Tender Buttons is a 1914 book by American writer Gertrude Stein consisting of three sections titled "Objects", "Food", and "Rooms". While the short book consists of multiple poems covering the everyday mundane, Stein's experimental use of language renders the poems unorthodox and their subjects unfamiliar.
Stein began composition of the book in 1912 with multiple short prose poems in an effort to "create a word relationship between the word and the things seen" using a "realist" perspective. She then published it in three sections as her second book in 1914.
Tender Buttons has provoked divided critical responses since its publication. It is renowned for its Modernist approach to portraying the everyday object and has been lauded as a "masterpiece of verbal Cubism". Its first poem, "A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass", is arguably its most famous, and is often cited as one of the quintessential works of Cubist literature. The book has also been, however, criticized as "a modernist triumph, a spectacular failure, a collection of confusing gibberish, and an intentional hoax".
Rather than using conventional syntax, Stein experiments with alternative grammar to emphasize the role of rhythm and sound in an object's "moment of consciousness". The disconnect between the familiarity of the objects and the manner in which they are described results in the defamiliarization of the familiar while simultaneously familiarizing the unfamiliar. Rather than explore the means in which the signified and the signifier interact, Stein's avant-garde approach to writing deconstructs this relationship and instead obstructs a systematized process of meaning. By both redefining and undermining meaning merely through experimental grammar, Stein is able to displace everyday objects into new contexts, resulting in the reader's redefinition and reassessment of the reality of the mundane.
Like Stein's syntax of poems in the book, the title juxtaposes two familiar concepts to alienate their familiar meanings. Rather than use an expected collocate, Stein frequently associates two familiar but independent ideas in order to challenge their established authenticity. Many of the titles of the individual poems likewise use similar juxtapositions: "Glazed Glitter", "A Piece of Coffee", etc.
While the word "tender" and the word "buttons" are two ordinary words in the sense that they both have familiar meanings to the average reader, their displacement from a usual context and their subsequent synthesis ruptures a usual understanding of their meanings and implications. By displacing these words into an unfamiliar context, Stein challenges the reader's notion of what these words actually mean. In establishing the phrase, "tender buttons", as the title of the series, Stein defines her series of poems to be both familiar and foreign in their context.
The title of Tender Buttons can likewise be interpreted to suggest a singular, static moment of time that is free of the implications of space. The title, like the poems, exists in a space that is independent of the implications of a certain time, and in this sense, is one reason for the collection's timelessness.
Like the other poems in the book, the title can likewise be interpreted in a number of ways. Some have suggested that "tender buttons" reference a woman's breasts, in part because of the title's French translation to "les boutons tendres", which is slang for nipples. Although a more contemporary reaction to the poem stated, "The title Tender Buttons, of course, refers to a woman's nipples", Stein does not divulge the inspiration behind the title, simply stating, "Tender Buttons, will be the title of the book".
Many scholars have likewise identified an underlying theme of lesbianism within Tender Buttons. In addition to the title's French implication of nipples, some have speculated that the poems reveal the intimacies of Stein's relationship with Alice B. Toklas. Phallic and vaginal symbolism are scattered throughout the poems, and Kathryn Kent, among others, argue that Stein uses familiar objects to invite the reader to "tend her buttons" and indulge in Stein's "sexual/ textual manipulations". Others have relied on a correlation between Stein's fascination with gazing on the subjects of her poems with Freud's fetishization of the object to reveal this underlying theme of sexuality.
Stein insisted on the book as being a "realistic" portrayal of everyday objects. Her first poem in "Food", "Roastbeef", describes what some have accepted to be the work's overarching manifesto, as it states, "Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession". Rather than attempt to define and give meaning to the object or work of art, Stein instead "claims nothing" in an attempt to capture the object's "realistic" nature when stripped of the connotations of its typical representation.
Elsewhere, Stein insists on portraying a material world without using the object's preexisting name. She emphasizes the importance of sight, stating, "I was trying to live in looking, and looking was not to mix itself up with remembering", and "I did express what something was, a little by talking and listening to that thing, but a great deal by looking at that thing… I had the feeling that something should be included and that something was looking, and so concentrating on looking I did the Tender Buttons because it was easier to do objects than people if you were just looking".
Stein here reveals herself as a Cubist artist in her determination to reconfigure a one-sided perspective while revealing a subject's essence through multiple perspectives. She has additionally cited Picasso's influence on her work, stating, "I began to play with words then. I was a little obsessed by words of equal value. Picasso was painting my portrait at that time, and he and I used to talk this thing over endlessly. At the time he had just begun on Cubism". Stein likewise experiments with Cubist ideals in composition, stating, "Each part is as important as the whole".
Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition (City Lights Publishers) was released in April, 2014 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of its publication.