Three short stories comprise Gertrude Stein’s first significant work, each a psychological portrait of a different woman. “The Good Anna” is a kindly but domineering German servant. “The Gentle Lena” apathetically endures her miserable life until she dies in childbirth. “Melanctha” is a young Black woman learning about sexuality and love. Different as they may be, all three women are bound by poverty—and all three face the restrictions of class, race, and sex with resignation.
Stein spoke of maintaining a “continuous present,” comprised of “moments of consciousness,” independent of time and memory. Nowhere is this more clear than in her prose poems Tender Buttons. Their repetitive sentences, juxtaposition of sounds, and simple language connote this continuous presence. To live in this state is “to begin again and again,” to “use everything.” Each of the three sections, “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms,” employs both this repetition and disjointed words to build images. Prose poetry at its most abstract expression, Tender Buttons “is to writing…what cubism is to art.” (W.G. Rogers)
Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874, to an affluent Jewish family, spent her early childhood in Vienna and Paris, and later grew up in Oakland, California. At Radcliffe College she studied under William James, who remained her lifelong friend, and then went to Johns Hopkins to study medicine. Abandoning her studies, she moved to Paris with her brother Leo in 1903. At 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein lived with Alice B. Toklas, who would remain her companion for forty years. Not only was she an innovator in literature and a supporter of modern poetry and art, she was the friend and mentor of those who visited her at her now-famous home: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Guillaume Appollinaire. Her first important book was Three Lives (1909), then Tender Buttons (1914), followed by her magnum opus, The Making of Americans (1925), and the book which became a huge popular success, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Just before her death at the age of 72 on July 27, 1946, she asked Alice Toklas from her hospital bed, “What is the answer?” Getting no answer, she then asked, “In that case, what is the question?”