Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
The manuscript of Yonnondio: From the Thirties was lost to Tillie Olsen for more than thirty years before being accidentally discovered by her husband, who was looking for other papers. A portion of the novel had been published in 1934 in The Partisan Review, a journal devoted to socialist writing. Although the story was well received by critics, Olsen never completed the novel. Instead, she reared a family of four children and worked at part-time jobs for most of her adult life until the 1961 publication of Tell Me a Riddle. This collection of stories led to the discovery of Tillie Olsen as a major literary talent, and it made the publication of Yonnondio an important addition to her works. Olsen decided not to add to or substantially revise the manuscript. At the conclusion of the eight chapters of this unfinished novel, Olsen adds the following note: “Reader, it was not to have ended here, but it is nearly forty years since this book had to be set aside, never to come to completion.”
The title is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman called “Yonnondio.” In the poem, Whitman laments the passing of the great American Indian nations in the face of the white man’s advance. After recalling the contributions of these peoples, Whitman concludes the poem, “Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.” That line could serve as a description of the middle years of Olsen’s career: Although she began to develop her art in the 1930’s, circumstances led to her being silenced as a writer for more than twenty years.
The novel depicts the experiences of Jim and Anna Holbrook and their family. Jim is an itinerant laborer who struggles to find a decent job, first in a coal mine in Wyoming, then on a tenant farm in North Dakota, and finally in a meatpacking house in Omaha, Nebraska. No matter where Jim works, he never earns enough to make ends meet. He feels trapped in a recurring cycle of poverty and desperation. He loves his wife and children but feels trapped by them because they represent a limit to his freedom as a man and an insurmountable financial burden. He begins to drink excessively, abuses his wife, and neglects his children.
Anna tries to be responsive to his misery, but she is overwhelmed with the duties of homemaking and child care, and she often faces bouts of depression. She suffers from physical exhaustion and experiences a miscarriage. Anna wants her children to have a better life than Jim and she have had, and she values education as one way the children might improve their lot in life. The children, however, have few opportunities for education. Anna often experiences stress over the narrow limitations of her role as a woman. An old man in the novel characterizes her as a woman who “has had everything to grind out life and yet has kept life.” Anna experiences a major victory in the novel when she asserts her independence in the face of Jim’s restrictive attitudes.
The politics of the novel are clearly on the side of the proletariat, that class of people who have the lowest status—the working class in an industrialist society. Everyone who hires Jim Holbrook takes advantage of him. The coal mining company compels him to do work that is physically demanding and dangerous. The wage he earns is insufficient for his family’s basic needs. After working one season on a tenant farm in North Dakota, Jim is deeper in debt than when he started at the beginning of the season. When he works as a laborer in Omaha, his wage never keeps pace with the family’s expenses. Jim’s plight underscores a common theme in Marxist-socialist politics: The worker has “nothing to sell but his labor power.”
Consequently, the worker is stripped of his identity and becomes a tool of the economic forces that control his destiny. At one point, Olsen explains that if workers were to revolt, they “could wipe out the whole thing, the whole god-damn thing, and a human could be a human for the first time on earth.” Both Jim and Anna, then, are victims of complex economic forces that exclude a number of people from the opportunities of attaining the American Dream.
Olsen portrays this economic exploitation symbolically throughout the novel. The coal becomes a symbol of the domination of the workers’ lives: “Earth sucks you in, to spew out the coal, to make a few fat bellies fatter.” The stench of the meatpacking houses in Omaha also dominated the landscape of the people who lived there. Olsen writes, “That is a reminder—a proclamation—I rule here.” Wherever the family turns, they are rendered powerless by a harsh and unsympathetic economic system.
At times Olsen’s writing style appears to be a combination of the graphic realism of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) with the lyrical poetry of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). The latter style is most evident in Olsen’s emulation of the lengthy descriptive passages common to Whitman’s poetry. In one scene, she summarizes what is lost when an individual realizes his lot in life: “the little things gone: shoeshine and tailormades, tickets to a baseball game, and a girl, a girl to love up, whiskey down your gullet, and laughter, the happy belch of a full stomach, and walking with your shoulders back, tall and proud.” Such passages reveal both an eye for detail and a sensitivity to the suffering of impoverished human beings.
Most of the story is told from the point of view of Mazie, Jim and Anna Holbrook’s oldest child. Mazie is in a position to witness the terrible deprivation experienced by the family and the growing sense of desperation felt by her parents. In some scenes Mazie is called upon to become a “parent” to her parents as well as to her siblings. Readers gain insights into Mazie’s character directly, through the technique of interior monologues; they portray the thoughts of a character in richly descriptive passages. This technique helps readers identify with Mazie’s experiences.
In other cases, Olsen introduces the points of view of the parents and many minor characters. Late in the novel, Anna’s point of view begins to predominate as she recovers a sense of purpose in her life and asserts herself in her relationship with Jim. On several occasions, Olsen directly addresses the readers in order to involve them in the political messages inherent in her work and in the lives of the characters she portrays. More than anything, Olsen wants readers to know that people such as Mazie and her parents suffer; she wants to give voice to the silent and the oppressed so that others can listen to what they have to say.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691
The plot of this short novel is simple and incomplete. Jim and Anna Holbrook and their growing family move from a small Wyoming mining town to a farm in South Dakota and finally to Omaha, Nebraska, always in search of work and the elusive realization of their dreams for a settled and secure life. Their quest is frustrated at every turn by the power of circumstance: by bad weather and worse luck and by the social and economic forces that are beyond their control in the West of the 1920’s. In Wyoming, a drunken miner tries to throw Mazie down a mine shaft to appease the fierce gods he believes inhabit that dark place—and falls in himself instead. In South Dakota, they cannot work hard enough to make their small tenant farm profitable. In Omaha, after months of working in sewers for subsistence wages, Jim finally gets work in a meat-packing house—and Anna has a miscarriage and nearly dies. The novel breaks off abruptly at this point, where Tillie Olsen stopped writing it in 1937. She had planned to follow the lives of Mazie and her brother Will into the 1930’s and to show the influence of these early years as the two became adults in the struggles of the Depression. When she rediscovered and reassembled the manuscript in the early 1970’s, however, she decided to add “no rewriting, no new writing,” as she explains in a note at the end. The novel is thus a brilliant fragment, evocative but finally incomplete.
Like many other proletarian novels of the 1930’s, Yonnondio describes the migration or flight from farm and town to the city, as families searched and scratched to earn a living in the midst of drought and farm crises in the South and Midwest in the years before the stock market crash of 1929. From the sound of the “iron throat” mine whistle calling men to work—or warning families of accident and death—at the opening of the novel, to the putrid smells of the slaughterhouses of Omaha in a heat wave at the end, this is the story of a working-class family struggling against the social and economic hardships of life in 1920’s America. It is the other side of the Horatio Alger myth, the underbelly of the American Dream. Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Yonnondio is about survival in “the other America” for the disenfranchised. Predictably, the novel has some of the best descriptions of work to be found in twentieth century American fiction, not only in the sections detailing Jim’s jobs in the packing house but also in longer passages describing Anna’s daily life as mother and housewife.
The novel is fragmentary and unfinished in narrative style as well. There is little of the smooth narrative flow of popular fiction here; instead, Olsen jumps from incident to incident, from one character’s perception to another’s, often with little or no transition or explanation. The perspective is also rather blurry: Much of the novel is narrated through the consciousness of the young Mazie, but other sections are rendered from the point of view of her mother. (The first perspective reminds one of the narrative techniques in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep of 1934, one of the best proletarian novels to come out of the 1930’s; the second anticipates the powerful prose style of Olsen’s own 1961 collection of stories, Tell Me a Riddle, and in particular of the title story.) Finally, there are also narrative inserts in the novel where Olsen provides a broader perspective or looks at other characters in ways the Holbrooks could not see them. Like John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (1937-1938), another Depression novel with which Yonnondio shares much, Olsen’s short work mixes several narrative voices and experiments with both style and structure. Had the novel been completed or rewritten in the 1970’s, undoubtedly some of its rough spots would have been sanded down; as it is, the novel has the texture of an unfinished, experimental proletarian work written in the 1930’s—which is exactly what it is.