Introduction

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Olsen, Tillie 1913–

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Olsen is a prize-winning American novelist and short story writer. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In [Yonnondio,] a mercifully brief, emotionally charged narrative incorporating all imaginable horrors experienced by a destitute, ill, and starving family during the Depression in the early thirties, [Tillie Olsen] forcefully portrays their plight, not sparing the reader intrepid enough to endure so brutal an account of so much gloom and despair. Here is art of a kind for those who take vicarious delight in the contemplation of absolute human degradation. (p. cxx)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 4 (Autumn, 1974).

Catharine R. Stimpson

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Olsen's compelling gift is her ability to render lyrically the rhythms of consciousness of victims [in Yonnondio: From the Thirties]. Imaginative, affectionate, they are also alert to the sensual promise of their surroundings. Harsh familial, social, political and economic conditions first cramp, then maim, and then seek to destroy them. The fevers of poverty, dread and futility inflame their sensibilities. They risk reduction to defensive fantasy, pain, madness or cruelty. They remain, if in shadow, heroes and heroic.

Olsen assumes that such victims cannot often speak for themselves. Their dumbness is no fault of their own. Her self-imposed task is to become their voice as well as their witness, their text as well as their mourner. She signifies her respect for their dignity in the exactitude and scrupulous effort of her work. She sardonically tells her reader that the received categories of culture, such as classicism and romanticism, also fit the citizens of a Wyoming town as they wait to hear how many men have died in a mine explosion that official cowardice, incompetence and corruption have caused. If she were to take part in that theological quarrel over whether an artist's primary commitment is to craft or to social change, she might say that an artist can work for change through writing about the oppressed with all the craft and tools at hand. She also comments on the economic basis of high culture. She writes of an adolescent boy forced into the mines:

Earth take your dreams that a few may languidly lie on couches and trill "How exquisite" to paid dreamers.

Olsen's politics and anger are a part of a particular decade: her subtitle, "From the Thirties," is seriously meant. She notes that Yonnondio "bespeaks the consciousness and roots of that decade, if not its events." An anachronism or two betrays the gap between narrative setting and actual reference. Despite her nostalgia for rural ritual, she refuses to offer an exclusive vision of bucolic joy. She wants unions and solidarity among all workers, no matter what their race or ethnic heritage. (p. 565)

Catharine R. Stimpson, "Three Women Work It Out," in The Nation (copyright 1974 The Nation Associates), November 30, 1974, pp. 565-66.

Peter Ackroyd

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[Yonnondio] is a conventional story, as stories go, but the plot is in fact the least important element of the novel. This is not because it is incomplete (the book has only recently been recovered in a less than perfect form), but because the narrative is consumed by the effects of Miss Olsen's prose. A pattern of images is cast over the writing from the opening chapters, and there is a characteristic attention to description rather than analysis—it is a matter of dialogue rather than character, of situations rather than incidents. Yonnondio is a romantic novel, in the sense that Man and Nature are seen in a close and often destructive relationship, and its language becomes the space between them—instinctive with life, both mortal and at the same time capable of expressing certain permanent...

(The entire section contains 1931 words.)

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