Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Through the Holbrook family, Yonnondio: From the Thirties tells the stories of working people in three states and at least as many forms of employment. In particular, the novel shows Mazie Holbrook approaching her teen years and simultaneously developing a consciousness of the injustices and perplexities of the world, ranging from violence to avarice. Mazie stands on the developmental threshold between childhood and young adulthood, the emotional threshold between hope and despair, and the artistic threshold between creating beauty and yielding to the forces that would preempt or corrupt such beauty.

Yonnondio, Tillie Olsen’s first novel, was published for the first time in 1974, but its writing was begun as early as 1932. At that time, Olsen hoped to unite her commitments as an artist and an activist by generating this socially conscious text. The novel’s opening chapter, “The Iron Throat,” originally appeared in Partisan Review in 1934. It is the only portion of the novel published when first written. Olsen completed the rest of the text in two stages spanning the intervening years. Therefore, the novel that she published in 1974 represents a painstaking reconstruction of text.

During the 1970’s, Olsen received a grant from the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ community, to attempt completion of her as yet unpublished novel. She resolved to assemble the novel entirely from extant manuscript pages, adding...

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Yonnondio Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Through her poems, essays, and fictions, Tillie Olsen has devised and demonstrated a theory of women’s writing as it is variously silenced in an androcentric culture. This novel, published belatedly and rescued from textual fragments written decades earlier, represents a case study in women’s literary silence. It is the novel readers nearly did not see; it is a reconstituted work through which Olsen attempted “to tell what might have been, and never will be now.” Even the women who appear in Yonnondio, most notably Mazie and Anna, find themselves restrained from artistic expression or fulfillment by the oppressive contexts in which they must operate. Therefore, Olsen calls attention not only to those silences that customarily punctuate cycles of writing activity but also to “unnatural” silences that, through circumstance, thwart otherwise productive writers or condemn them to obscurity.

With her concern for reconstructing narratives of the literary and cultural past, and her examples of how that objective might be approached (through both fiction and nonfiction), Olsen inspires readers and writers alike to take note of such silencing forces as gender roles limiting women’s authority to engage writing with “totality of self” and notions of excellence that tend to render women’s perspectives minor, marginal, or invisible. Among other factors, Olsen notes that the demands of marriage and motherhood compete with women’s time and energy for written expression. Drawing from the lives of many of the most famous figures of women’s literature written in English, Olsen observes that many such women never married: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, Ellen Glasgow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Marianne Moore, Christina Rossetti, Gertrude Stein, and Eudora Welty. Other women writers did not marry until their thirties: Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Olive Schreiner. Many writers, though married, were childless: Lillian Hellman, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, Dorothy Richardson, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

Through her vivid reenvisioning of literary history, of voices both heard and unheard, Tillie Olsen has helped to initiate a praxis of feminist criticism, scholarship, and fiction directing itself toward a collective consciousness of women’s journey into speech and struggle toward empowerment. Olsen’s influence on both feminists and writers of the New Left can be discerned in the work of such women writers as Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin.

Yonnondio Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dawahare, Anthony. “ That Joyous Certainty’: History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen’s Depression-Era Literature.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Fall, 1998): 261. An analysis of Olsen’s literary works of the 1930’s. Explores how the labor movement and events such as the hunger marches, Bonus March, rent strikes, and other expressions of working-class rebellion influenced Olsen’s major work of the 1930’s, Yonnondio. Maintains that Olsen depicts the functioning of the working-class family as an index of the level of exploitation and the value of a society.

Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993. Focuses on four major themes in Olsen’s writings: motherhood, relationships between men and women, community, and language. Faulkner examines Yonnondio as well as many of Olsen’s lesser-known writings.

Jameson, Elizabeth. “Written, They Reappear: Rereading Yonnondio.” Frontiers 18 (September-December, 1997): 141-145. Jameson’s personal evaluation of the novel. She discusses the book’s major themes, examines its class and gender relationships, and relates the lessons she learned from her initial reading and reexamination of Olsen’s novel. She sees the novel as encouraging women to seek new opportunities and to define their identity through the novel’s emphasis on family. Finally, the book underscores the importance of collective action and interdependence.

Nelson, Kay H., and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical...

(The entire section is 691 words.)