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The difference is spreading.

November 16, 2009


Facsimile of page one of "Objects," from the edition of 1914.


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.

This prose poem—if that is what we are to call it—opens Gertrude Stein‘s 1914 volume Tender Buttons, and also the section therein called “Objects,” the second and third sections being titled “Food” and “Rooms.” These categories, together with the vocabulary of much of the first section of the book, the items of which bear titles including such words as: carafe, cushions, and coffee; umbrellas, stamps, and seltzer water; hats, coats, and dresses; a piano; chairs and tables; purses, shawls and petticoats; cups, saucers, and plates; jargon associated with cleaning, washing, and polishing;—as I say, these “categories” (objects, food, rooms) and the vocabulary used to refer to them all suggest a “domestic,” and feminine, context. They locate us there, and in that gender, even as they mix us up. The language is eccentric to the point of forming an idiolect. It is at once utterly familiar—most all of the entries in “Objects” may be read quite fluently, as they are by Cori Samuel, whose whose voice knows what to do with them—and also de-familiarizing. De-familiarizing in the way meaning works within and against grammar chiefly, but in other ways as well. Stein writes in an idiom, and in tones of voice, at once publicly available, even cordial, and yet she remains inscrutably private in what one of the entries in “Objects” calls a “perfectly unprecedented arrangement between old ladies.” These ladies let us in, but not really in. Some readers considered the book a kind of hoax when it first appeared. But no one reads it that way any longer so far as I can tell. I think I am correct in calling it the book by Stein most favored by non-specialists, and even by many specialists. Tender Buttons charms us.

Detail, cover of the 1914 first edition.

Detail, cover of the first edition.

First, we have to deal with the title: Tender Buttons. From the 16th down through the mid 19th century, reports the O.E.D., the word “button” could mean “a bud; also used of various other parts of plants of a similar shape, as the protuberant receptacle of the rose; the small round flower-head of some Compositæ; a small sort of fig; a small round seed-vessel,” as in the following instances, cited by the O.E.D.: “1578: Alongst the braunches [of wormwood] groweth little yellow buttons.” And: “1872: The simple flowerets open their infant buttons.” The O.E.D. tells us also that the word was used, chiefly in the 16th and 17th centuries, “as the popular name of many different plants having button-like flowers.” Doubtless Stein knew these meanings. Neil Schmitz, a fine reader of the book, suggests a sort of pun in the title, making of it a gentle imperative, offered in what he rightly calls a spirit of “gaiety”: “Tend her buttons.” Where “button” means “bud,” and where “bud,” of course, suggests an element of the (female) genitalia. A “button” is also a thing one presses, in contexts more or less mechanical, but here in contexts tender, perhaps in a bodily way. “Tender” also means both “to give” and “sensitive,” is both verb and adjective.


Stein, photograph by Carl van Vechten

In short, no inconsiderable wordplay—no inconsiderable play—begins even before one opens the book and reads the item reprinted above: “A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.” Which now we shall do. First, to indicate how easily the thing can be read aloud, I make bold to re-punctuate it: “A carafe—that is [to say], a blind glass. 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 [yet it is] not ordinary, not unordered in [its] not resembling [anything]. The difference is spreading.” A carafe is, of course, a type of “glass,” and, moreover, not the sort of glass that either sees—no glass does, except, perhaps, a “looking glass”—or that is used to see with. So there is really nothing nonsensical in calling our carafe “blind,” even if what it contains—a good Bordeaux, say—may open our eyes, convivially. And the “that is” of the title, if we take it as appositive in function, as I do above, introduces the idea of likening things, of equating things, of restating things in other terms. Which notion eases us into the first phrase: “A kind in glass and a cousin.” “Kind” is a noun here, related to the word “kin,” which latter meaning the subsequent word “cousin” further awakens. And yet the not at all “strange” “spectacle” next spoken of brings the word “glass” back into its “optical” orbits, let’s say: spectacles are either things looked at, or looked through. You might suppose “spectacles” in the former sense to be “strange,” or at least often strange. So “nothing strange” sorts rather oddly with the later assertion that “all this,” whatever “this” may be, is “not ordinary”—is, then, extraordinary. Like Tender Buttons.


Title page, edition of 1914.

But what of that “hurt color”? I know of people whom colors can “hurt,” but it is a very “tender” and sympathetic sensibility indeed that can feel the pain of a “color,” all the more so for the color’s “singularity.” Whatever is at issue here, Stein speaks as though she is exacting about it. (Who knows? Perhaps the proper context for the phrase “a single hurt color” is the painterly one Stein inhabited, with Picasso and all the rest: they could probably tell us when  and where someone “hurts” a color, or even abuses it.) And isn’t that the main thing in this book, as I hinted above, to intimate at once both precision and vagary, exactitude and vagueness, familiarity and alienation, the domestic and the strange? Anyway, Stein speaks of a single hurt color, and of “an arrangement in a system to pointing.” Arrangements and systems are close “kin,” of course, alike in “kind”: cohabiting cousins. And “systems” and “arrangements” do tend to “point,” don’t they? In any case, they are indexes of something “not unordered.” That much we can say for sure. And yet, and yet—this “not unordered” “arrangement” is “not unordered in [its] not resembling.” Which is to say what? That the “non-resemblance” of carafes, glass(es), spectacles, “single hurt colors”—that all of these have been ordered here so as to “resemble” nothing—cousin-ship, mirroring, and “kinds” notwithstanding? Well, so it is: “The difference is spreading.”

N.B.: As I pointed out above, Cori Samuel has done a fine recording of Tender Buttons for Librivox, which is available both above, where first I mention Ms. Samuel, and here. For the complete text of the book at Project Gutenberg, click here. And for the pages devoted to Stein at the Modern American Poetry site, click here. For a down-loadable facsimile of the first edition of of Tender Buttons (1914), click here.

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