Tender Buttons

Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” (1914) offers “studies in description” of objects, in which, as in cubist still life, the object being described seems to be veiled by the medium of description. In the cubism of Picasso and Braque, the veils were the planes into which the painter broke up the canvas. In Stein’s writing, as Marjorie Perloff has shown, words themselves make abstract patterns that seem to stand in the way of their descriptive or referential functions. Stein’s first object is “A carafe, that is 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 not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading."

Perloff writes that in descriptions like this one, objects “not only are fragmented and decomposed as they are in cubist still-life; they also serve as false leads, forcing the reader to consider the very nature of naming.”[1] They thus call attention to the process of recognizing an object and to the role of language in that process. In this respect, Stein anticipated the development of dada.[2]

  1. Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univesrity Press, 1999), p. 102.
  2. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 104