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131 THE STRUGGLE FOR "SELFNESS" THROUGH SPEECH IN OLSEN'S YONNONDIO: FROM THE THIRTIES Michael Staub* Tillie Olsen's only novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, written between 1932 and 1937 but not published until 1974, concerns a migrant family's impossible dream: the search for happiness and security in a world they never made. It is an often shocking book, one that makes vivid the brutal consequences of homelessness and poverty on a married couple, Jim and Anna Holbrook, and their five children: Mazie, Will, Ben, Jimmie, and baby Bess. As it proceeds, however, it is apparent that the novel belongs primarily to Anna and to Mazie, her oldest daughter, and their efforts to speak and be heard in a hostile environment. From its opening sentence ("The whistles always woke Mazie")1 through to its final description ("He is too dazed to listen" [p. 154]), Yonnondio is a highly compressed catalogue of sounds and silences. As the family migrates eastward from a Wyoming coal-mining community to a South Dakota tenant farm to the slaughterhouses of Kansas City, a theme emerges: that women and girls of the working class will never identify their own concerns at home or in the society at large, and will never be able to change their lives for the better, until they can create forums where their individual stories are heard, shared, and debated. In this way, Yonnondio is part of a much larger body of 1930s "consciousness-raising" literature (James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on white Southern tenant farmers, John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks on Native Americans, and the Federal Writer's Project's These Are Our Lives on black Southern tenant farmers) that counseled middle-class Americans to listen to impoverished minorities before presuming what assistance they needed and then acting on their behalf. What distinguishes Yonnondio, and what makes it an especially valuable contribution to any examination of the Depression era, is its presentation of a working-class feminism that defends the human rights of all working women to be freed from abusive relations within their families and communities and to achieve what the novel calls "selfness" through speech. From the perspective of the book, to be denied an audience that cares to listen, or fails to listen, women—and particularly poor women— will die or descend into madness. For such women, the struggle for "selfness" was often nothing less than a struggle for survival. "Michael Staub is a Fulbright Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Frankfurt. He has published in The Mississippi Quarterly, Dickinson Studies, and Southern Exposure and is working on a book on documentary fiction from the 1890s to the 1940s. 132Michael Staub A great deal of Yonnondio concerns the trials of working-class girlhood, and this subject is pursued by chronicling the articulations and subsequent subjugation of the visions and instincts of a female child. This child, Mazie Holbrook, represents "poverty's arithmetic": the slow, pained subtraction of dreams and wonder from the young lives of the dispossessed (p. 26). Mazie is a bright girl, but one who never will get the chance to break the double bonds of being poor and female. Her initiation into social awareness is suffused with violence, hunger, and shame. Over the course of the book, her hopes become lost in a crazy quilt of oppressive relationships and banal afflictions. Mazie's voice, at first hesitant but insistently curious, seems to disappear altogether amidst the images and voices at the end of Olsen's disjointed narrative. Speech and "selfness" are related in Yonnondio by the presentation of "a reverse case": Mazie's speechlessness results in her identity confusion . Life for Mazie meant the power of pushing "her mind hard against things half known, not known" (p. 12), and she struggles with her limited comprehension of the world around her. Thus she becomes a near-perfect vehicle for innocent observation and vulnerability. Mazie's mental health appears to depend on an ability to speak and to know the meaning of what she sees. Consequently, when continually rebuffed and silenced, Mazie descends into a trancelike madness over the course of Yonnondio. "I know words and words...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 131-139
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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