‘Perfectly Unprecedented Arrangements’: Tender Buttons

  • Jane Palatini Bowers
Part of the Women Writers book series (WW)


Written between 1911 and 1914 and divided into three sections — ‘Objects’, ‘Food’ and ‘Rooms’1Tender Buttons is a slim volume of prose poems, which Stein later called verbal ‘still lifes’.2 Other of Stein’s works have received a greater quantity of critical attention (Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in particular), but none has provoked more imaginative — even fevered — interpretive activity than Tender Buttons. Because Tender Buttons is so full of interpretive clues, many readers, trained by years of symbol hunting, dutifully play detective, beginning with the question ‘What is this about?’, assembling the various clues into an interpretive system and arriving, finally, at the ‘meaning’ of the text.


Lexical Meaning Repeat Instruction Interpretive System Roast Beef Single Mind 
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  1. 3.
    Allegra Stewart, Gertrude Stein and the Present (Harvard University Press, 1967);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Pamela Hadas, ‘Spreading the Difference: One Way to Read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons’, Twentieth Century Literature 24, I (Spring 1978) 57–75;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Doris Wright, ‘Woman as Eros-Rose in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Contemporaneous Portraits’, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 74 (1986) 34–40;Google Scholar
  4. Catharine R. Stimpson, ‘The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein’, in Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, ed. Michael J. Hoffman (G.K. Hall, 1986), pp. 183–196; Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank, pp. 161–2;Google Scholar
  5. Neil Schmitz, Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 162–199;Google Scholar
  6. William Gass, ‘Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language’, in Fictions and the Figures of Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), pp. 79–96.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    Barbara Hernnstein Smith, ‘Contingencies of Value’, in Canons, ed. Robert von Hallberg (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 17. Smith’s comments about classification, function and value appear in an essay concerned with canonical and non-canonical texts and with the system of literary evaluation by which the canon is established and questioned. Her central point is that literary value is mutable, diverse (14) and ‘radically contingent’ (18). I believe that Tender Buttons makes a similar ‘point’ and that it ‘argues’ implicitly for a system of classification in which a text like Tender Buttons would have value in spite of the fact that it does not serve the same function as an ode by John Keats, for example.Google Scholar

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© Jane Palatini Bowers 1993

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  • Jane Palatini Bowers

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