Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Yonnondio: From the Thirties Study Guide

The history of Yonnondio is as interesting as the book itself. It is an unfinished novel. Tillie Olsen wrote the majority of it when she was nineteen years old. Indeed, she estimates that she began the novel in March 1932, the same month she became pregnant with her first child. What we know today as Yonnondio is actually a "recovered" text. In 1972, Olsen's husband Jack discovered chapters, notes, and scraps among her old papers. Olsen spent the next two years piecing the novel together; in 1974 it was published in the form we have now. This is the reason why the novel's narration is occasionally uneven and there are jolts in point of view. Olsen insisted, in piecing the book together, that she would not write new portions, even for the benefit of clarity and closure. The result is collaboration between a young Tillie Olsen and an older Tillie Olsen, a collaboration that formed an open-ended text encouraging reader participation.

In the early 1930s, when Olsen first began working on Yonnondio, she was an active participant in the Young Communists' League. In 1934, the same year that "The Iron Throat" (the first chapter of Yonnondio) was published in Partisan Review, Olsen was arrested for her role in the violent San Francisco Maritime Strike. Along with her future husband, Jack Olsen, she was jailed on a vagrancy charge?the typical crime assigned to Communists. She published two essays about her experience in jail and began to develop a following. Book publishers in particular were interested in making a deal with the authoer of "The Iron Throat." They attempted to locate her; ironically, Olsen was in jail.

When two publishers at Random House did manage to track her down, they offered her a monthly stipend in exchange for a chapter a month. At first, Olsen agreed. She sent her baby daughter to live with relatives and settled down to work on the book. But the project was abandoned for a number of reasons: she missed her daughter, she was busy with political work and her various low-wage jobs, she became pregnant with another child in 1937 and got involved in the life of her family, etc.

Years later, Olsen said she felt like a "failure" for having left Yonnondio unfinished. She planned to add a number of other chapters to the book. According to critics, Jim was to be involved in a failed strike at the packinghouse. He would desert the family and Anna would die from a self-induced abortion. Mazie would grow up and become a writer. It is impossible to speculate on the nature of these unwritten chapters. But, the fact that Olsen did plan to write them?and the fact that they do contain a great deal of misery?makes it impossible to view the final scene, the scene of Bess pounding a fruit-jar lid in a declaration of her agency, as a statement of Olsen's firm belief in the human will to overcome all obstacles. Olsen's final vision for the project was more complicated.

Although Olsen's politics would change over the course of her life (she grew disillusioned with the Communist Party), her politics were the center of her life in the 1930s. One critic defines Olsen's youthful priorities as "her political commitment?ineluctably bound up in her urgent need to write." She followed the lead of her father, a stalwart of the old left-wing politics in the first years of the 20th century. Her preoccupation with left-wing politics and her preoccupation with the idea of "loss" that pervades Yonnondio combined to create a strong, complicated text that is as much about the Holbrooks as it is about the politics and policies of the 1930s.

Yonnondio has generated a great deal of critical interest, especially among feminist critics. Even post-structuralist theorists like Helene Cixous have weighed in with their opinions about the text. Some of the criticism, of course, deals with the irony of the situation: the word "yonnondio" is taken from a Walt Whitman poem; it is a "lament" for the vanished peoples of America. Since Olsen lost her own manuscript, the irony of the title is not lost on critics. Most critics, however, deal with Olsen's treatment of impoverished women?a unique subject in the 1930s, when most Communist writers were writing macho, male-centered polemics. It is her humane and complex treatment of this subject that has garnered Yonnondio a place in the canon.