interest in religion, Stein turns to the given (or Christian) name, which she maintains still "does … denote [individual] character and career."25 Stein sees nomenclature and religion as related, for when one places faith in nomenclature, it becomes a religion. Stein writes, "Names and religion are always connected just like that. Nobody interferes between names and religion."26 She also engages in some wordplay between naming and religion, observing that religion is "Just as necessary to know … as to know your name so that you can come when you are called."27 With her pun on the word "calling," Stein suggests that both names and religion identify the individual to others.

Not only is Stein intrigued by names, but she also feels compelled to imagine what life would be like if one had a different name. In this way, Stein resists the static identity a name represents.

I do ask some, I would ask every one, I do not ask somebecause I am quite certain that they would not like me to ask it, I do ask some if they would mind it if they found out that they did not have the name they had then and had been having been born not in the family living they are then living in, if they had been born illegitimate. I ask some and I would ask every one only I am quite certain very many would not like to have me ask it if they would like it, if they would very much dislike it, if they would make a tragedy of it, if they would make a joke of it, if they found they had in them blood of some kind of a being that was a low kind to them.28

To change one's name is to change one' station. In this case, Stein asks how an individual would respond to being renamed as someone with less status ("illegitimate," "a low kind to them"). This same principle of renaming guides Stein's efforts in Four in America, a work she regarded as "the history of some one if his name had not been the name he had."29 With playful impertinence, Stein approaches the great figures of American history, subverting the authority of those great (male) names by renaming them as each other.

If Ulysses S. Grant had been a religious leader who was to become a saint what would he have done. If the Wright brothers had been artists that is painters what would they have done. If Henry James had been a general what would he have had to do. If General Washington had been a writer that is a novelist what would he do.30

This juggling of identity forms the hypothetical premise of Four in America. In an individual's name, Stein sees her/his destiny.

Typologies as Naming Processes

Stein was particularly interested in the relationship between names and character. Within her writing about human typologies, Stein discusses individual characters in terms of social categories: race, ethnicity, class, gender, and religion. Like her ideas about naming, Stein's use and subversion of human typologies must be viewed in social context. Influencing her thinking were numerous figures, among them William James, George Santayana, Hugo Münsterberg, Josiah Royce, and Otto Weininger. All five studied and sought to classify the shapes of human consciousness. Although it would not be until 1924 that America would pass the National Origins Quota Law, and not until 1926 that natural law, social Darwinism, and nativism would combine to produce such institutional results as the American Eugenics Society, efforts to explain personality and individual character already divided the nation's theorists of human nature. Even those who opposed Eugenics, its principles and practices, and its campaign for genetic character improvement, argued over the source of human temperament and character. Some sought in their findings justification for cultural stereotypes.

Into this climate of controversy, Stein introduces her typological works, her own inquiry into human identity. Stein is far from an activist, yet the implication of her texts' representations of cultural stereotypes and social inequalities forms the basis for a debate concerning the author's intentionality. While John Malcolm Brinnen finds Stein's characterization an emblem of "the struggle within character that gives character its peculiar force," and Edmund Wilson comments on Stein's "grasp of the organisms, contradictory and indissoluble, which human personalities are," other readers, including Milton Cohen and Richard Bridgman, consider this union of psychological typology and literary characterization wrong-minded, even reprehensible.31 They read Stein's typology as an endorsement of stereotypes and prejudice. However, these criticisms fail to weigh adequately Stein's critical distance from the human typologies about which she writes. In "The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans," Stein notes this distinction between typology and fact. She writes that, "Types of people I could put down but a whole human being felt at one and the same time, in other words while in the act of feeling that person was very difficult to put into words."32 At best, Stein could record a human type, a single image of the multiplicity residing within an individual. Given that Stein knew herself to be incapable of complete description, it is doubtful that she ever intended her character types to display the fullness of human complexity. To the contrary, her characters are tracings, and rather transparent ones at that, laid down to help readers imagine the difficult process by which one would assemble the layers of human identity. By critiquing her own descriptive impulses, Stein demonstrated to herself and to her readers the inadequacies of character typology. While Stein never prefaced her use of character types, she trusted that her critical perspective would be clear in the language itself. Stein writes, "I was sure that in a kind of a way the enigma of the universe could in this way be solved. That after all description is explanation.…"33 The critical debate over Stein's typological characterization raises issues regarding what Stein's descriptive typologies explain.

Typologies in Stein's writing hold political implications, but not those usually claimed by Stein's critics. By equating human beings through their "bottom nature," Stein urges a chronicle to include all of society's members, "a history of every one."34 Of The Making of Americans, a book which shares the experiments of Three Lives, Gertrude Stein reflects, "I could finally describe really describe every kind of human being that ever was or is or would be living."35 With her literary typologies, Stein suggests that any system purporting to "describe every kind of human being" must be reductive, for it deals with groups rather than individuals. Her "types" thus mock the attribution of characteristics on the basis of race, gender, religion, class, and ethnicity. Gertrude Stein's characterizations, such as those in Q.E.D., reveal the power struggles and alienating effects of human nature so defined, for in a world where others constitute the "abjectly familiar type," one feels "no need of recognizing their existence" as individuals.36

Religion as Case Study

In many of her works, Stein directs the reader's attention to typologies of religious feeling, particularly as defined by William James. Such practices are most conspicuously present during two phases of Stein's career, (1) the early period (1895-1911), represented by such familiar works as the Radcliffe Themes, The Making of Americans, and Quod Erat Demonstrandum, and (2) the less familiar period of the 1920s, represented by "Lend a Hand or Four Religions," Lucy Church Amiably, Four Saints in Three Acts, and "Patriarchal Poetry." In both phases, Stein employs religious language and ideas in ways which may be as important to the study of culture as they are to the study of literature. Stein's response to religious authority (whether that of theology, clergy, doctrine, or deity) offers a case-study in the writer's challenge to patriarchy. In the early writings, such as the Radcliffe themes, The Making of Americans, and Quod Erat Demonstrandum, Stein challenges androcentric religion, with its patriarchal and hierarchical authority structure. Stein's objections to androcentric religion temper her enthusiasm for existing faiths. While Stein's religious ideas owe much to Catholicism, even her earliest writings are openly critical of some Catholic beliefs and practices. By the 1920s, Stein meliorates this conflict, making selective use of those elements of Catholicism compatible with her own views. In her writings of the twenties, Stein goes further to reject existing religions, advocating instead an individualized, woman-identified religion in which first-hand spiritual experience becomes the individual's quest. This alternative form of religion resists the hierarchical constructions of religious faith, in which clergy mediate religious experience. In Stein's alternative spirituality, religious doctrines and rules of morality no longer suppress the individual's spirit. One goal of such quest is spiritual union, whether it be unity of self or union with another. For Stein, this symbolic surrender of the individual's will to spiritual union remains distinct from blind obedience to church dogma, because it preserves the individual's insight.

In her writings of the 1920s, such as "Patriarchal Poetry," Stein takes issue with the gendered, hierarchical, and deferential structure of literary narrative. In this piece in particular, Stein presents a treatise on women's emancipation from a literary inheritance under girded by the same gender oppression found in other acts of androcentric language. In much the way that Four Saints in Three Acts establishes parallels between the mystic and the artist, Stein conjoins these figures in "Patriarchal Poetry" to call for an alternative spiritual life and an alternative literature. Finally, Stein's alternatives to restrictive spiritual and literary traditions distinguish themselves by incorporating unabashed forms of sensuality and sexuality, forms which previously required the cloak of more traditional images of passion as religious ecstasy and Platonic love. Erotic writing, another medium for the Stein's experimentations with a non-patriarchal, woman-identified spirituality, allowed Stein to elaborate on her ideas concerning the analogies between sexual and spiritual love. Regardless of Stein's encoding of sexual meanings, many of these writings were not published until after her death. While the period from 1915-1919 proved a prolific time for Stein's erotic writing, she continued to write in this mode later in her literary career. During the twenties, she added to their number related compositions, including "A Sonatina Followed By Another" (1921), "As A Wife Has a Cow: A Love-Story" (1923), and "A Lyrical Opera Made By Two" (1928). In these works, Stein presents anything but a patriarchal view of women's sexuality, particularly as expressed among women. That is to say, Stein celebrates sex, pronounces her pleasure in sex, declares her entitlement to write about sexual love among women, expands her discussion of homosexual marriage, and pays tribute to that marriage by likening it to spiritual union. Love, as Stein represents it, is redemptive. Her erotic poetry, like her spiritual writings, open a world of women's possibilities and pleasures. With these texts, Stein begins to demonstrate what it might mean to "live and love in names" liberated from an androcentric language.


  1. Gertrude Stein, Four in America, v-vi.
  2. Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, 54.
  3. Gertrude Stein, quoted in Thornton Wilder's "Introduction" to Four in America, xi.
  4. Gertrude Stein, Useful Knowledge, 108.
  5. New York Times, July 28, 1946, 40.
  6. Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, 233.
  7. Gertrude Stein, Four in America, v-vi.
  8. Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, 241.
  9. Ibid. 237.
  10. Ibid. 233. Note that within this passage, Stein regards the Bible primarily as a work of literature. She does the same in Lecture 2 of Narration.
  11. Anäis Nin quoted in Sandra Gilbert, "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey." PMLA 93 (1978): 368.
  12. Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, 210.
  13. Ibid. 210.
  14. George Knox, "The Great American Novel: Final Chapter." American Quarterly 21:4 (Winter 1969): 679.
  15. Gertrude Stein to Carl Van Vechten, August 1923, reprinted in Edward Burns, ed., The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, 1913-1946 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) 87.
  16. Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces, 161.
  17. Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably, 101.
  18. Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation, 8-9.
  19. Leo Stein, Journey Into the Self [Being the Letters, Papers and Journals of Leo Stein (New York: Crown Publishers, 1950)]:, 175, 199.
  20. Arthur Lachman to Gertrude Stein, Dec. 21, 1897, YCAL.
  21. Samuel Steward, ed. Dear Sammy, 55.
  22. Gertrude Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 292.
  23. Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography, 204.
  24. Gertrude Stein, Four in America, 3.
  25. Ibid. 7.
  26. Gertrude Stein, Four in America, 7.
  27. Gertrude Stein, Geographical History of America, 29.
  28. Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, 351.
  29. Gertrude Stein, Narration, 28-29.
  30. Gertrude Stein, Four in America, 2.
  31. John Malcolm Brinnen, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1959) 60; Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931) 238; Milton A. Cohen, "Black Brutes and Mulatto Saints: The Racial Hierarchy of Stein's 'Melanctha,' "Black American Literature Forum 18:3 (Fall 1954): 119-121, and Richard Bridgman, Gertrude Stein in Pieces. Cohen contends that the characterizations of "Melanctha," for example, were "tainted by cultural bias" consistent with the vast cultural chasm dividing middle-class, white medical students [such as Stein] from the poor blacks they treated [here, the fictional Melanctha]." (119); Cohen also cited Richard Bridgman's contention of Stein's bigotry, that Three Lives "swarms with clichés about the happy, promiscuous, razor-fighting, church-going darky." This issue has resurfaced with the publication of Sonia Salvidar-Hull's "Wrestling Your Ally: Stein, Racism, and Feminist Critical Practice," in Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, eds., Women Writing in Exile (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) 181-198.
  32. Gertrude Stein, "The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans," reprinted in Meyerowitz, ed., Writings and Lectures, 88.
  33. Ibid. 86.
  34. Stein writes, "always this comes to be clear about them, the history of them of the bottom nature in them, the nature of natures mixed up in them to make the whole of them in anyway it mixes up in them. Sometime then there will be a history of every one." Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, reprinted in Meyerowitz, ed., Writings and Lectures, 84.
  35. Ibid. 127.
  36. Gertrude Stein, Early Writings, 53.


Manuscript Sources

Gertrude Stein Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Selected Publications By Gertrude Stein

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Vintage Books, 1933, 1961.

Composition As Explanation. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1928.

Everybody's Autobiography. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1971.

Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings. Introduction by Leon Katz. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1971.

Four in America. Introduction by Thornton Wilder. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1947.

Four Saints in Three Acts. New York: The Modern Library, 1934.

The Geographical History of America or The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind. Intro. by Thornton Wilder. New York: Random House, 1936.

Lectures in America. New York: Random House, 1935.

Lucy Church Amiably. Paris: Imprimerie "Union," 1930.

The Making of Americans: The Hersland Family. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934.

Narration: Four Lectures by Gertrude Stein. intro. by Thornton Wilder. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935.

Useful Knowledge. New York: Payson and Clarke Ltd., 1928.

Publications Treating Gertrude Stein

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Brinnen, John Malcolm. The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959.

Meyerowitz, Patricia, ed. Gertrude Stein: Writings and Lectures, 1911-1945. Intro. by Elizabeth Sprigge. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1967.

Steward, Samuel. ed. Dear Sammy: Letters From Gertrude Stein. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977.

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