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Stein, Gertrude (1874-1946)  
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Through repetition-within-variation of the dominant verbal motifs "being gay," "regularly," and "cultivating their voices," the portrait associates (perhaps for the first time in print) the appellation "gay" with a homosexual couple. Furthermore, the text also indicates that such bonds are "regular" ("normal" and "habitual") and something to be artistically "cultivated" ("socially constructed").

Stein's less well known portrait of homosexual men, simply and tellingly titled "Men," makes the erotic content of such "gay" alliances clear and opens with the statement: "Sometimes men are kissing." The remainder of this evocative portrait explores the interpersonal dynamics of erotic longing and fulfillment, communication and estrangement, and winning and losing among gay men.

Tender Buttons

A marked shift from character typology and repetition to visuality and object-description accompanies the more complex modes of verbal play in Tender Buttons (1914), one of the outstanding achievements of modernist literature.

Although written in 1912, Tender Buttons anticipates many of the theoretical premises of post-modernism regarding linguistic indeterminacy and post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory; hence, an informed appreciation of Stein's work has in great measure depended on the development of such analytic tools.

Divided into three sections ("Objects," "Food," and "Rooms"), the work dismantles conventional syntax and semantics to uncover the embodied mystery, erotic power, and surrealistic "thing-ness" of the common entities that surround, sustain, and shelter human life.

Although each interpretation of this challenging and playful text must, in some measure, be unique, the condensed verbal encodings of Tender Buttons also represent Stein's effort to create a metaphorical sexual vernacular of lesbianism that accurately reflects the richness of lived experience.

Hence, rather than a literal or "scientific" use of language in which each word corresponds to a single referent outside the text, there is elaborate punning so that terms hover at the boundary between paraphrasable sense and opacity.

Words such as "pencil" not only mean "writing implement" but also connote "phallic object" and "dildo." Similarly, "box" means "container" and also "female genitalia" and "interiority." Such highly condensed layers of public and private meanings, embedded in a context of unabashed lesbian eroticism, inform the structure of Tender Buttons.


From 1912 to 1925, Stein turned her attention to shorter forms she termed "poems," in which a major theme is established then elaborated in the body of the text, much as a piece of music develops the themes set out in the opening bars.

These poems are, for the most part, accounts in dialogue form (between Stein and Toklas) of various domestic and erotic adventures. "Lifting Belly" (pub. 1953), a tour de force of lesbian love-making, equates the joys of lesbian sex with those of female creativity.

The "body" of the poem elaborates on the multiple meanings of the title: the "lifting up" of the body in response to sexual arousal; the "swelling" of the abdomen as a metaphorical state of "pregnancy" or creativity; and, finally, the "enlarging" of the significance of lesbianism in a world in which lesbians are often rendered both insignificant and invisible.

The final lines of the poem (spoken, perhaps, in unison by both partners), "In the midst of writing there is merriment," is the joyous sexual context that gives "birth" to the poem as well as the triumphant coda of this poetic fugue for two collaborative female voices.

Other poems of this period are similarly ebullient and celebratory. "Pink Melon Joy" elaborates on the delights of female sexuality; "Didn't Nelly and Lilly Love You" heals Alice Toklas of the pain of earlier failed romances; and "A Book Concluding With As a Wife Has a Cow A Love Story" tells the story of a "wife" (Alice) having a "cow" (an orgasm).

Difficulties in Publishing Her Writing

Throughout this period of intense literary innovation, Stein encountered great difficulties getting her writing published, although her lifelong friend, the American critic and novelist Carl Van Vechten, tirelessly promoted her work, and many of her other literary contemporaries also recognized her importance.

Although she remained outwardly indifferent to the scorn and disapproval that greeted her work, she also began writing accessible explanations of her poetics for the public. In "Composition as Explanation" (1926), which remains one of the most cogent analyses of her writing practices, Stein explains her apparent nonsense as an attempt to represent a "continuous present" and to elucidate new awarenesses of time generated by post-war experience.

She also takes issue with nineteenth-century conceptions of linear time, progress, and representation. For Stein, things in themselves remain the same, whereas compositions, or the way those things are assembled and arranged, change.

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