rev. of Yonnondio by Tillie Olsen

Issue #6
Fall 1974

The publication of Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio is to me a personal event because Tillie Olsen herself has had such large effect upon me as teacher, as friend, as a writer reverenced long before I met her and these remarks do not pretend to be either objective or dispassionate. Rather, they are meant in frank appreciation of the older writer who has been such a generous guide to a younger one still struggling with his craft, and of the splendid talent, the genius, already manifest in this early book, wrought when their author was still engaged in that struggle herself, albeit more successfully.

Yonnondio has been forty years in waiting for a public life. Tillie Olsen was nineteen when this novel was begun in 1932. Born Tillie Lerner, she had been raised in Omaha, the daughter of immigrant parents, revolutionaries who had fled Tzarist Russia after the revolt of 1905. By her mid-teens she had left home. Most of her education had been undertaken in public libraries,

and she was already a feminist-humanist and a revolutionary in her own right, one of an American variety, her ideology drawn as much from Whitman as from Marx. And already a writer at work. In 1934 an early chapter of
Yonnondio appeared in the newly-established
Partisan Review. It was hailed there as an "unmistakable work of early genius," attracting widespread attention, and when Tillie was jailed for her participation that year in the San Francisco General Strike a small legion of New York publishers arrived to bail her out. Yet by 1937 the book had been set aside. There was a family, and the immediate human obligations entailed not only the work of motherhood, but everyday jobs, participation in neighborhood urgencies and causes, even presidency of the grade-school P.T.A. all precluded writing, attention to herself. For twenty years she was silent, but during the McCarthyist fifties, when her children were older, when the organization of a neighborhood childcare coop permitted a change of jobs, when later the youngest child was in school, what had been "beginnings of writing. . .struggled toward endings,"

though it was far from a time unburdened and unhindered. In 1956, however, she received a Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford and "snatches of time" became eight month's writing time: "I did not have to go out on a job. I had continuity, three full days, sometimes more. . ." The long story she began that year, "Tell Me A Riddle," is an unequivocal masterpiece "It will be read," Julian Moynihan has said, "as long as the American language lasts" and it won for her the O'Henry Prize, opened the way to fellowships and grants, teaching jobs, and, at last, the opportunity to devote her time more fully to literature. A volume of four stories,
Tell Me A Riddle, appeared in 1962, and two novels have been in the works since then. A piece of one,
Requa, was printed in
Best American Short Stories 1971.

In 1971, in searching through old papers, the manuscript that is now called
Yonnondio was rediscovered. I saw a section of it then, typed and handwritten on greenish sheets, the paper so brittle with age that the edges flaked cleanly like chips of paint when touched: the few chapters were bound together with an old, curliqued paperclip, a kind that I had never seen, and I recall that somehow that clip became symbolic to me of the entire manuscript, a human design, useful, ingenious, forgotten. I read through those pages with great excitement, but it seemed inconceivable to me that the book could possibly be made whole. The pages were discontinuous, passages were incomplete, the many marginal notations seemed often indecipherable or obscure. Nevertheless, with time at the MacDowell Colony in 1972, Tillie set about the job of trying to put the novel back together. Nothing was rewritten. The first four chapters are intact, published as they were written in the thirties, the rest pieced together, as Tillie has said, "in arduous partnership" of the older writer with
the young one, from old makings, choosing between drafts, notes, scribbles.

Unfinished, it is nonetheless a remarkable, towering work.
Yonnondio deals with the Holbrooks, Anna and Jim, and their five children Mazie, Will, Ben, Jimmie and Bess and their participation in the primeval American quest in search of a better life, moving from a gritty, Wyoming coal-mining town, to a profitless tenant farm in South Dakota, then onto the back of the stockyards squalor of an unnamed prairie city. In all quarters theirs is a life of unvarnished misery, of poverty, illness, demeaning labor, of cramped desire, and of an existence so absorbed in the small mechanics of survival that any sense of greater human purpose lies obliterated, obscured, a distant aching, a knowledge too remote to be recognized or named. Without apology, this is a proletarian novel, didactic in intent. The brutal working conditions, the stockyard smells, the gouging bankers, the shabby homes, the yoke of mindless, female toil are all recorded with a vividness sprung from an infinite outrage and compassion. Early in the novel, there is even an angry address to the
owners of the coal mines from the author.

Dear Company. Your men are imprisoned in a tomb of hunger, of death wages. Your men are strangling for breath the walls of your company town have clamped out the air of freedom. Please issue a statement. Quick, or they start to batter through with the fists of strike, with the pickax of revolution.

Yonnondio does not suffer from the facile pretense which marred so much proletarian literature of the thirties
The Grapes of Wrath comes most immediately to mind in which noble, dauntless working people moved between crushing travails without loss of spirit. "The maiming power of circumstance," the dust jacket says in describing the novel's theme and I can think of no better description of my own. The Holbrooks and their five children are unable to prevent material conditions from deforming them and their best hopes, and the greatness of
Yonnondio rests on its portrayal of the relationship between poverty and the acts of an embattled spirit, evoking it as a true human process, inevitable and complex, rather than the kind of small-minded arithmetic which that relationship became in the liberal sociology of the sixties. Jim drinks hard, occasionally beating his wife and children out of frustration, reviling Anna for not being able to always make a dollar "stretch like rubber," and she, in turn, curses him for his failure to earn, sinking on her own at times into a reclusive dreaminess, remote from the endless duties of her household. Mazie, still longing for country freedoms, fails in school and is forced by her mother, in need of aid, into the same homebound female realm. And Will, recognizing somehow that his only future is the hard life of his parents, becomes surly, rebellious, headed for a losing mismatch against the world. The small triumphs of spirit warm moments with the family united, the children's avid
education of themselves, Anna's brief sensation of "happiness, farness, selfness" experienced as she is picking greens for her family's supper in an overgrown, suburban lot are never sufficient to overcome the crippling effects of deprivation.

The telling of all of this is in the Tillie Olsen style, high-flown, lyrical, impressionistic. One disdains, for obvious reasons, an academic discussion of technique, and yet, of course, an author's style represents not simply a technical know-how, but a way of seeing, the manner in which one consciousness apprehends experience, and it is remarkable that forty years ago a style unique to all our literature had already taken shape, that this young writer was so much in touch with herself. All of the hallmarks of Tillie Olsen's narrative manner are present: the tender frugality with words, the passionate description of sensation, the stripped compression of individual scenes, and the remarkable choral effect of a voice which somehow, like Faulkner's, sweeps from recitation of the stray thoughts of a child passed on the street to direct address of the reader. Like God, the authorial personna in Tillie Olsen's work knows all, and like a God men have not dreamed of in centuries, she knows it
with a compassion whih requires articulation for those too tormented to speak for themselves, the transformation of all human feeling into the majestical, the poetical, the eternal. Consider, for instance, the luminous moment that is made of the random banging of a pot lid by the infant Bess.

She releases, grabs, releases, grabs. I can do. Bang! I can do. I! A Neanderthal look of concentration is on her face. That noise! In triumphant astounded joy she clashes the lid down. Bang, slam, whack. Release, grab, slam, bang, bang. Centuries of human drive work in her; human ecstacy of achievement, satisfaction deep and fundamental as sex:
I achieve, I use my powers; I! I!

And yet that same atmosphere of grand purpose which animates the narrative and which gives
Yonnondio its rolling, incantatory power at times becomes overbearingly sentimental and romantic; that is probably the novel's only significant fault, that ordinary gestures and events are so often attributed enormous meaning. Even a spell of miserable, oppressive heat which falls upon that prairie city is treated as if it were part of an active conspiracy against the working poor. The mute, small appreciation of day to day affairs with which we all make do the rhythm of labor, the relief of trivial irony, coarse humor, uninspired companionship, those long periods of time for which the most adequate verb is neither "want", nor "dream", nor even "suffer", but simply "is" is to some extent unacknowledged in
Yonnondio, and with those moments underrepresented, the novel occasionally seems distorted, unfairly intense, almost gothic in the texture of its reality. And there are smaller flaws as well, a tendency throughout toward melodramatic contrivance of events at one point an almost extra-sensory urge causes Mazie to dash across the broken cornfields in South Dakota to receive deathbed advice from an old man who's shown her kindness and the children, Mazie especially, are to my taste cloyingly precious compared to the children who appeared in Tillie Olsen's later fiction, which had been enriched by twenty years of motherhood.

But that is the point of course, that the faults of
Yonnondio are directly attributable to its author's youth, a point which goes to one of the great values of this book beyond the immediate realm of art. So many of our writers of stature suppress,
hide the books which were the very touchstones for discovery of their talent, the first books which went unread, unpublished. Where is the novel for which Mailer could not find a publisher when he left Harvard, the three books Walker Percy wrote then condemned to the drawer before he finished
The Moviegoer? Though a public now exists which would read these books with interest, they are turned aside as bastard children, unworthy of their author's current reputation; in consequence, we are too often left with the impression that important writers spring like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, full-grown, replete with wisdom and skill. Tillie Olsen would no longer write a book flawed in the ways of
Yonnondio but she has sent it forth, and it stands as a frank encouragement to younger writers to see, to learn, to know that even great talent is not always perfect in its inclination, in its shape, and that what inspires those imperfect efforts is not of itself less worthy than what will be said later with greater finesse.

There is, then, even beyond its intrinsic richness and force, the potent feel of History always attached to
Yonnondio the history of one young writer journeying to herself, and also the history of lives that have been largely unrecorded in our literature. The subtitle, "From the Thirties," is somewhat misleading, for although that is when the novel was written,
Yonnondio actually addresses the 1920's, an era we are now inclined to recall primarily in terms of the grim, glittery life portrayed by Fitzgerald, and the romantic expatriotism of Hemingway, and the intellectual despair of Eliot.
Yonnondio preserves for us the other lives of that period, lived, even before the hard times of the thirties, in destitute migration and anguished powerlessness until the Labor movement won for many a small hold on an easier existence. And in both regards the author and the times though the degree and nature of the triumph is different, we are able to take from
Yonnondio the sole comfort of History, evidence of the old and noble glory of human progress and development.

1 Reading outside academic strictures, she was the discoverer and maker of her own literary tradition. In old volumes of the
Atlantic Monthly from 1861 purchased for a dime in an Omaha junkshop she first read
Life In The Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis, a brief novel dealing with the life of the working poor in mid-nineteenth century America. Both in its subject matter and as the work of a gifted female artist whose talent was eventually crushed and squandered, it has been a long inspiration to Tillie, and partly at her suggestion, The Feminist Press last year re-issued
Life which had been for a century virtually unread. Tillie provided a lengthy afterword, a biographical interpretation of the life of Rebecca Harding Davis.

2 "Silences: When Writers Don't Write,"
Harper's, October 1965.