Friday, January 8, 2016

Cooking with Tender Buttons Food: Breakfast. Stanzas 1-22 thru Moby Dick

THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           FOOD
THE SUBPOEM ...................-           Breakfast
WORD COUNT (Total)……...-           840
STANZA(S)............................-            22
Stanzas 1-9                                       312
Stanzas 10-16                                   224
Stanzas 17-22                                   304
THE LEADER........................-           THE STEINY ROAD POET

“Melville/White whale/Walls” Gertrude Stein
[in one of the unpublished, handwritten notebooks for The Making of Americans]

The Steiny Road Poet is saying that Gertrude Stein used Moby Dick as a model for Tender Buttons. If Steiny can convince you this is possible, then many things about Tender Buttons will be less mysterious, particularly a subpoem like “Breakfast.” which seems to be all over the place in a less informed context.


If you are wondering why Gertrude Stein would use Moby Dick as a model for Tender Buttons, consider these things:

Moby Dick addresses people on the outside of societal norms which is what Gertrude Stein had to deal with as a Jew and a secret lesbian.
—Herman Melville’s writing is grammatically and syntactically colorful, inventive, and exciting. He breaks rules and explores new territory in how to present a story, scientific data, and philosophic discourse. These were elements of extreme interest to Stein.
—Melville used Shakespeare and the Bible as models for his work and Stein followed suit.

If you are wondering why Gertrude Stein never revealed that she used Moby Dick as a model for Tender Buttons, consider that when she wrote Tender Buttons, Melville’s work was generally not known since his novel had received bad reviews and Melville had given up writing. She also never revealed that she used Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” to inspire Tender Buttons. As a woman, Stein could not afford to announce that her work was based on male writings.

Steiny predicted in the first discussion of “Breakfast.” that there is more to be seen in its opening stanzas. Now Steiny understands this text shows more crosstalk between Tender Buttons and Moby Dick than she imagined. Both works have early subdivisions entitled “Breakfast,” but this is a false lead.


Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck begins: “It was not a great while after the affair of the pipe, that one morning shortly after breakfast, Ahab, as was his won't, ascended the cabin-gangway to the deck.” The captain, who has thrown his pipe overboard in Chapter 30 because smoking was not calming him, comes on strong in this chapter. You might say in terms of stanza 5 that Ahab creates a clamor due to his lack of calm.  He asks for a hammer to nail a hefty gold doubloon to the mast, saying whoever sees the white whale first can claim this reward.

Receiving the top-maul from Starbuck [Captain Ahab’s first mate], he advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming: "Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!" [Moby Dick Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck]

A change, a final change includes potatoes. This is no authority for the abuse of cheese. What language can instruct any fellow. [Stanza 1 of “Breakfast.”]

With poetic repetition, Captain Ahab, the big cheese of the Pequod, instructs his crew about their mission, but it is his mission, to destroy the white whale that took off his leg. It’s a change from the meat-and-potatoes mission of just coming back to Nantucket with a cargo of whale oil gleaned from any whale. Therefore, there is no authority for Ahab’s abuse of power.

Now let’s look at Stanzas 2-5 of “Breakfast.”:

A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.

A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.

An imitation, more imitation, imitations succeed imitations.

Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.

Stein’s shining breakfast is embodied in Ahab’s gold coin which no one disputes except Starbuck, but in the end the first mate gives in and allows that the entire crew is on board with Ahab’s plan to kill Moby Dick. For Starbuck, there is no value (nothing) in making “vengeance on a dumb brute.” Ahab’s reply to Starbuck kicks Ahab’s reason for going after the whale into another plane of thinking that deals with illusion and reality as well as evil versus good.


All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends' glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn—living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards—the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? [Moby Dick Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck]

Steiny sees a sudden slice piercing Ahab’s unreasoning mask which ultimately is the prisoner’s wall and for Stein is the whole plate. Stein is concerned about breaking through custom. Custom keeps a person prisoner to habits, habits which feed limitless imitation and stifles genius. Given that Gertrude Stein hand wrote ‘Melville/White whale/Walls’ on the inside back cover of one of her unpublished notebooks for The Making of Americans, Steiny thinks it is safe to say that this passage about breaking through the wall that is that white whale meant a great deal to this early Modernist.

Also, it is worth noting that Melville is taking liberties with the English language that surely gave Stein ideas about how to renew English. Notable are words pertaining to color as reddenest and tawn and negation words as unsays, unrecking, and unworshipping. Stein’s question—or exclamatory statement— What language can instruct any fellow then has additional punch and weight.


In stanza 6, Stein takes some liberties with language by using old forms that possibly signal the language of Moby Dick, a novel that mixes old language usage with new. Stein uses pleasanter instead of the more accepted more pleasant, cocoanut instead of coconut, and especial instead of special.

What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious. Drink is likely to stir a certain respect for an egg cup and more water melon than was ever eaten yesterday. Beer is neglected and cocoanut is famous. Coffee all coffee and a sample of soup all soup these are the choice of a baker. A white cup means a wedding. A wet cup means a vacation. A strong cup means an especial regulation. A single cup means a capital arrangement between the drawer and the place that is open. [Stanza 6 of “Breakfast.”]

Stanza 6, as already stated in the first discussion of “Breakfast.”, establishes the Moby Dick/Tender Buttons crosstalk and the presence of the monstrous whale. What tipped Steiny off was the antiquated spelling of coconut (cocoanut is famous) which led to finding out that whale tongue was a French gourmet’s delicacy and then seeing the metaphoric connection in Melville’s novel that used salmon to describe the whale’s jumping abilities. However, there is more and the emphasis on drink brings The Quarter-Deck chapter back into play as Captain Ahab orders grog (watered down rum) served up to the crew.

"Drink and pass!" he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. "The crew alone now drink. Round with it, round! Short draughts—long swallows, men; 'tis hot as Satan's hoof. So, so; it goes round excellently. It spiralizes in ye; forks out at the serpent-snapping eye. Well done; almost drained. That way it went, this way it comes. Hand it me—here's a hollow! Men, ye seem the years; so brimming life is gulped and gone. Steward, refill! [Moby Dick Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck]

Ahab commands the three mates to present their lances together so that he can take hold and validate where the poles cross. Then he says to them:

And now, ye mates, I do appoint ye three cupbearers to my three pagan kinsmen there—yon three most honourable gentlemen and noblemen, my valiant harpooneers. Disdain the task? What, when the great Pope washes the feet of beggars, using his tiara for ewer? Oh, my sweet cardinals! your own condescension, THAT shall bend ye to it. I do not order ye; ye will it. [Moby Dick Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck]

Next Ahab orders the harpoonists to cut the ties that hold the heads of the harpoons with its blades to the poles. He asks the mates, his appointed cupbearers, to take the steel end of the harpoons and turn them over so he can pour grog into the socket side of the harpoon hardware. Finally, Ahab has the harpoonists drink from these “murderous chalices.”

Needless to say the abundance of cups and the emphasis on drink in stanza 6 of Stein’s “Breakfast.” seems to point to Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck and the spectacular moment when Ahab gets his crew to agree that they will kill Moby Dick and then Ahab seals the deal with cups of grog.

What especially interests Steiny in Stein’s text is the word melon as it pertains to toothed whales like the spermaceti whale. (Moby Dick was a spermaceti whale.) The melon is a mass of adipose (fatty) tissue located in the forehead of all toothed whales. The melon, which assists with communication and echolocation, is not synonymous with the spermaceti organ from which the whalemen extracted a particularly find grade of whale oil. As far as Steiny knows Melville never mentions the melon but Stein most likely encountered the term when she was studying at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory near Nantucket in the summer of 1897. What made Steiny see melon as something special was that Stein separated the word watermelon into two words— Drink is likely to stir a certain respect for an egg cup and more water melon than was ever eaten yesterday.

Just as Steiny is not going to try at this time to correlate specifically the white, wet, strong, or single cups to Moby Dick, she is also not going to attempt to find pointed meaning in the egg cup. Though Steiny will say the egg cup seems to indicate Captain Ahab.


Generally speaking, “Breakfast.” stanzas 7 through 9 could be lined up with the heated exchange between Ahab and his first mate Starbuck.

Price a price is not in language, it is not in custom, it is not in praise.

A colored loss, why is there no leisure. If the persecution is so outrageous that nothing is solemn is there any occasion for persuasion.

A grey turn to a top and bottom, a silent pocketful of much heating, all the pliable succession of surrendering makes an ingenious joy.

Starbuck establishes with Ahab that Moby Dick is the same whale that “took off thy [Ahab’s] leg.” A bit reluctantly Ahab admits this is so and then swears that he will kill the “accursed white whale.” The crew backs up the captain for his plan but Starbuck says:

"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

Ahab answers that he will see to it that Starbuck gets more pay for the work of this voyage:

"Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money's to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium HERE!"

Requiring a lower layer relates to the percent of the sailor’s pay relative to the overall sale of the whale oil brought back to the Nantucket market. Starbuck already has a contract that establishes what layer he will get when the oil is sold. Here’s how one could read stanza 7 in terms of the Ahab-Starbuck exchange: Price a price is not in language—a lower layer would then not be written down but based upon Ahab swearing upon his heart that Starbuck will get more money, it is not in custom, it is not in praise—this oath to pay Starbuck more would not be usual (custom) or have anything to do with merit (praise).

Stanza 8 might be read: A colored loss—referring to the White Whale whose skin has lost pigmentation, why is there no leisure—the crew of the Pequod will not have an easy voyage because of hunting the White Whale. If the persecution—of the White Whale—is so outrageous that nothing is solemn is there any occasion for persuasion—essentially how could Ahab convince Starbuck that Ahab’s mission is serious.

Stanza 9 might be read: A grey turn to a top and bottom—a complete and emotionless (grey) survey from top to bottom along with, a silent pocketful of much heating—this is Starbuck’s objection causing friction, all the pliable succession of surrendering makes an ingenious joy—this is Starbuck acquiescing but not truly embracing Ahab’s mission.


Deliciously, stanza 10 recreates that odd set of circumstances aboard the Pequod when Ahab acknowledges that his three mates don’t have the same fiery charge that he has but maybe that is just as well. What the reader does not know by Chapter 36 is that Ahab has some hidden resources for his murderous quest.

A breeze in a jar and even then silence, a special anticipation in a rack, a gurgle a whole gurgle and more cheese than almost anything, is this an astonishment, does this incline more than the original division between a tray and a talking arrangement and even then a calling into another room gently with some chicken in any way. [Stanza 10 of “Breakfast.”]

The first question a reader might be asking is what kind of jar has a breeze in it? In the parlance of Melville, we find a Leyden jar, a device that creates static electricity between two electrodes on the inside and outside of a glass jar. The breeze may be equated to the current of electricity as opposed to wind. Because Ahab cannot “twitch” the electrical current inside his mates, he makes them the cupbearers to their harpoonists.

"Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis." So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them; meanwhile, glancing intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life. The three mates quailed before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect. Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.

"In vain!" cried Ahab; "but, maybe, 'tis well. For did ye three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, THAT had perhaps expired from out me. Perchance, too, it would have dropped ye dead. Perchance ye need it not. Down lances! And now, ye mates, I do appoint ye three cupbearers to my three pagan kinsmen there—yon three most honourable gentlemen and noblemen, my valiant harpooneers.

Stanza 10 also addresses the missed but portentous signs after Starbuck backs off from challenging his captain.

Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. 'Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone? Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak!—Aye, aye! thy silence, then, THAT voices thee. (ASIDE) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion."

"God keep me!—keep us all!" murmured Starbuck, lowly.

But in his joy at the enchanted, tacit acquiescence of the mate, Ahab did not hear his foreboding invocation; nor yet the low laugh from the hold; nor yet the presaging vibrations of the winds in the cordage; nor yet the hollow flap of the sails against the masts, as for a moment their hearts sank in. For again Starbuck's downcast eyes lighted up with the stubbornness of life; the subterranean laugh died away; the winds blew on; the sails filled out; the ship heaved and rolled as before. Ah, ye admonitions and warnings! why stay ye not when ye come? But rather are ye predictions than warnings, ye shadows! Yet not so much predictions from without, as verifications of the foregoing things within. For with little external to constrain us, the innermost necessities in our being, these still drive us on.


That special anticipation in a rack and gurgle would be coming from the bowels of the Pequod where Ahab had five stowaway ninjas who will be seen first at the end of Chapter 47 The Mat-Maker. The leader of the yellow boys, as one of the sailors of third mate Mr. Flask calls the stowaways, is a mysterious power named Fedallah. One could say Fedallah more [a big] cheese than almost anything [any other sailor on the Pequod except Captain Ahab]. Here, Steiny will quote from Chapter 48: The First Lowering and say that the reason these phantoms (as Melville called them) appeared on deck was because the first whales had been seen.

The phantoms, for so they then seemed, were flitting on the other side of the deck, and, with a noiseless celerity, were casting loose the tackles and bands of the boat which swung there. This boat had always been deemed one of the spare boats, though technically called the captain's, on account of its hanging from the starboard quarter. The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;—a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

Such was the thunder of his voice, that spite of their amazement the men sprang over the rail; the sheaves whirled round in the blocks; with a wallow, the three boats dropped into the sea; while, with a dexterous, off-handed daring, unknown in any other vocation, the sailors, goat-like, leaped down the rolling ship's side into the tossed boats below.

Hardly had they pulled out from under the ship's lee, when a fourth keel, coming from the windward side, pulled round under the stern, and showed the five strangers rowing Ahab, who, standing erect in the stern, loudly hailed Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, to spread themselves widely, so as to cover a large expanse of water. But with all their eyes again riveted upon the swart Fedallah and his crew, the inmates of the other boats obeyed not the command. [Chapter 48: The First Lowering]


Stanzas 11 through 13 could be making reference to the bent/crooked way in which Ahab withheld the presence of his special team of whalemen. The visible crew of the Pequod see these hidden sailors that have been called yellow men as suspicious and not accounted for. Do these castaways hurt the ceremony Ahab exacted with his chief harpoonists who were asked to dismantled their harpoons in order to drink from the socket side of the harpoon hardware?

A bent way that is a way to declare that the best is all together, a bent way shows no result, it shows a slight restraint, it shows a necessity for retraction.

Suspect a single buttered flower, suspect it certainly, suspect it and then glide, does that not alter a counting.

A hurt mended stick, a hurt mended cup, a hurt mended article of exceptional relaxation and annoyance, a hurt mended, hurt and mended is so necessary that no mistake is intended. [“Breakfast.” Stanzas 11-13]


Stanzas 14 through 16 might be second mate Mr. Stubb coaching his men to row the whale boat with more energy. He has an odd way of working food into his pep talk. You might say he is roasting (criticizing) his men but in a mocking way that makes them almost laugh. He wants to complete the mission of bringing in a sperm whale which requires being out on the water (rowing) so they can bring in the whale, melt its blubber into oil and therefore fill their own larders. Note how Stein picks the word larder which derives from the word lard, the fat of meat.

What is more likely than a roast, nothing really and yet it is never disappointed singularly.

A steady cake, any steady cake is perfect and not plain, any steady cake has a mounting reason and more than that it has singular crusts. A season of more is a season that is instead. A season of many is not more a season than most.

Take no remedy lightly, take no urging intently, take no separation leniently, beware of no lake and no larder. [“Breakfast.” Stanzas 14-16]

Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so, then:—softly, softly! That's it—that's it! long and strong. Give way there, give way! The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Pull, will ye? pull, can't ye? pull, won't ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don't ye pull?—pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out! Here!" whipping out the sharp knife from his girdle; "every mother's son of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That's it—that's it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits. Start her—start her, my silver-spoons! Start her, marling-spikes!"


Stanzas 17 through 19 are complicated to explain, so Steiny will offer a short explanation first. These three stanzas relate to Ishmael and Queequeg regarding their relationship—how it develops and what it portends for the future.

In Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn, Ishmael goes through Queequeg’s things trying to understand who this man is since Ishmael has not met him but he has heard frightening things about this harpoonist. Among the things Ishmael looks at is a coarsely made poncho that Ishmael calls a doormat. He tries it on and finds it damp, extremely heavy, and, when he peers into what passes for mirror, he is so taken aback he gets a kink in his neck taking it off.

But what is this on the chest? I took it up, and held it close to the light, and felt it, and smelt it, and tried every way possible to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion concerning it. I can compare it to nothing but a large door mat, ornamented at the edges with little tinkling tags something like the stained porcupine quills round an Indian moccasin. There was a hole or slit in the middle of this mat, as you see the same in South American ponchos. But could it be possible that any sober harpooneer would get into a door mat, and parade the streets of any Christian town in that sort of guise? I put it on, to try it, and it weighed me down like a hamper, being uncommonly shaggy and thick, and I thought a little damp, as though this mysterious harpooneer had been wearing it of a rainy day. I went up in it to a bit of glass stuck against the wall, and I never saw such a sight in my life. I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck.

I sat down on the side of the bed, and commenced thinking about this head-peddling harpooneer, and his door mat. [Moby Dick Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn]

In stanza 17 is a sack (which can be defined as “a loose, unfitted, or shapeless garment) which is heavy and soaking wet. This object is deemed an institution in fright and if Ishmael asked any Christian, he would say the same thing (climate of public opinion) which tracks with Ishmael’s experience of Queequeg’s doormat.

Burden the cracked wet soaking sack heavily, burden it so that it is an institution in fright and in climate and in the best plan that there can be. [“Breakfast.” Stanza 17]

But because this sack is soaking wet, Steiny thinks Gertrude Stein is also pointing to the end of Chapter 48: The First Lowering when the whale boat containing Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck and assorted rowers are tumbled into the sea trying to spear a whale in an oncoming squall. In this case, sack might be loosely considered the swamped boat and how the crew makes due with it into the night. At dawn the Pequod appears but the crew must abandon their boat and swim for their lives as the Pequod decimates the small boat. Ishmael believes that those on board the Pequod had dismissed the idea that Starbuck’s crew could be alive. Loosely speaking, Starbuck’s men were sacked—dismissed from employment.

Wet, drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat, we lifted up our eyes as the dawn came on. The mist still spread over the sea, the empty lantern lay crushed in the bottom of the boat. Suddenly Queequeg started to his feet, hollowing his hand to his ear. We all heard a faint creaking, as of ropes and yards hitherto muffled by the storm. The sound came nearer and nearer; the thick mists were dimly parted by a huge, vague form. Affrighted, we all sprang into the sea as the ship at last loomed into view, bearing right down upon us within a distance of not much more than its length.

Floating on the waves we saw the abandoned boat, as for one instant it tossed and gaped beneath the ship's bows like a chip at the base of a cataract; and then the vast hull rolled over it, and it was seen no more till it came up weltering astern. Again we swam for it, were dashed against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on board. Ere the squall came close to, the other boats had cut loose from their fish and returned to the ship in good time. The ship had given us up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of our perishing,—an oar or a lance pole. [Moby Dick Chapter 48: The First Lowering]


With the word mat, stanza 18 situates Ishmael and Queequeg in Chapter 47: The Mat-Maker at the moment when the five castaway seamen hired by Ahab are first seen on the deck of the Pequod. Harpoonist Tashtego has made the call from his perch high in the rigging that he sees the first school of sperm whales. This interrupts Ishmael and Queequeg who are making a sword mat on deck. The crew prepares to lower the whale boats but attention to the whales is lost by the surprise appearance of the “five dusky phantoms.” Once the men are launched in their boats, much is made of the castaways whose skin color for most of them is yellow. In Stein’s wavering does and does not make assertion, the ripe juice indicates the possibility of an alcoholic beverage which would affect a sailor’s ability to say or do anything with certainty.

An ordinary color, a color is that strange mixture which makes, which does make which does not make a ripe juice, which does not make a mat. [“Breakfast.” Stanza 18]

But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air. [Moby Dick Chapter 47: The Mat-Maker]


Stanza 19 depicts Ishmael and Queequeg making the sword mat which requires Ishmael to wind a shuttle threaded with rope fibers (yarn) back and forth through the warp, while Queequeg tamps in the woof (the threaded yarn) with a long piece of wood called the sword. It is a relaxing occupation but the crew is eager to see white water which might mean whales swimming nearby.

This stanza repeats the word not six times and most of these nots might be thoughts of as knots, as in the way the mat-makers would finish off their sword mat. The etymology of the word winsome includes for win, the Indo-European root wen- meaning to desire, strive for. Because Ishmael calls himself the attendant or page (the subservient or feminine role) to Queequeg and then Stein gives us an insistent repetition of the word dainty (seven times) followed by there is reunion there is reunion, a sexual vibration permeates the scene until the spell is broken by a piercing shutter (this is Ishmael starting/startling at the sound he hears) that comes from a piercing shouter (Tashtego). Given that Queequeg keeps running his sword through the warp that Ishmael is tending, Ishmael’s reaction almost seems like he has been caught in the act of something sexual.

A work which is a winding a real winding of the cloaking of a relaxing rescue. This which is so cool is not dusting, it is not dirtying in smelling, it could use white water, it could use more extraordinarily and in no solitude altogether. This which is so not winsome and not widened and really not so dipped as dainty and really dainty, very dainty, ordinarily, dainty, a dainty, not in that dainty and dainty. If the time is determined, if it is determined and there is reunion there is reunion with that then outline, then there is in that a piercing shutter, all of a piercing shouter, all of a quite weather, all of a withered exterior, all of that in most violent likely. [“Breakfast.” Stanza 19]

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn; I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance- aye, chance, free will, and necessity- wise incompatible- all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course- its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.

Thus we were weaving and weaving away when I started at a sound so strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly, that the ball of free will dropped from my hand, and I stood gazing up at the clouds whence that voice dropped like a wing. High aloft in the cross-trees was that mad Gay-Header, Tashtego. His body was reaching eagerly forward, his hand stretched out like a wand, and at brief sudden intervals he continued his cries. To be sure the same sound was that very moment perhaps being heard all over the seas, from hundreds of whalemen’s look-outs perched as high in the air; but from few of those lungs could that accustomed old cry have derived such a marvellous cadence as from Tashtego the Indian’s. As he stood hovering over you half suspended in air, so wildly and eagerly peering towards the horizon, you would have thought him some prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate, and by those wild cries announcing their coming.

“There she blows! there! there! there! she blows! she blows!”


On the lee-beam, about two miles off! a school of them!”

Instantly all was commotion. [Moby Dick Chapter 47: The Mat-Maker]


The last three stanzas of “Breakfast.” seem different from the others relative to reading them through Moby Dick. Steiny will offer one way of looking at these stanzas but her expectation is that many other interpretations will surface.

The excuse of stanza 20 Steiny believes belongs to Captain Ahab who is full of negativity and therefore Stein gives us the word not four times among the 24 words of this stanza. His excuse for going after the White Whale that took off his leg is revenge but he tells his first mate Starbuck (see the passage quoted from Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck in the section of this essay labeled “Breaking Through Walls”) that his reason is much more complicated and therefore not the dreariness of personal vengeance. No his militancy concerns fighting “inscrutable malice” and not bending (crumbling) to this evil that cannot be comprehended. Steiny offers that butter is a stand in for blubber and weight is a stand in for wait.

An excuse is not dreariness, a single plate is not butter, a single weight is not excitement, a solitary crumbling is not only martial. [“Breakfast.” Stanza 20]


Similar to the last discussion of the Buttons Collective about stanza 21, minister is the key word that Steiny will use to conjecture that this stanza is about the mysterious Fedallah. Fedallah serves as Ahab’s minister, a person authorized as agent for another to carry out specified orders and functions. In suddenly producing Fedallah and the four yellow boys, Ahab sets them apart from the rest of the seamen aboard. They provide Ahab a mixed protection because then the maimed captain is able to get in a whale boat to hunt Moby Dick along with the boats headed by his three mates. Melville devotes Chapter 50: Ahab’s Boat and Crew (Fedallah) to discussing whether it is a smart idea for the leader of any group to put himself in harm’s way, let alone a man disabled by the loss of his leg.

A mixed protection, very mixed with the same actual intentional unstrangeness and riding, a single action caused necessarily is not more a sign than a minister. [“Breakfast.” Stanza 21]

Among whale-wise people it has often been argued whether, considering the paramount importance of his life to the success of the voyage, it is right for a whaling captain to jeopardize that life in the active perils of the chase. So Tamerlane's soldiers often argued with tears in their eyes, whether that invaluable life of his ought to be carried into the thickest of the fight.

But with Ahab the question assumed a modified aspect. Considering that with two legs man is but a hobbling wight in all times of danger; considering that the pursuit of whales is always under great and extraordinary difficulties; that every individual moment, indeed, then comprises a peril; under these circumstances is it wise for any maimed man to enter a whale-boat in the hunt? As a general thing, the joint-owners of the Pequod must have plainly thought not. [Moby Dick Chapter 50: Ahab’s Boat and Crew (Fedallah)]


The last stanza populated with words like knife, decision, mistake, standing certainly evoke details about Captain Ahab’s misfortunate encounter with Moby Dick. But not all the words in this subpoem are easily connected to Melville’s novel. Steiny offers two possibilities for working cat and scissors. A working cat could be slang for a Victorian prostitute who has armed herself with small dagger that also is scissors. Could Stein be doing double duty (1) pointing to Britain during the time of Jack the Ripper when prostitutes needed to arm themselves and (2) suggesting that Ahab, after his leg was sheared off by Moby Dick, then prostituted himself to the task of hunting and killing the monstrous whale? Alternatively, cat could be short for cathead, a projection from the bow of a ship for raising and supporting the anchor. Seat a knife [firmly fix in place a knife] near a cage [near the ribcage of a whale] and very near a decision [an incision] and more nearly a timely working cat and scissors.

In the whale boat, the harpoonist would expect to have a board (called a clumsy cleat) to anchor him in place when he stands up to throw his harpoon. Ahab also needed such a device to keep him standing in the boat which is certainly not stationary. The white place might be how the water looks when a hunted whale is churning up the water. Whaling ships have a shelter mid deck called an after house where an on duty sailor could get out of inclement weather. The color green might be referring to money earned after the ship collects whale oil and takes the product to market for sale.

Seat a knife near a cage and very near a decision and more nearly a timely working cat and scissors. Do this temporarily and make no more mistake in standing. Spread it all and arrange the white place, does this show in the house, does it not show in the green that is not necessary for that color, does it not even show in the explanation and singularly not at all stationary.

His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. [Moby Dick Chapter 41: Moby Dick]

…all hands had concluded the customary business of fitting the whaleboats for service; when some time after this Ahab was now and then found bestirring himself in the matter of making thole-pins with his own hands for what was thought to be one of the spare boats, and even solicitously cutting the small wooden skewers, which when the line is running out are pinned over the groove in the bow: when all this was observed in him, and particularly his solicitude in having an extra coat of sheathing in the bottom of the boat, as if to make it better withstand the pointed pressure of his ivory limb; and also the anxiety he evinced in exactly shaping the thigh board, or clumsy cleat, as it is sometimes called, the horizontal piece in the boat's bow for bracing the knee against in darting or stabbing at the whale; when it was observed how often he stood up in that boat with his solitary knee fixed in the semi-circular depression in the cleat, and with the carpenter's chisel gouged out a little here and straightened it a little there; all these things, I say, had awakened much interest and curiosity at the time. But almost everybody supposed that this particular preparative heedfulness in Ahab must only be with a view to the ultimate chase of Moby Dick; for he had already revealed his intention to hunt that mortal monster in person. [Moby Dick Chapter 50: Ahab’s Boat and Crew (Fedallah)]

One final thing—you might be wondering if all the text of Tender Buttons can be read through Moby Dick. Steiny says don’t count on this. Gertrude Stein is consistent with surprises because she is braiding many things together. This is what makes her work exceed three dimensions and keeps her current beyond Modernism.


Karren Alenier said...

One more thought about the working cat—this could be short for a cat of nine tails whip.

However, no one on the Pequod was whipped but there was the story about Steelkilt from the Town-Ho Whaler whose co-conspirators were whipped but he was about to be cut down after whispering something to the captain. Then he did get some strokes from the chief mate who Steelkilt got into a fight with.

Karren Alenier said...

Stanza 19 which begins—A work which is a winding a real winding of the cloaking of a relaxing rescue, could also be pointing to Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets of Moby Dick. In Chapter 78, Tashtego falls into the head of the sperm whale that is lashed to the side of the Pequod and then the whale head falls into the sea. Queequeg then jumps into the sea and pulls Tashtego out of the head and saves him—a spectacular rescue!

Now, how had this noble rescue been accomplished? Why, diving after the slowly descending head, Queequeg with his keen sword had made side lunges near its bottom, so as to scuttle a large hole there; then dropping his sword, had thrust his long arm far inwards and upwards, and so hauled out poor Tash by the head. He averred, that upon first thrusting in for him, a leg was presented; but well knowing that that was not as it ought to be, and might occasion great trouble; – he had thrust back the leg, and by a dexterous heave and toss, had wrought a somerset upon the Indian; so that with the next trial, he came forth in the good old way – head foremost. As for the great head itself, that was doing as well as could be expected.

And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.

There is more to back up the language of Stein's stanza 19 and more.