12 Winters Blog

From Tender Buttons to the “Heart of the Country”: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass

Posted in February 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2019

The following paper, “From Tender Buttons to the ‘Heart of the Country’: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, the University of Louisville, Feb. 23, 2019, as part of the panel Material Readers and the Dynamics of Reception, chaired by Mark Mattes, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel were “A Publication ‘edited by its readers’: Representation and Materiality in the Working-Class Newspaper Correspondence” by Emily Spunaugle, Wayne State University; and “Thirty Thoughts on Little House on the Prairie and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” [revised title] by Amy Gilley, Arkansas State University, Queretaro.


 

The author “wrote densely and brilliantly and beautifully and perversely and with intense contrivance and deep care and . . . skill” (108). Those too few who are intimately familiar with William H. Gass may have written this description regarding his contribution to belles-lettres. In fact, however, this is how Gass described one of his greatest influences, Gertrude Stein, in his landmark essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence” (1973). Gass always emphatically credited Stein’s influence on his work. He discovered her in graduate school, he said, and made the study of her writing a life-long occupation. (He studied at Cornell in the late 1940s, taking the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1954; and he passed away in 2017.) Yet in all his many discussions of Stein he never expressly linked her experimental poem Tender Buttons (1914) to his experimental short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1967). The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Stein’s early poem had a direct impact on both the substance and the structure of Gass’s story—a story that became the title piece in the collection which solidified his reputation on the national literary stage, and which became the prototype for his magnum opus, the novel The Tunnel, famously 26 years in the writing.

I’ve been presenting papers at the Louisville Conference for, I think, fourteen years, and for the last decade or so my papers have focused exclusively on William H. Gass. Since discovering the Master in 2008 I have become a self-described Gass scholar and disciple—the only one I believe. I must credit the conference specifically for this paper topic. I’m ashamed to admit that until this past year I hadn’t read Tender Buttons. It had been on my must-read list for decades, but last February while browsing the new books in their usual spot on the third floor of the Humanities Building, outside of conference registration, I happened upon a critical edition of Tender Buttons, edited by Leonard Diepeveen, and as soon as I flipped it open I experienced something like déjà vu. Simply, the look of Stein’s text on the page was uncannily similar to the physical appearance of Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” an odd plot-less tale carved up into sections, some brief, some longer, each with its own subtitle. Being well aware of Stein’s influence on Gass in general, I immediately became suspicious that Tender Buttons served as a model for “In the Heart,” and I’ve spent the past year investigating that belief (in fits and starts of course).

When I submitted this paper proposal to the conference committee last summer, I hypothesized that Stein’s influence on the piece was mainly structural—thus my title—but the further I’ve looked into it, I believe the connections are even greater.

A quick refresher on Tender Buttons, which was first published in New York by the avant-garde press Claire Marie in 1914. It is divided into three parts—Objects, Food, and Rooms—with each part being further divided into subtitled pieces, some as brief as a few words, others consisting of several paragraphs. At a glance, Tender Buttons appears to be prose, but Stein called it poetry (more on this to follow). It has the reputation for being all but incomprehensible—although many have taken a stab at unlocking its meanings, including Gass in the essay previously mentioned. Diepeeven states it plainly in the introduction to his critical edition: “For many readers, one could not read Tender Buttons, or understand what it was . . .” (10). I believe his for many readers is generous: most, nearly all would probably be more accurate. The trouble begins immediately with the opening section “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.”:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. (33)

Similarly, Gass structured “In the Heart of the Heart of Country” as a series of small segments or vignettes, each with its own subtitle (some of which repeat). Among the subtitles are “A Place,” “Weather,” “My House,” “Vital Data,” and “My House, My Cat, My Company.” They vary in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs. The story’s first-person narrator is an aging poet who goes about describing his town, his neighbors, and himself; however, there is no easily discernible plot. As far as I know, I’m the only person to see the structure of Tender Buttons in “In the Heart,” and that may be because on the surface, and from the start, Gass invites readers to make comparisons to Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928). The story begins, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” with “B” standing for both a small Indiana town, Brookston, and Yeats’s Byzantium. Moreover, Yeats’s poem is about old age and the struggle to keep one’s artistic flame burning while one’s body slowly deteriorates toward death. Gass’s narrator is an aging poet who is “in retirement from love.” He says, “I’ve lost my years. . . . I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it to me now, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). So, thematically, there are definite correlations between Yeats’s poem and Gass’s story, in addition to the overt clue Gass provides in the opening sentence.

What is more, critics have noted that there are the same number of sections in the story as there are lines in “Sailing to Byzantium,” a fact that Gass did not dispute. In an interview Gass said, “It was pointed out by some anal observer [Larry McCaffery] that the sections of the story and the lines of the poem are the same [thirty-six]. And that’s true . . . That’s a little kind of imposed formality that I did to help shape the work” (qtd. in Hix 48). However, Gass’s acknowledgment is troublesome for a few reasons. McCaffery’s counting is based on the version of the story which appeared in the 1968 collection of the same title, a version which has been subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions, including in The William H. Gass Reader this past year. Yet in its original published form, in New American Review in 1967, the story had significantly fewer sections, only thirty. It’s possible that the difference in the number of sections (and other differences) are the result of editorial intervention; that is, perhaps the changes were necessary for its inclusion in the journal, to pare it back, for example, due to space limitations. The definitive answer to that question may lie in the massive Gass archive at Washington University in St. Louis, an archive which contains tens of thousands of pages (or more) of manuscript drafts, letters, and other material. I have visited the archive a handful of times and have spent perhaps a dozen hours seriously reading through the material there, but suffice it to say I’ve barely scratched proverbial surface.

Nevertheless, the archive’s contents provide the other reason I’m dubious about Gass’s acknowledgment that the number of lines of Yeats’s poem provided a guiding structure for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Among Gass’s papers are myriad drafts of the story which suggest his initial writing of the piece was fairly conventional, meaning that he composed long chunks of text, and then later he cut up and rearranged these smaller chunks until the story achieved its final form (well, one of its final forms). What is more, Gass played with numerous versions of the structure that resulted in its having fewer than thirty-six sections, the number necessary to match Yeats’s number of lines.  Gass made numbered lists and plugged in the various fragmented vignettes; then toyed with moving around the pieces. Some of these numbered lists suggest he had in mind twenty-four subtitled pieces (see figures 1, 2 and 3). Another list, more detailed and messier, reveals that Gass considered the pieces falling into four broad categories, A through D, (reminiscent of Stein’s three categories) of eight vignettes each for a grand total of thirty-two, four short of Yeats’s thirty-six lines (figure 4).

section numbers - no titles

Fig. 1. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

sectioins numbers - more titles

Fig. 2. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

section numbers - more notes

Fig. 3. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

increasing section numbers - many notes

Fig. 4. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

draft of opening - where are you

Fig. 5. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

At this point in his career Gass wrote on a manual typewriter, so the rough drafts of “In the Heart” are on full-size sheets of paper; however, while revising he might rewrite the same paragraph, or part of a paragraph, multiple times on the same sheet (see figure 5, which became part of a long vignette subtitled “Education” in the latter half of the story, in both the 1967 and ’68 versions, section 21/32 and 16/30, respectively). Each of these pieces is suggestive of the index cards Gertrude Stein used to write, by hand, and arrange Tender Buttons (see Appendix B of Diepeveen’s critical edition). So it isn’t that their writing processes were similar while originally drafting their poem and story, but through the process of revision Gass seems to have pared down his longer chunks of text to crystalline bite-size bits of a similar heft to Stein’s index cards, at least in some cases. Gass invested a significant amount of time in considering and rearranging these bits of text, as evidenced by the numberings and revised numberings in the margins of the drafts (figure 6). Without further examination of his papers, I can’t say how pervasive this kind of paring down was in the process of writing “In the Heart,” but I can say it wasn’t wholly unique to this short story. His technique of isolating single paragraphs or parts of paragraphs and revising them again and again, often on the same sheet of typing paper, can be seen in the archive for other works. I can attest to the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968) and parts of The Tunnel (1995). For that matter, a kindred technique became part of the published draft of Middle C (2013), whereby the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, works on rewriting the same brief paragraph throughout the novel, rearranging sentences, substituting words, until he has it perfect. In fact, the reaching of the paragraph’s final form is a kind of climax in the novel.

ms page with numbered sectiions revised

Fig. 6. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

I want to return to Stein’s profound influence on Gass, which he made no bones about. In his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which Gass identified the books (and authors) who were most influential on his development as a writer, he listed Stein’s Three Lives and said, “I knew I had found the woman my work would marry” (54). Anyone who knows Gass at all probably knows that his greatest influence was the German poet Rilke. It’s true that Rilke is everywhere in Gass’s work, and he wrote a book about the difficulty of translating Rilke (Reading Rilke, 1999), which he tried his hand at himself. Gass said that Rilke helped to solidify ideas he’d had for years which he’d gotten from other great writers, like Stein: “. . . I had certainly come across and become enamored of Gertrude Stein a lot earlier and Flaubert somewhat, also—they all came together; Rilke just brought them together. . . . He sort of coalesced it all for me.” In particular “Rilke discovers that the poet’s aim is to add something to reality rather than comment on it or express something, to be something” (Ammon 161). Ultimately, said Gass, “you have an [art] object sitting there which is the result of this big cycle from objects observed by the poet or painter and it’s not that the painting is about anything; it is a transformation and a new object in the world” (162).

This concept is key to understanding Gass’s work. His stories, novellas and novels are not interested in advancing a plot via narration—as one would normally think of as the defining feature of fiction—but rather his stories, novellas and novels are interested in being works of art. The characters and their actions (the term plot doesn’t really apply) are a means to an end, and that end is to create a unique piece of literary art. This core artistic aim in Gass can be traced to Gertrude Stein’s philosophy of aesthetics, and Tender Buttons may be her most pure expression of that aesthetic. By the same token, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” may be Gass’s starkest example of the sort of fiction he would become infamous for, fiction which downplayed the typical foci on character development and plot, and instead emphasized stylistic components and thematic repetition.

Stein spoke of her narrative philosophy on numerous occasions, but her second lecture at the University of Chicago in 1935 zeroed in on this aspect of her writing process most directly. “Lecture 2” deals with the distinction between prose and poetry as they had been evolving in the modernist movement after the First World War, a movement of which Stein had been the vanguard for more than twenty years by the time she delivered her Chicago lectures. She said, as only she could,

When one used to think of narrative one meant telling of what is happening in successive moments of its happening the quality of telling depending upon the conviction of the one telling that there was a distinct succession in happening, that one thing happened after something else and since that happening in succession was a profound conviction in every one then really there was no difference whether any one began in the beginning or the middle or the ending because since narrative was a progressive telling of things that were progressively happening it really did not make any difference where you were at what moment you were in your happening since the important part of telling anything was the conviction that anything that everything was progressively happening. But now we have changed all that we really have. (17)

If I may, before modernism prose was defined by the narrative quality of cause and effect, of one event leading to another and then another and another in a story or novel, say. In modernism, however, prose has become like poetry in that there is “not a sense of anything being successively happening” (19). Prose is no longer “being a successive thing but being something existing. That is then the difference between narrative as it has been and narrative as it is now,” explained Stein (20). Or as Liesl M. Olson paraphrases the key idea in her foreword to Narration: “A ‘modern’ narrative need not have an event, according to Stein; nothing need ‘happen’” (ix-x). Thus, Stein called Tender Buttons poetry because even though it has the outward trappings of prose (sentences and paragraphs), ontologically it is poetry in that each piece stands alone as a carefully crafted, multilayered thing of linguistic art. There is no traditional narrative substructure of things happening to characters via cause and effect.

In his essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” Gass said that Tender Buttons is written “in a kind of code . . . a coding which dangerously confounds the surface . . . [which often] effects a concealment.” This concealment, though, is key to understanding Stein’s genius, “because the object of art is to make more beautiful that which is, and since that which is is rarely beautiful, often awkward and ugly and ill-arranged, it must be sometimes sheeted like a corpse, or dissolved into its elements and put together afresh, aright, and originally” (105). This objective of art was embraced by Gass throughout his career as he frequently tried to make the ugly beautiful via the beauty of his language. In The Tunnel, the centerpiece of oeuvre, for example, Gass wrote beautifully about the Holocaust, and attempted to redeem his deplorable first-person narrator through the loveliness of his language.

Gass’s emphasis on language over plot, on style over characterization has made some readers consider his novellas and novels long prose poems, placing them in the same arena as Tender Buttons. Unlike Stein, however, Gass insisted he was not adept at writing poetry. He did say, though, that the best poets of his generation were writers of fiction, naming in particular John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis (Saltzman 91). It would’ve been the height of egotism to list himself, but his was a name that often appeared among them. He readily acknowledged his frequent use of devices more typically attached to poetry. Among his “quirks” he listed in his essay “Retrospection” are “whoring and metaphoring” and “jingling,” which includes his love of alliteration and limericks.

I’ll end where I began. One of the reasons it’s worth considering if Tender Buttons was a model of sorts for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is because Gass stated explicitly that the short story’s structure led him to his most ambitious work, The Tunnel. He said in an interview with Bradford Morrow, “[The Tunnel] also elaborates the structure of the story in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. [The novel’s] in sections roughly seventy pages long, instead of paragraphs. These are musically organized. There are sections within sections: It’s sectioned up like an insect or a worm.” I believe there is much more to learn about the story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by reading it alongside Stein’s techniques in Tender Buttons; therefore, by extension, Stein’s enigmatic experimental poem may also whisper some clues in our ears, sibyl-like, to help us better comprehend the many levels of The Tunnel.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G. “Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 149-170.

Gass, William H. “Fifty Literary Pillars.” A Temple of Texts, Dalkey Archive, 2007, pp. 29-60.

—. “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence.” The World within the Word. Basic Books, 1978, pp. 63-123.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. Godine, 1981, pp. 172-206.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences, Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass, U of South Carolina P, 2002.

Morrow, Bradford. “An Interview: William H. Gass.” Conjunctions, no. 4, 1983, pp. 14-29. Available online http://www.conjunctions.com/print/article/william-h-gass-c4.

Olson, Liesl M. Foreword. Narration by Gertrude Stein, The U of Chicago P, 2010, pp. vii-xii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Stein, Gertrude. Narration. The U of Chicago P, 2010.

—. Tender Buttons. Edited by Leonard Diepeveen, Broadview, 2018.

 

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  1. […] (February 23) I found a receptive audience when I presented my paper “From Tender Buttons to the ‘Heart of the Country’: Gertrude Stein’s […]


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