Olsen, Tillie (Vol. 4)

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Olsen, Tillie 1913–

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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...

(The entire section contains 1717 words.)

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Olsen, Tillie (Vol. 13)