Gertrude Stein and Moral Rightness - Karren LaLonde Alenier - Scene4 Magazine Special Issue - July 2014

Karren LaLonde Alenier


July 2014

Justice: the principle of moral rightness, conformity to moral rightness in action and attitude, upholding what is fair, equity.

Justice, a problem Gertrude Stein faced every day of her life.

As a child, Stein learned early that life was not fair. She and her next oldest brother Leo were replacement children after two other siblings had died in their infancy. Her parents wanted exactly five children. This was the justice of survival of the fittest.

As a young adult, Stein was played by a woman with whom she had an affair. May Bookstaver was merely experimenting with relationships, but Gertrude Stein had fallen in love. Bookstaver left Stein for a man she then married. At the turn of twentieth century, one could say that Bookstaver's action adhered to the principle of moral rightness. Same sex couples were not legally tolerated in the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

As a graduated student enrolled in medical school, Stein was subjected to the prejudices of her male professors. As a woman, Stein was not equal to her male counterparts. This lack of support, coupled with the disappointment of losing Bookstaver, made Stein throw away four years of medical school studies in favor of moving to Paris to become a writer.

As a writer intent upon following the wisdom of her Harvard professor William James such that to be genius one had to separate from the habitual, Stein stepped far outside the boundaries of familiar literary writing. Therefore, the novella (about a Black middle-class woman) "Melanctha," from her first published book Three Lives, with its emphasis on race, sex, gender, and female health as well as its unusual repetition, set the course for lifelong negativity from professional and casual critics who were unable and/or unwilling to appreciate what she wrote. Her lack of conformity to the standards of the day set her apart. The white male dominated world was biased against women and African Americans who not so long ago were released from slavery. The rules and standards makers also quashed public discussion of sex, gender, and female health issues. As documented by Brenda Wineapple in Sister Brother: Gertrude & Leo Stein, even some of Stein's friends said "Melanctha" was indecent.

So what does a writer do with such a history of injustices? She writes a book in code. That book was the long poem Tender Buttons, which was published 100 years ago in 1914. Here's this writer's introductory tour of section 1 "Objects" to illustrate how Stein's work deals with her set of injustices.


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.

The opening subpoem "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass." with words like cousin, kind (think child as in the German word kind), and resembling seems to suggest a familial beginning. The shape of a carafe and blind glass suggest vessels that could be the womb, especially because of the hurt color. Spectacle might refer to a live birth, something Stein was familiar with as student studying medicine. She had witnessed, if not assisted, in the birth of babies in Baltimore's Black community. One could speculate that Stein is addressing her own birth and the justice that she was born at all.

Subpoem 2 "Glazed Glitter." establishes that Stein has made a change from her career in medicine—"There is no gratitude in mercy and medicine." For women studying to be doctors, there was no justice either. Subpoem 3 "A Substance In A Cushion." Shows transition, that the change of career path contains an element of philosophic direction as well as something clandestine that is making the narrator happy—

"Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them."

"What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude."

The table and chairs, as they are used in the discussion of what is reality, provides a base for the domestic life of writing that Stein elected. She is the raucous child (violent kind) filled with joy who is thinking through the life she has chosen. But something more than her choice is making her happy and at first the reader gets hints with words like "substance in a cushion," "top to covering," "dearer" and "resolved on returning gratitude." The nine stanzas comprising "A Substance In A Cushion." seem to be Stein's dark night of the soul opening into the sweetness of pillow talk—this is Stein, in code, introducing Alice B. Toklas, the woman she has already married. This is Stein's substance in a cushion, the partner who will shield the writer from those who would stop her.

Why did Stein write in code? The story of Oscar Wilde's imprisonment in 1895 for the crimes of sodomy and gross indecency cast a long shadow even in Paris, which was known for looking the other way regarding sexual behavior. Despite having no prohibition of sodomy since the first French Revolution when its Penal Code of 1791 made no mention of private same-sex relations, homosexual behavior and also cross-dressing were considered immoral and those transgressing such standards were harassed by various laws dealing with public morality.  In a decidedly abstract way, Stein seems to grapple with such a large problem in subpoem 4 "A Box.".


Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

Stein refuses to conform—"So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing" but she understands that she will be judged for choosing Alice—"it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely."

An initial reading of the seven stanzas of "A Piece Of Coffee.", subpoem 5, seems particularly enigmatic, but less so as one accrues experience reading further into Section 1 "Objects." While Alice Toklas seems to be the raison d'être for Tender Buttons, writing in all its aspects seems to be the modus operandi of this work and the first significant manifestation of this theme appears in "A Piece Of Coffee.". One might say that Stein intertwines her love for Alice and her love for writing into one package because she is seeking justice for both. Stein plays with doubles in this subpoem, such that one might think of typing as the double to Stein's handwritten drafts. Stein's working M.O. entailed writing at night and handing over her draft to Toklas to type in the morning. Stanza three declares that "A single image is not splendor," which seems to indicate that the ideal is two, as in a couple, such as Stein and Toklas.

While this subpoem yields such writerly words as image, sign, message, case, illusion, illustration, ribbon, something else is going on as well and it may be that Stein is cleaning house, the house that included room for the writer's first love May Bookstaver (thanks to Eleanor Smagarinsky for associating the proliferation of the word may with the failed love affair): "Very nicely may not be exaggerating. Very strongly may be sincerely fainting. May be strangely flattering. May not be strange in everything. May not be strange to." The combination of may and may not, suggests that Stein, in a code that even Alice Toklas did not recognize, was debating canceling her obsession with May Bookstaver in favor of a substance in a cushion.

The article "A" seems to proliferate throughout Tender Buttons, especially in subpoem titles. One might assume this proliferation of  "A"'s points to Alice. Within this subpoem, "A" appears 17 times. In the last sentences of "A Piece Of Coffee." dominated by the word maymay occurs five times, the article "A" is no where to be seen.

Section 1 "Objects" contains 58 subpoems that wax and wane in treating the related subjects of justice, morality, criminal acts (e.g. subpoem 18 "A Chair." seems to touch the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), and patriarchal dictates (e.g. subpoem 37 "A Time To Eat." conjures both Stein's father Daniel who was a heavy-handed head of the family with decided thoughts on eating, education, and articulation—"A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation" and Stein's brother Leo who was both traumatized and influenced by their father.) Even the last subpoem, "This Is This Dress, Aider.", which is a difficult abstract and contains the antiquated word whow (a variant of how), seems to point to people (king) and actions (stop, kill) related to justice or a breach of justice.


Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers.

A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let.

If one assumes aider is Alice (Stein would also call Alice Ada in a love story that Stein wrote in 1910), and/or that aider is one who aids or gives help, then this last segment of "Objects" where Stein seems distressed (my Tender Buttons study partner Peter Treanor hears the title as "This Is Distress, Aider/Ada/Alice.") is a call for help against the injustice of those who devour (the munchers). And Stein's insistent repetition of muncher might point to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch known for his paintings The Scream (Munch painted four versions of this work between 1893 and 1910, spent time in Paris, and knew painters like Lautrec and Gauguin, which probably means Gertrude and Leo Stein who collected art knew about Munch and his work).

Experts on Stein call Tender Buttons, one of a kind. This is the work that establishes Stein as literary innovator without equal but it is also where she builds a case about what is just in the world.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren AlenierKarren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She also writes a monthly column in Scene4
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