i love gertrude stein because i am a good feminist

Tender Buttons: Objects by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) lived her life as an American in Paris, as was constantly aware of the impact that perspective had on her ability to write about American (from Europe) or Europe (as an American). She was born to a German-Jewish immigrant family in Pennsylvania, but lived many places before settling in France in 1903. She graduated from Harvard in the 1890s and went on to John Hopkins University’s medical school, but she left there within one month of completing her M.D. Stein was very close to her brother Leo, and the two even lived together in France, but he didn’t respect her work and was basically replaced in her life when she met Alice B. Toklas. Toklas would become Stein’s lifelong lover, confidante, companion, editor, and muse. The two women were part of a wide and cosmopolitan social circle, from Picasso onwards. Stein wrote critical theory and philosophy, as well as experimental poetry and prose. She was a mentor to Hemingway and many other expat Americans of the modern age. Her writing is a testament to her lifelong effort to show how the human mind perceives, orders, and reflects on the interwoven world of the animate and the inanimate. Most importantly, however, was Stein’s clear concept of what it meant to be a female writer of such renown in the male-dominated field of literature. From the Heath Anthology, which puts it far more eloquently than could I: “The attention given to her experiments in form and language during Stein’s life have long obscured her major contribution to our understanding of domesticity, female culture, myths about women, the social world in which women function, and what it means in the twentieth century to intentionally create art that is not patriarchal.”

In fact, the most striking thing about Tender Buttons: Objects (1914) is the obvious way Stein avoids a “masculine” linearity of focus. A does not follow B, either from sentence to sentence or within a single thought. The language is flowing and circular. It is intentionally non-phallic, not following a specific linear determination but instead winding through life experience and feeling. It evokes emotion at every turn, and speaks to female experiences. Does a callous harden, she asks, or soften, when women are allowed to join the workforce? Her words are sensual and intentionally of the body; they are rooted in felt experiences. She allows her wordplay to centre on the female reality of the time — customs and conventions of laundering, for example, become a place to frame a discussion of customs and convention in larger society, all cloaked under a supposedly female thing. Indeed, the whole purpose of Tender Buttons is to redefine words within a largely feminine context. Stein believed that the meaning of words had become muddied over time (much like Pound’s “diction” precept), and in this poem (prose-poem? i have no idea) she redefines overused words in terms of their experiential reality. For example, “A Purse” becomes a real and tangible object, specific and detailed, rather than a vague definition stretched over too many objects.

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