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Gertrude Stein Reissues Focusing on the Artistic Process

Monday, June 30, 2014 | Permalink

by Dina Weinstein

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) was a rule-breaking poet and writer, supporter of the arts, and salon hostess.

The Poetry Foundation describes Stein as a bold experimenter and self-proclaimed genius who rejected the linear, time-oriented writing characteristic of the nineteenth century for a spatial, process-oriented, specifically twentieth-century literature. Stein created dense poems and fiction which was criticized for being devoid of plot or dialogue. She is known for memorable phrases ("Rose is a rose is a rose") but not commercial success. Her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is a memoir of Stein's life written in the person of her partner, Toklas.

Two of Stein’s early books are now reissued. With the centennial of Stein's infamous and influential if bewildering little book Tender Buttons, the avant garde publisher City Lights Books in San Francisco is publishing Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, which includes Stein's handwritten edits.

Tender Buttons is a showcase of Stein’s joyful draw to words. She plays with language focused on the mundane and the theoretical. The book is divided into three sections: objects; food and rooms, and a collection of playful gibberish or provocative posits: “Rhubarb is susan not susan not seat in bunch toys not wild and laughable not in little places not in neglect and vegetable not in fold coal age not please.”

The afterword by the scholar Juliana Spahr explains that the work was revolutionary in its time, giving much heft to descriptions of domestic spaces. Spahr does not shy away from the fact that Stein was a Jewish lesbian interested in the work of Otto Weininger, the author of the anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic Sex and Character. Stein was, of course, Jewish, and never denied it; fascinatingly, she sympathised with Petain's Vichy regime and admired Hitler. She insisted on remaining in wartime France with Toklas—also a Jewish lesbian.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Stein's children's book, The World Is Round, Harper Design has published a volume replicating the original 1939 edition, including Clement Hurd's blue and white art on the rose-pink paper that Stein insisted upon.

The 34-chapter story chronicles the adventures of a young girl named Rose in a tale that explores the ideas of personal identity and individuality. Her inquiry is an affirmative quest to find her place in the world. Rose’s character as an inquisitive girl was a new direction for storybook characters.

With our modern sensibilities, this reissue will appeal to adults interested in Stein as a writer or in early children’s books.

Insight into the world of early children’s literature and this particular work is a key feature of the forward by Thacher Hurd, the illustrator’s son, and the afterword by Edith Thacher Hurd, the illustrator’s wife.

Previously unpublished photographs and correspondence between Stein and Hurd, who is best known for illustrating Goodnight Moon, are a window into the creative process and the then-burgeoning world of children’s literature. Stein crams The World Is Round densely with words and plot twists. The book was written when the children’s book industry was in its infancy and trailblazers were experimenting in many directions.

Today the structure seems dated. The World Is Round has a dense plot that frustrates as it lists event after event. But lines also delve into the dreamy unconsciousness of childhood: Why am I a little girl/ Where am I a little girl/ When am I a little girl/Which little girl am I.”

A reviewer in 1939 felt that children were Stein’s proper audience but her work seems more a precedent to the Beat Poets.

A blunt child told the reviewer: “It’s cuckoo crazy.”

Dina Weinstein is a Miami, Florida-based journalist currently researching Jews in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1960s era civil rights struggle there with a grant from the Southern Jewish Historical Society. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter. Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.

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