"That Joyous Certainty": History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen's Depression-Era Literature

Article excerpt

Utopian consciousness wants to look far into the distance, but ultimately only in order to penetrate the darkness so near it of the just lived moment, in which everything that is both drives and is hidden from itself.

- Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (12)

Strong with the not yet in the now . . .

- Tillie Olsen, "Tell Me a Riddle" (109)

Tillie Olsen is one of the few American proletarian writers of the Great Depression who continues to engage the literary and political imaginations of readers and scholars. She is best known for her collection of award-winning short stories Tell Me a Riddle (1961) and to a lesser extent for the unfinished novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974), as well as for a collection of literary essays entitled Silences (1978). She is presently known as a left feminist writer, although more feminist than left, due in large part to the recuperation of her work by feminist scholars since the women's movement.(1) Undoubtedly, Olsen's writings deserve the recognition they have received; her depictions of modern American working-class life are some of the most powerful in American literary history. When reading her writings, one is led to ask from what political, creative, or historical source they emanate. For those familiar with Olsen scholarship, the answers are familiar: her socialist upbringing, her working-class life, motherhood, the Depression, the Communist Party (of which she was a member in the 1930s), Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, and feminism, for example.

However, what all of these important explanations have not adequately addressed, and what this essay proposes to address through an analysis of Olsen's Depression-era literary works, is how the 1930s labor mass movements impacted proletarian literary production. The mass movements of the 30s are unparalleled in American history, both in their practical consequences (from the enactment of legislation defending the right to strike to the creation of a welfare state) and, more important to this study, in their transformations of the American workers' psyche. During the Great Depression, countless workers realized that their personal struggle to make a living was part of a class struggle endemic to capitalism, a realization manifested in the strike waves of 1933-34 and 1936-37, the hunger marches, the Bonus March, as well as in the rent strikes, riots, and other expressions of collective working-class rebellion of the period. In other words, masses of American workers had developed a sense of class consciousness and, more importantly, class agency, for they saw themselves as important agents of history and not merely spectators of some tragicomedy of "great men" on the stage of world history.

Olsen's literary work expresses in many ways this radicalization of the American working class and what she later referred to (in another context) as "that joyous certainty, that sense of mattering, of moving and being moved, of being one and indivisible with the great of the past, with all that freed, ennobled" ("Tell Me a Riddle" 113). That is to say, Olsen's writings register the breach of reified consciousness in the American working class, as well as the revival of dialectical philosophy among American radical writers, generated by the economic crisis of the 1930s.(2) Unlike some of her literary peers, she was able creatively to transform her daily experiences of the mass movements and political education in the Young Communist League (YCL) of the American Communist Party (the latter itself owes much to the spontaneous movement of masses in the 1930s) into moving depictions of working-class life. She best expresses the scope of her dialectical vision of American society in Yonnondio, her novel about an American working-class family of the 1920s, as well as her piece of reportage on the 1934 waterfront strike entitled "Strike." In both pieces, she depicts the social character and determinations of working-class life, while decoding its latent utopianism - a utopianism revealed by visible expressions of a collective desire for a better life, but thwarted by both objective and subjective conditions. …