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,...
(The entire section is 1,840 words.)