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 Terkeľs 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 fu


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Yonnondio: From the Thirties


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