Gertrude Stein Gives Me Tremendous Anxiety and I Love Her For it

M24554-16 001“What is the answer? In that case, what is the question?”

I would like to talk about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, but in order to do that we must first take a step back and discuss the light, the context, in which is best to regard Stein and her work. Trust me.  It’s a necessary step when addressing this book because to understand Stein, one must consider the climate of the artistic world that surrounded her.

Gertrude Stein was an American writer who moved to Paris in 1903, and remained in France for the remainder of her life.  She hosted a Paris salon where the leading figures of modernism in art and literature would meet, such as Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald (of the F. Scott variety), and Matisse.

picasso-violin-255x300Cubism: where objects are analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstract form with multiple viewpoints to represent the greater context

Stein said, “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cezanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition. Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but which was not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing.” (I swiped that quote from a PowerPoint slide in my American Literature II class – thanks, Dr. Cassel 😉 )

So when reading Gertrude Stein, don’t get caught up in the meanings of the words she uses, and instead consider her words like paint being applied to a cubist image. Each bit of paint has a purpose, but it may not necessarily be your traditional understanding of that image. Got it?  I’m sure you do. Here we go.

Here is a small poem from Tender Buttons:
Mildred’s Umbrella

A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.

Still with me? Yeah.  See what I mean?  Good Lord.  I hope you aren’t trying to read this under the influence.  I can’t really tell you not to, though, as I sit at the computer in my own state of giddy intoxication.  I am many things, but a hypocrite is not one of them.

As I said earlier, one must not consider Stein’s poem as a whole.  To do so while assigning traditional sense to the words she uses makes it disjointed, repetitive, and perhaps even nonsense. It reads like a stream of consciousness. As a lifelong voracious reader, how am I supposed to read Stein’s words without allowing them their meaning? My chest hurts, this suddenly feels like a Mad Lib.

When first unpacking this piece, the first thing that came to my mind was an automobile. In the early 1900’s, Ford’s Model T automobile was indeed a “sign of extra” and most definitely an “established color,” as Henry Ford himself is quotes as saying, Any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants so long as it is black.”  Then, the poem’s “no curve” and “extra loud clash” potentially becomes about a car accident. That would indeed be a great loss, potentially in more ways than one.

In contrast, a friend felt it was about the expatriates’ sentiments of the time period that they could not express themselves in art and literature the way they wanted in America, and this constant clash is why they moved to France. To move from your country would indeed be a great loss, and great restitution.

Or, perhaps the lack of curve means that the umbrella won’t open, even though there is cause to open it. Why won’t this Mildred open it? Has she lost it? What if she thwarted a robbery, and busted it over the head of a seedy villain, and it is now stuck? Are there zombies?

Okay, I acknowledge I went too far on that last bit.

 The amazing aspect of art is that neither of us are wrong, excluding the bit about the zombies.
The most beautiful thing about literature and art is that cliche of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.  Writer and director Joss Whedon says, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend.  Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid.  It grows up and talks back to you.” Regardless of a writer’s or painter’s intent, everyone has their own interpretation of the piece that has been drawn from their own experiences, emotions, and lifestyles.

You should give more poems from Tender Buttons a chance.  I was intimidated and very put off at first when I tried reading this book, but now that I understand the light that it must be read, I am enjoying it significantly more. Gertrude Stein is a fascinating woman, and if they decide to make a Biopic about her extraordinary life I nominate Tom Wilkinson for the role.


Hands – Sherwood Anderson


“You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams.  You want to be like others in town here.  You hear them talk and you try to imitate them….You must forget all you have learned.  You must begin to dream.  From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

I feel so terribly sorry for Wing Biddlebaum.  His story is nothing but alienation, fear, isolation, and loneliness.  Biddlebaum lives alone on the outskirts of town, and  he “did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.”

Before moving to Winesburg, Ohio, Wing was a school teacher.  He was wrongly accused of touching his students inappropriately.  He was beaten, and driven from the town by a mob in the night.  It is because of these very accusations that Wing lives his life in isolation.  Wing feels there must be something about his hands that are to blame for what happened, because as he was beaten the child’s father roared, “Keep your hands to yourself.”

Symbolically, hands are used as tools to express oneself.  But because of the nature of the accusations against Wing, he spends the majority of his time confining his hands to his pockets. By doing so, Wing is unable to express himself which in turn may suggest his inability to connect with others and the narrator likens his hands to “the beating wings of an imprisoned bird.”

I read a separate article about this short story a while ago, and I cannot seem to find it again to share.  But the author raised an interesting point about the final paragraph and its religious imagery that I had not considered.  The author argues that even though Wing has been misunderstood by others, his hands are not an expression of evil or of something dark but rather they are simply his tools for communicating with others and expressing love – not unlike someone devout in faith utilizing the rosary to communicate and express affection to God. I wish I could find that article again, it was very interesting.

The Souls of Black Folk – W.E.B. Du Bois

dubois“One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays by W.E.B. Du Bois, is a cornerstone of African-American literary history that explores the concept of double consciousness. Within these essays, Du Bois attempts to show what the Emancipation meant to African-Americans, and what it has been like to live in the aftermath.

I am particularly fascinated by Du Bois’ use of the Veil, which is a manifestation of the Color Line.  It gives the reader a glimpse of the African-American world in which economic, political, and social opportunities are so vastly different from those of the white community.

Each chapter begins with  text from a poem, usually by a European poet, and the musical bars of Sorrow Songs, which Du Bois describes as, “some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past.” I found this to be a particularly poignant element.  It elicits an emotional response that Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, which I read simultaneously, simply does not reproduce.

Du Bois actually addresses Washington’s rhetoric in chapter 3, as he vehemently disagrees with Washington, who urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity. Du Bois begins the chapter about Washington with an epitaph, just as he does all of the other chapters.  This one begins with a quote from Byron:

“From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”

Du Bois, who helped found the NAACP, argued for establishing the education of black men beyond industrial skills and manual labor as Washington’s theory would only serve to perpetuate white oppression.  He closes the chapter by saying, “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce is a relatively short story, divided into three sections, that centers on Peyton Farquhar.  Farquhar is a southern slave owner from a highly regarded Alabama family. Though he was previously unable to join the military, he still dreams of the honor and glory that he associates with the Confederacy. When he receives word from a Confederate soldier (who turns out to be a Northern agent in disguise) that Northern forces had repaired the railroads in anticipation of launching another advance, Farquhar jumps at the chance to serve by sabotaging Owl Creek Bridge.

Farquhar’s wife is the quintessential embodiment of domestic comfort – kind, loving, innocent, and subservient to her husband. And, as Farquhar nears the end of his life, he uses her and their children as devices for comfort. I can’t help but be slightly annoyed by Farquhar, if I’m being honest.  His actions seem purely selfish.  As Bierce himself describes him, “he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.” He is not motivated by the thought that he is doing the right thing, he is in it for the glory and the excitement and gives little thought to how his actions will affect his family and their future, until he is going to die.

I really enjoyed how time felt fluid in this short work.  It begins with Northern forces as they prepare to hang Peyton Farquar for attempting to sabotage their advances. The reader then follows Farquar’s thoughts back to how he came to meet his impending demise.

I won’t ruin the ending for those who have not read it, though I highly suggest you do so – it would make for a badass episode of The Twilight Zone.

Oh, wait…



I Owe Michael Flynn Five Dollars


While I was at the book store last week, I picked up a sci-fi book called The January Dancer by Michael Flynn for $2.95. I had never heard of Flynn (who happens to be a Hugo Award finalist as well as Robert A. Heinlein Award–winning author) but for three bucks at the time how could I not give it a shot?

In bar on a world named Jehovah, a scarred man recounts a story for a minstrel who hopes to compose music from it. The tale begins with Amos January and his crew of The New Angeles as they unearth ancient “prehuman” artifacts while searching for materials to repair their ship.  They eventually manage to escape the planet with a single relic; some call it “The Slipstone” while others dub it “The Dancer” due to the fact that it seems to move and change shape while no one is watching.

The book is classic space opera at its core, yet also manages to be so much more than that. Deft and poetic prose made me feel like I was reading a fantasy novel, while the extra dimension of the conversations between the scarred man and the minstrel enriches the ambiance of the story and adds great texture.

Even more interesting than the narration itself is the comprehensive exposition of the worlds and cultures that exist along The Rift.  Flynn provides extensive paragraphs describing these cultures, yet not once does it feel like an info-dump or tedious essay.

What once felt like a bargain suddenly feels like theft upon completion of the novel; I sincerely believe the author deserves every penny of the full retail price for this book.  So thank you, Michael Flynn, for such an entertaining read-and if I ever run into you on the street, I owe you five dollars.

“Everything in the universe is older than it seems. Blame Einstein for that. We see what a thing was when the light left it, and that was long ago. Nothing in the night sky is contemporary, not to us, not to one another. Ancient stars explode into ruin before their sparkle ever caught our eyes; those glimpsed in glowing “nurseries” were crones before we witnessed their birth. Everything we marvel at is already gone.” The January Dancer