Yonnondio: From the Thirties

BOOK: Yonnondio: From the Thirties
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© 1974 by Tillie Olsen
Introduction © 2004 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Olsen, Tillie.
Yonnondio: from the thirties / by Tillie Olsen; introduction by Linda Ray Pratt.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-8621-4 (paper: alk. paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-8628-3 (electronic: e-pub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-8629-0 (electronic: mobi)

1. Rural families—Fiction. 2. Tenant farmers—Fiction.
3. Poor families—Fiction. 4. Depressions—Fiction.
5. Coal miners—Fiction. 6. Nebraska—Fiction.
7. Wyoming—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3565.L82Y66     2004
813’.54—dc22      2004011000

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility
for author or third-party websites or their content.



The Great Depression is often remembered in the American imagination as “hard times”
when suffering and struggle brought out the best in people. In John Steinbeck’s novel
The Grapes of Wrath
the suffering of the Joad family climaxes in a symbol of transcendence. In that mythic
story, the poor shared what they had, even in the Hoovervilles, and the hope of reordering
the world was embodied in idealistic and brave men like Jim Casey and Tom Joad, who
spoke for the common people. Even in Studs Terkel’s nonfiction collection of interviews
Hard Times
many real people remember the thirties as a time of intense meaning when the sense
of community was vital and the causes were noble. Surviving was about endurance and
dignity. Memory thus softens the terror of hunger and need; sentimentality muffles
the brutality of fear that often resulted in psychic and social violence.

Tillie Olsen’s
Yonnondio: From the Thirties
makes the desperation and cruelty of poverty vivid again. Like Walt Whitman’s poem
“Yonnondio,” from which it takes its title, this book is a dirge for the lost, for
those people pushed so far to the edge of society that their lives are recorded in
“no picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future.” Olsen’s original draft
was written between 1932 and 1936 but remained unpublished until 1974, after it was
discovered in some old files in 1972. The novel was incomplete in form, and the published
version we have today is a piecing together of the many drafts done by Olsen some
forty years after she wrote them. The first four of the eight chapters were in final
or near-final form, but much of the rest is an arrangement of parts from the different
drafts done over several years. In addition to the version compiled and published
in 1974, Olsen has since released several other fragments. Still other parts are in
the archives of the New York Public Library and Stanford University. Because the draft
was the work of a young woman between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four in the
first creative burst of her writing life, the older writer who arranged the manuscript
in her early sixties felt she should not attempt to rewrite a story that so vividly
reflected another time in her imaginative life. Critics have given these fragments
a good deal of attention, but it seems to me that the experience of the novel as a
powerful piece of literature gains little from pursuing them. They are useful in showing
us how the mind of the young Tillie Olsen conceptualized a much longer novel with
a radical political intent, and they provide a sketch for the curious reader who may
want to know what happened next in the “lives” of the characters beyond the last page
of the book. However, the only life the characters have after the last page of the
book that really matters to us is the persistence they may have in our memory. The
Holbrooks of
will haunt the reader with the tragic loss of human potential closed off by the exigencies
of survival, when securing food and shelter are daily concerns and the future beyond
the hope of planning.

The passion and empathy Olsen brings to this story are based in the experiences and
places of her own life, though she does not present them in a simple autobiographical
mode. Like the Holbrooks, who move from a mining town to a farm and then into a meatpacking
city “like Omaha,” Olsen’s own large family of six children first settled on a farm
some twenty or so miles outside Omaha, Nebraska, sometime after 1908. Unlike the Holbrooks,
Olsen’s parents, Samuel and Ida Lerner, were Socialist Jews who left Russia after
the failure of the 1905 Revolution in which they were participants. Tillie Lerner
was born on the farm in 1912 or 1913. By about 1917 the failure of the farm drove
the Lerner family to “North Omaha,” an area of Omaha in which Jews and Blacks were
concentrated in the 1920s and where the Olsen’s lived for many years on 2512 Caldwell
Street. The Omaha city directory first lists Samuel Lerner in 1918 at the Caldwell
Street address. His occupation was listed as peddler. Between 1920–23 he worked at
the Silver Star Confectionary at 1604 North 24th Street. Tillie, like the child Mazie
, remembers working in the confectionery shelling almonds for the candies. Her family
had a long history in Omaha as participants in Socialist Party activities and were
founding members of the first Omaha Workmen’s Circle, a social and political organization
for Jews whose religious views distanced them from the life of the synagogues.

At Omaha’s Central High School, Tillie Lerner was a brilliant but rebellious student.
To the sorrow of her family, she dropped out of high school before graduating and
became a
member of the Young Communist League, thus separating herself from the family’s Socialist
affiliation. In 1931 at age eighteen she went to Kansas City, where she worked in
a tie factory and participated in Communist Party activities. She recalls being briefly
jailed for leafleting packinghouse workers, and upon her release, she returned to
Omaha. The February 6, 1932, front page of the now defunct
Omaha Bee–News
pictures her “shouting” as part of a demonstration by the “Omaha Council of the Unemployed”
(more accurately, the organization was the Communist-led Unemployed Council). To save
her family from embarrassment, Tillie Lerner often used aliases with the initials
“TL,” and she is identified in this picture as “Theta Larimore.” In 1933 Tillie moved
to Faribault, Minnesota, where she was ill and pregnant with her first child. It was
during her confinement in Faribault that she first drafted a substantial part of

By 1934 Tillie Lerner had moved to San Francisco, California, where she has lived
ever since. She married Jack Olsen, a printer and comrade, in 1944. She and Jack were
active in the Communist Party for many years and were harassed during the McCarthy
years. Olsen worked at many kinds of jobs and raised four daughters in the late 1940s
and 1950s. In 1953, with the youngest of the girls in school, Olsen took a creative
writing course at San Francisco State University that led to a reviving of her life
as a writer. She won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University in 1955–56
and a Ford Foundation grant in 1959. In 1962 she published her most famous work,
Tell Me a Riddle
, which won critical praise. Her short stories and novellas have been widely anthologized,
and an Oscar-winning film
of “Tell Me a Riddle”was released in 1981. In 1978 she published
, a personal account and commentary on the obstacles women writers face. It has become
a classic text in the history of women’s literature.
is a poignant and powerful statement of how the demands of motherhood, patriarchy,
and the publishing world have historically silenced the voices of women who wanted
to write. Olsen’s work embodies both the constraints of time and the distractions
women have faced as writers and the triumphs that have often emerged despite conditions
that could silence them. Although she found it very difficult to write during the
years in which she was rearing her family, Olsen’s fiction has been an influential
part of the new feminist writing that has opened new understandings, appreciations,
and avenues for the work of literary women.

The early 1930s were difficult for Olsen, and she has spoken less openly to scholars
about this time than about later years. Yet it is out of this painful time that
arises. The novel tells the story of the Holbrook family. Poor and without “edjication,”they
leave the life-choking conditions of a Wyoming mining town for a naive dream of pastoral
plenty on a South Dakota farm only to find themselves both starving and suffocating
in the filth and stench of a packinghouse city which is clearly based on the geography
and scenes of Omaha. “Conceived primarily as a novel of the 1930s,”according to Olsen’s
note to the first edition, the story covers a little more than two years in the life
of the Holbrooks. A prefatory note to the text, “The time at the opening of this book
is the early 1920’s,”may be a typographical error (as Olsen once suggested in conversation),
but the contradictions among the title and these notes point to the vagueness about
settings and history and the two lands of stories Olsen wants to tell. One story is
that of an imaginative child who is both metaphorically and physically shoved to the
pavement by the unmerciful roughness of the world around her; the other is that of
the workers hungry for work and ravaged by the exploitive conditions under which they
labor when they find jobs.

Olsen was Mazie’s age of nine or ten in the early 1920s, and this novel “from the
thirties” mixes the two decades. The movies that Mazie’s twelve-year-old friend Jinella
apes but has never seen apparently date from 1919 to 1931. The economics of the Depression
and the workplace scenes of the meatpacking houses reflect Olsen’s early political
activism in 1931–32. In the unincorporated fragments of the novel Jim leaves the family
in the winter, and Anna, facing an eviction in February and “trying to figure out”
where they will go, wonders if there will even be room in “Hooverville,” the Depression-era
shanty towns in “honor” of the President. If the internal signs of the times are sometimes
inconsistent in the novel, its portrayal of the way poverty and exploitation can shatter
lives is timeless.

In the character of Mazie, Olsen incorporates memories of herself when she was a “star-gazer”
child. Mazie’s experiences with her mother, the life on the farm, and the harshness
of life in the meatpacking city reflect Olsen’s own. For Mazie, “all the world is
a-crying, and I don’t know for why.” Her father calls her “Big Eyes,” and indeed she
sees more than she should or can understand. But she feels the sadness and fear in
her parents, and they can do little to protect her from the invasions of a hostile
world into her childhood. The demented Sheen McEvoy senses her child like purity of
heart and tries to toss her into a mineshaft to appease the gods of the dark pit that
torture his mind. She is wakened into the nightmare of helping her mother have a baby,
tending the kettle and the fire with nausea gathering in her throat. In Omaha her
wondering eyes must shut out the sight of the city if she is to manage the odor from
the packinghouses and the drabness of working-class neighborhoods. Mazie tries to
walk in a dreamlike memory of the loveliness of the farm, but when she is pushed to
the sidewalk, “the pavement grated against her” and a “blob of spit” dampens her cheek,
and when she “moved her hand over the walk,” she knew it was real. “As for the first
time she saw the street and people, and it entered into her like death.” To translate
that feeling into something that will not overwhelm her, Mazie and the other children
take to the streets for excitement. It is their only source of vitality. Her mother
sees them “running, shrilling out laughter … flushed, hostile, excited … A lust for
sensation, for the new was on them, a lust for the streets.”The children reject even
books, which her mother promises are keys to a better life. For Mazie and Will they
are symbols of the disrespect they experience at school, where they are considered

The radical political vision at the heart of the novel—a condemnation of the oppression
of the working class by the capitalists—is voiced through Mazie, not her father Jim.
When Mazie first asks her father why the boss man “aint livin like we do,” Jim is
puzzled and can only explain that he is a coal operator. After losing the farm, Jim
is outraged that after a year of work “I owe
them …
Batten on us like hogs. The bastards. A whole year—now I’m owin them.” Work in the
sewers and packinghouse deepens his solidarity with the other workers and his outraged
sense that he is
“geared, meshed”
into a killing machine. Still, he voices no understanding of the capitalist system
that consumes his labor for someone else’s profit. When Mazie rises from that pavement,
she sees “
” spelled out before her on the packinghouse. The violence of the streets, the odor
of vomit that hangs in the air from the meat processing, the abuse at home, the contempt
at school, the “blackness of terror” her daydreams cannot shut out: all come together
in the name of the packinghouse that pollutes the air and sets the terms of their
existence. “Armoursarmours-armours” she murmurs to herself over and over.

Some of Olsen’s most effective writing in
is in her descriptions of work in the packinghouses. In the 1920s and 1930s Omaha
was the third largest meatpacking city in the United States behind Chicago and Kansas
City. Longtime residents can recall as late as the 1970s the nauseating odors, a combination
of the rendering plants and the stockyards, emanating from “South Omaha,” the packinghouse
section. Ethnic workers like Mr. Kryckszi made up the “furriners,” many from Eastern
Europe, who came to Omaha looking for jobs in the plants. Black workers from the South
also came to Omaha to work in the packinghouses, though they make scant appearances
in the novel: Packers such as Armours, Swift, and Cudahy had succeeded in breaking
the unions in the nationwide strike of 1921–22. Though she was only Mazie’s age at
the time of this strike, Olsen has some memories of it because it was a significant
event for her working-class Socialist family. In
Jim and his fellow workers were without a union and thus at the mercy of their bosses.
The hellish scenes in the one-hundred-degree-plus August heat reveal unbearably oppressive
working conditions in which the extreme heat, the speed-up on the line, and “the excrement
reek of offal, the smothering stench from the blood house often force its workers
into a state of collapse.”
graphically gives us the work world that drove people like Jim to organize unions
or join radical groups, although the novel does not take that political step itself.
Jim and his fellow workers can only conspire to spell the people on the shift who
are nearest to collapse. Without a thought of how to fight Armoursarmoursarmours,
the characters remain victims, lost in the pathos of their misery, more likely to
strike out at each other in frustration and fear than at the great “hog” of an industry
that processes them much like it does the cattle on the killing floor.

BOOK: Yonnondio: From the Thirties
2.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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