Three Lives and Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

I have this Digireads edition, see

I’m cheating a touch, because I read Three Lives some time ago. But it is bound with Tender Buttons in my edition and I’m going to write about them together. It is my hope that my writing about two Stein conundrums will distract you from the fact that I’m confused.

I found some unexpected free time one evening, and knew that I had reading commitments to fulfill, so I didn’t want to start anything of any significant length. I’ll try Tender Buttons, I thought. It’s all of 30 pages, I thought, how hard could it be? HA! Maybe I should have turned back to one of the stories out of The Things They Carried or a chapter of This Book Is Overdue! Either one of those would have been easier options.

So my interest in Gertrude Stein is entirely born of my intense interest in Ernest Hemingway. As we know, Stein was an early friend and mentor, with whom his relationship later soured; he greatly admired, then denigrated, her work, which is famously… er, unique.

When I read Three Lives I was a bit dismayed at my failure to appreciate it. I didn’t find it as difficult as Faulkner, thank goodness, but she certainly doesn’t follow anyone’s model structure for story-telling. Three Lives is made up of three novella-style life stories, of three women in a fictional small town. Their stories don’t go anywhere particular, nor do they join for any greater purpose, although they are evocative and poignant in their moments. I suppose they are vignettes, and well-done at times in their own way; but unorthodox and a little unsettling.

Tender Buttons is a wholly different proposition. It’s a long free-verse poem of sorts, presented sort of as a series of descriptions or discussions of random nouns. For example.

What was the use of not leaving it there where it would hang what was the use if there was no chance of ever seeing it come there and show that it was handsome and right in the way it showed it. The lesson is to learn that it does show it, that it shows it and that nothing, that there is nothing, that there is no more to do about it and just so much more is there plenty of reason for making an exchange.


Enthusiastically hurting a clouded yellow bud and saucer, enthusiastically so is the bite in the ribbon.

At first this bothered me very much, because I was trying to make sense of it. Her sentences are not sentences; they do not seem to have meaning, or if they do, I am too dense to find it. Unlike the poetry I am familiar with (and I’m no scholar of poetry, but I have read some, and even free-verse generally has some structure – some clues as to how to read it, like line breaks or, hello, punctuation!), there is no guide for where the natural breaks are in language – where a person would draw breath when reading aloud, for instance. (I tried reading this out loud to the Husband while he worked on our deck and he was NOT tolerant.)

But then I decided that Gertrude Stein’s poetry is like Cirque du Soleil or Cats, in that there is no plot or point to speak of, but there is poetry. Read Tender Buttons aloud; it makes music. This is the best way that I can find to appreciate Stein. She is a challenge, make no mistake. And perhaps there is great depth of meaning and I’m missing it because I’m simple. If so, please do comment here, being gentle and kind about it, and explain what I’ve missed. I’m willing to make an effort to appreciate Stein, for Papa’s sake (unlike Faulkner, who I’ve given up on, I think) but she does require an effort. On the other hand, with effort, I find Tender Buttons an intriguing puzzle and it does stimulate and entertain me; just not in the way I usually expect books to do!

I am claiming this one for credit in the Classics Challenge. I think I’ve earned it. Please don’t make me write a book report as I remain a little baffled. But, I’m also excited at the prospect of reading Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives (a biography of Stein and her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas. notice the play on Stein’s Three Lives), which has patiently resided on my shelf for years now. Look for that one to come. Perhaps Ms. Malcolm will help me understand Ms. Stein!

6 Responses

  1. […] Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein […]

  2. […] book with jewelry or a gem in the title: I would like to get away with Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein but fear that might be stretching things a […]

  3. […] book with jewelry or a gem in the title: I wanted to get away with Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein but thought that might be stretching things a bit. So I finally came up with Ruby […]

  4. […] loved Shel Silverstein as a child, and Homer a little later, and not much else. (Stein’s Tender Buttons tried to kill me.) But I try to keep an open mind. I like what little e.e. cummings and Silvia […]

  5. […] Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein […]

  6. […] he first quoted Gertrude Stein, and I thought, aha! that is my problem here: there is too much of the Stein […]

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