Sunday, May 25, 2014

‘Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition’ (Book Review)

When we think of critical texts, the New Testament most often comes to mind. However, any piece of literature can potentially benefit from scholarly analysis and reconstruction to achieve as close as possible what the author originally intended. Seth Perlow has done exactly this with Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition (City Lights Books, 2014), a new printing of Gertrude Stein’s famous collection of prose. At his disposal were the original manuscript, the first printed edition, and two separate sets of the author’s handwritten corrections. The result is a critical edition that can be appealing to scholars and layreaders alike. There are no messy brackets and footnotes to disturb your reading, yet toward the end of the book, inquisitive readers will find sample facsimiles, a brief word from the editor, and a “List of Variances” that references alternative readings.

You will also notice that this edition is fairly free from interpretation. There’s no introduction, footnotes, or the like to guide your reading. Contemporary poet Juliana Spahr does contribute an essay that touches on the history of interpreting Stein’s works, along with some references suitable for future research. However, being an afterward, it is conveniently located at the end, giving the impression that it’s not to take away from the reader’s initial contact with the work.

Now, you’ve probably concluded that I’m well-satisfied with this edition. But what about the book in and of itself? That’s a different story. Not being familiar with modern literature styles, I was out of my element reading Tender Buttons. Scholars have debated as to how to understand Stein’s writing in light of her feminism, lesbianism, and controversial politics. In the section titled “Rooms,” I noticed some parts that introduced ideas about gender and sex, but I didn’t get a sense that those subjects dominated. Stein is also noted for her role in the development of Cubism, bringing a multiple perspective or multi-dimensional approach to literature as Pablo Picasso did to painting. In the “Objects” section, I could sense this cubist sort of style in “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass” and “A Red Hat,” which made me think I was on the right track. In general, however, I can’t say I really get it. In the afterward, Spahr mentions that some have speculated whether or not Gertrude Stein was stoned when she wrote Tender Buttons. If that’s the case, maybe her poems were never meant to be understood.

Disclaimer: I received this copy of Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.