Olsen, Tillie 1913–
Mrs Olsen is a prize-winning American novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
The strength of Mrs. Olsen's writing is remarkable, and the Holbrooks' threadbare, famished odyssey [Yonnondio] cannot help but arouse shame in those of us who have ever spoken lightly of poverty. This is in no way a treatise on poverty—it is the story of real people who are visibly shackled by having no money at all and by the daily insults offered by the world to their pride. To see the abundance of life and energy in Anna and Jim is very painful, because seeing it means that we are close witnesses to a fierce and almost breathless struggle, as these young parents attempt to make a living for themselves and their children in a world that has no interest in them. There are neighbors everywhere, and on every page a sense of teeming, tumbling life, so that the Holbrooks' struggle and their bafflement are the struggle and the bafflement of multitides. Mrs. Olsen is a most appealing writer, a strange new charmer in the wilderness that is fiction today.
The New Yorker, March 25, 1974, pp. 140-41.
Unlike the poor protagonists of some highly praised social realist novels of Yonnondio's period, the Holbrooks' virtues don't give them superior strength, their defeat has no tinge of triumph….
The cadences of Yonnondio seem almost a development of the structure of [Rebecca Harding Davis'] "Life in the Iron Mills." Lyrically brutal scenes are followed by pleas that the reader connect these lives with his own. Sentences break off midway; transitions are surprisingly abrupt. But what is a losing struggle with words in Davis is distinctively rhythmic in Olsen. Yonnondio, whose language is often achingly beautiful, is an elegy that acts on the reader indirectly by its emotional suggestiveness, rather than by its direct succession of events. The young Tillie Olsen was already an artist, but her vision was only half formed. [Mrs. Olsen began her novel in 1932.] Something central is missing from Yonnondio; and, although it may be unfair to judge an unfinished work by normal standards, in this case the finished work might have been similarly unsatisfying. In her youthful enthusiasm for "Life in the Iron Mills," Olsen perhaps didn't realize that Davis saw no redemption for her characters except money. Olsen makes us aware of the Holbrooks' humanity, but Yonnondio is an elegy that is as inarticulate as its characters about what is being mourned.
Until the family comes to the city, the novel belongs to Mazie, who at six is already something of a mystic. From her child's view, everything is twice life-size; defeats are more crushing, but even the smallest discovery is an epiphany. When Mazie finds visions in cloud formations, Olsen comes close briefly to Whitman's pantheism. But in the city the ailing mother Anna becomes the focus, and we only glimpse Mazie. This is a serious mistake. If we could experience the novel's cumulative revelation—poverty is final and all-embracing—through the corrosion of Mazie's sensibility, Yonnondio would be a success despite its fragmentation, because the possibilities that poverty has negated would be real for us. But Anna doesn't become the central figure until long after she has lost her sense of self-hood. She is wrenching, but Olsen can't lift her out of pathos. The hurt of Yonnondio is finally Anna's hurt; and since Anna is insubstantial, the pain is localized.
In Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker, also about a farm family dislocated in a large city, the reader identifies totally with Gertie Nevels, the strongly intelligent heroine. Her ultimate defeat has a tragic meaning because we know what she might have been. Yonnondio, never completed in the first place and undefined in its fragments, needs a center like Gertie. Twenty years after Yonnondio, when she wrote the stories of Tell Me a Riddle, Olsen found characters who could fully embody her vision of hope with hopelessness, of beauty in the midst of ugliness. Yonnondio is a failed attempt at that later achievement, and it puts the reader through much pain without the release that fulfilled art brings; but it offers the opportunity to read a flawed but extraordinary early work knowing that its author would later bring her art to completion.
John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 30, 1974, pp. 28-9.
It is remarkable that Tillie Olsen, who already knew profoundly as a young writer what a great weight poor women carry, had also a deep sympathy for the restlessness and degraded pride of the men. And throughout "Yonnondio," her portrayal of faltering, caring motherhood and fatherhood against the most overwhelming of odds is tremendously moving.
"Yonnondio" soon moves into myth, an odyssey indeed, and its style into incantation. At one point I had the feeling that it should be read aloud by firelight, that it was something very close, for immigrant America, to the myths of origin and wandering that carried the whole inner history of American Indian tribes. But "Yonnondio" moves even beyond this Whitmanesque moment. Its archetypal figures—the shawled women waiting around a caved-in mine, the man slumped on his front porch, "menacing weariness riding his flesh like despair"—deepen into individuals…. With this work (as perhaps with the poetry of Sylvia Plath) motherhood must finally be counted among the circumstances that can simultaneously hinder and nourish genius.
The most fully drawn characters in "Yonnondio" are the women….
Annie Gottlieb, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1974, p. 5.
Yonnondio clearly must take its place as the best novel to come out of the so-called proletarian movement of the '30s. The dogma and stilted characterizations that deform so many of the novels of that period have no place in Tillie Olsen's writing. She is a consummate artist who, in a paragraph such as the following one about the life of a miner, demonstrates just how searingly successful "protest" writing can be: "Someday the bowels (of the earth) will grow monstrous and swollen with these old tired dreams, swell and break, and strong fists batter the fat bellies, and skeletons of starved children batter them, and perhaps you will be slugged by a thug hired by the fat bellies, Andy Kvaternick. Or death will take you to bed at last, or you will strangle with that old crony of miners, the asthma." I know of no work that "bespeaks the consciousness and roots" of the 1930s as brilliantly as Yonnondio.
But it would be a terrible mistake to see Yonnondio as a work limited to, and bound by, the '30s. Mrs. Olsen's richness of style, her depth of characterization, and her enormous compassion make Yonnondio a work which must not—cannot—be restricted by any particular time or period. Its publication simply reinforces what we already know from Tell Me a Riddle: Tillie Olsen is one of the greatest prose stylists now writing. One can only think ruefully of what might have been had she not been "denied full writing life"—had those 40 years been hers, and so our, not 40 years of "unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot." Mrs. Olsen is quite right when she says (again, in "Death of the Creative Process") that a writer cannot be reconciled "for what is lost by unnatural silences." Yonnondio! Yonnondio! "The word itself a dirge," wrote Whitman. "Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost." But now, with the publication of the found manuscript—unfinished as it may be—we can say: At least not that—not utterly lost. Yonnondio is a magnificent novel, one to be all the more cherished for the disruption it makes into the unnatural silence of Tillie Olsen.
Jack Salzman, "Fragments of Time Lost," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 7, 1974, p. 1.
Tillie Olsen is miner, archaeologist, and museum-curator for a special and growing collection. Special because in it she disdains her role of culture-bearer, of preserving man's culture, and salvages instead the work, the thought, the dream nearly buried beneath it because it belongs to the poor and forgotten, especially women. All her work—editing, compiling bibliographies of working-class women's literature, essay and fiction-writing—springs from this single goal of reclamation. This involves tireless research and the skill of adjusting our vision so that we can understand and value, see what has been neglected before. The process is conservative, the effect insidiously revolutionary….
Some readers may wish the mature Olsen had not refrained, as she did, from rewriting. Olsen began it at 19, and "Yonnondio" is unmistakeably the work of a young author. That was 1932 and the novel has the feel of the '30s and even of earlier work. Since she was 15, Olsen had been carrying around [Rebecca Harding] Davis's story ["Life in the Iron Mills"], and some of that bold and simple compassion, risking sentimentality, is here. And I sometimes feel the lyrical pain of Stephen Crane, but never his detachment. Although the vision of industrial and urban horror feels ancient, the writing is fresh. I like it best for the way it expresses on another level Olsen's life-project of snatching beauty from destruction. The heart of meaning in this book, the key to its rhythm, is the phoenix rebirth of spirit….
I found the misery at first too unremitting to feel. Over-written or over-suffered—I don't know which to call it. But Olsen is wise about feeling and moves past this. Her last three chapters resume the rhythm of the struggle between the meanings of mine and farm, circumstance and spirit. The deepest impression the book leaves—what keeps it painful but not depressing—is of the intimate knowledge the poor and desperate have of happiness because it is so tenuous….
"Yonnondio" lays the ground for Olsen's later and greater story. "Tell Me a Riddle," which more directly poses the paradox confronting women: that children, who most identify and confirm the values women want to bring to the transformation of the world, most surely bind them away from such action.
Bell Gale Chevigny, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), May 23, 1974, pp. 38-9.