"That Joyous Certainty": History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen's Depression-Era Literature
Dawahare, Anthony, Twentieth Century Literature
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. It is precisely in the dialectical and utopian "consciousness" of these texts, primarily manifested in the authorial voice, that we can trace some of the most significant effects and aspirations of the mass movements on literature of the 30s.
Yonnondio, Olsen's major work of the 1930s, explores the problem of reification and utopia as it pertains to working-class domestic life in the 1920s. It depicts the life of an American migrant family, the Holbrooks, who move from mining town to farm to packing-house town in search of a better standard of living. They begin their journey with hope for a "new life," but by the "end" of the unfinished text they are worse off both psychologically and economically.
From the start, Yonnondio aims to show how, contrary to the reified representations of the working-class family by the mass culture and in the "camera obscura" of its characters' consciousness, the working-class family of the 1920s is not "natural" or "holy" but a social phenomenon subject to the life-negating logic of the marketplace. Thus, Olsen begins the story with the Holbrooks in the morning preparing for another day, as the mine whistle, like the ringing of an alarm clock, penetrates the Holbrooks' home and awakens the young Mazie and her father, Jim Holbrook:
The whistles always awoke Mazie. They pierced into her sleep like some guttural-voiced metal beast, tearing at her; breathing a terror. . . . "God damn that blowhorn," she heard her father mutter. Creak of him getting out of bed. (1)
Here we first learn of the influence that "public" work exerts on the "private" lives of her characters. The whistle functions as both a reminder of long, grim, and hazardous days past and the limited prospects for the Holbrooks. Jim Holbrook's "mutter" is the sign of a man who, as he later expresses, is a wage slave of the almighty "God Job" (63) and can find no rest.
Of course, Olsen's metaphor for Mazie's conception of the whistle is particularly apt: she shows how modern industry is like a "beast" that nearly tears the Holbrook family to pieces. As the story progresses, however, the "beast" above comes to resemble more and more the patriarchal organization of the industrial economy and the family. The Holbrooks represent the patriarchal predicament of the average working-class family in the 1920s, when only one in six married women worked outside the home. Although Anna temporarily takes on extra work (none other than laundering) after Jim's injury at the mine explosion, she is socially coerced into domesticity, albeit, as we will see, a domesticity unrelated to the wifely pleasures advertised in the mass culture of the period. Jim thus is forced into being the "bread-winner" of his family and, after what we imagine to be a 12- to 15-hour workday, he is physically and emotionally unable to tend to the household when he returns exhausted from work. Olsen's dramatization of this division of labor underscores the way in which the expansion of industrialization and urbanization forced men to work long days in factories and "required wives who were emotionally supportive and who could competently supervise the household" (Kessler-Harris 63). Anna cooks, cleans, and raises the children, or, as she vehemently tells Jim during an argument, she provides "[k]itchen help, farm help, milkin help, wash-woman help. And motherin too" (41).
In essence, Olsen portrays the functioning of the working-class family as an index of the level of exploitation, and, ultimately, the value of a society. The family nearly dissolves when, for example, Jim and Anna are too busy or too tired to do anything except work or rest, and the children roam the streets in need of affection and care (56, 57). Here, the Holbrooks exist as little more than a name, albeit a patriarchal name that signifies the "right" for an otherwise disempowered man to exercise control of the home. The patriarchal chain of exploitation is clearly manifested when the "beaten" Jim misdirects with impunity his class anger and frustration by beating his children and wife:
For several weeks Jim Holbrook had been in an evil mood. The whole household walked in terror. He had nothing but heavy blows for the children, and he struck Anna too often to remember. Every payday he clumped home, washed, went to town, and returned hours later dead drunk. (6)
Jim's abuse, along with the usual oppressiveness, affects Anna: "Anna too became bitter and brutal. If one of the children was in her way, if they did not obey her instantly, she would hit at them in a blind rage" (7). However, when they are freer from degrading social conditions and are better able to provide for themselves, the family is strengthened. In the third and fourth chapters, which depict the Holbrooks' move from the mining town in Wyoming to the farm in South Dakota, we read that their relationships are less abusive and more emotionally secure. Ben, one of the children, registers this sense of well-being by "feeling smiles around and security" (29). But, significantly, Olsen undercuts the romantic myth that the life of the farmer, a life closer to "nature," is more fulfilling that an urban life, by later depicting the return of the Holbrooks' degradation by the banks that control the land and thus the farmworkers' profits. "They're taking all of it, every damn thing'. The whole year slaved to nothing. I owe them - some joke if it wasn't so bloody - I owin them after workin like a team of mules for a year" (39), bellows Jim as his pastoral illusions come to an end. In other words, what is essential to Olsen's dialectical vision of exploitation is not "place" but the relations of production governing a particular society.
As I suggested above, Olsen's depiction of the working-class family contests the popular reified representations of the family in the 1930s. Robert and Helen Lynd, two eminent sociologists of the 1930s whose work extensively documents the lives of middle Americans of the 1920s and 1930s, tell of how a local "Middletown" (namely, Muncie, Indiana) editorial, significantly entitled "This Depression Has Its Points," viewed the Depression as the family's salvation. Its main argument is that "[m]any a family that has lost its car has found its soul . . ." (474), thus reinforcing the notion that the family is holy (410) and can transcend, soul-like, class oppression. The age-old religious doctrine that "matter" obfuscates "soul" is, here, evoked as a social commentary on the excesses of the gilded 1920s, which, supposedly, were responsible for the decay of "family values."
The meaning of family values in 1930s popular culture becomes painfully clear in an article entitled "This Beneficent Depression," published in 1932 by The Literary Digest. This article extensively quotes another piece published in The American Weekly to support its argument that the Depression has strengthened the family by making "thoughtless women" more "reasonable at home" (36). The Literary Digest article quotes:
Unappreciative wives who were indifferent to their husbands and neglected their homes have become tame and cautious . . . many wives have learned to value a husband who is a bread-winner, and pay more attention to him and the household. . . . The children are better off for that same reason. (36)
This ludicrous logic, like the kind found in section 213 of the 1932 Federal Economy Act that made it illegal for a married couple to work for the federal government, functioned to reinforce women's economic dependence on men. In clear contrast to these views, Yonnondio shows how the organization of the family is not a bulwark (spiritual or patriarchal) against the wolf-like character of capitalism. Try as the Holbrooks might to live in a brick house, their house is made of straw and subject to the "huffing" and "puffing" of banks and industries hungry for the cheapest labor and materials. In this light, as both Lawrence Levine and Warren Susman suggest, one should read Disney's The Three Little Pigs (1933) as an allegory of the insecurities of the home during the Great Depression.
While, on the one hand, Yonnondio denaturalizes the home, on the other hand, it exemplifies how the social construction of the working-class family is a means by which workers (and Olsen's characters) are prevented from developing the dialectical perspective so evident in the novel's authorial voice. Olsen's characters are "average" subjects of capitalist society and culture, which means that they have not been exposed to left-wing or progressive ideas or movements (particularly during the novel's setting - the politically repressive years of the 1920s following the postwar Palmer Raids) and, therefore, cannot be expected fully to understand their subject positions. On these points, she is very similar to Bertolt Brecht, who argued that proletarian realism must accurately depict the consciousness of workers, even when politics are consciously experienced as natural and not relative to a particular social system (120).
The novel's characters are tragic adherents to the kind of American individualism popularized by self-help gurus like Dale Carnegie, whose national bestseller in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People, preached that all-too-familiar American jeremiad of self-reliance. Despite their inertia, the Holbrooks believe that it is possible to get ahead within the system. Their individualism is evident in their migration from one town to the next with the hope for a "new life" (16), in Jim's belief that his family is a shackle that fetters him from getting "anywhere" (41), and in Anna's belief that an education guarantees a better life. In one scene, Anna sharply scolds Mazie for bringing home a bad report card: "Don't you know learnin's the only hope a body's got in this world? . . . I aim to see any kids we have happy, Jim, not like we were brought up. Happy with learnin" (67). Although Yonnondio was never completed and we do not get to see Mazie's future, what does exist of the novel seems to confirm what a 1931 YCL pamphlet wrote of the promise of education: "And what about those of us who go to school? Is our lot any better? Our parents lived in hopes that we would live in a better world than they. Today we see the folly of such hopes" (6). Indeed, the chapter that closes the novel presents a metaphor of hell, where even the prospects of social opportunity are consumed in the 100-degree-plus heat.
In the earlier sections of the novel, Olsen compensates for her characters' lack of immanent class consciousness by including agitprop editorials into the narrative. These editorials present social commentary on the "personal" events of the story and disclose the utopian aspirations of her characters. The first one comes in the first chapter, as Olsen attempts to explain to a young miner the reasons for his misery:
Breathe and lift your face to the night, Andy Kvaternick. Trying so vainly in some inarticulate way to purge your bosom of the coal dust. Your father had dreams. You too, like all boys had dreams - vague dreams, of freedom and light and cheering throngs and happiness. (5)
In this single passage, Olsen extraneously provides social consciousness ("like all boys") and utopian desire ("vague dreams" of a free community) to the text, and provides her mute character with the voice he, a young unschooled miner, was unable to develop. She also metaphorically expresses the labor theory of value that is central to the dialectical perspective of the novel: "Earth sucks you in, to spew out the coal, to make a few fat bellies fatter," and she predicts a revolution when "strong fists [will] batter the fat bellies" (6).
In the fifth chapter, Olsen uses this agitprop technique for the last time and, in an attempt to make the class-conscious perspective intrinsic to the subjectivity of her characters, she blends it into Jim's interior monologue about the foolishness of one of his coworkers for quitting his job. This passage is interesting because it contains a hodgepodge of Jim's individualism and Olsen's socialism. On the one hand, Jim once again thinks that his wife and kids make him a wage slave, while, on the other hand, he thinks that irrespective of their marital status, men are wage slaves, "having nothing to sell but their labor" (64). The interior monologue becomes particularly divorced from Jim's subjectivity when Olsen writes:
I'm sorry, Jim Tracy, sorry as hell we weren't stronger and could get to you in time and show you that kind of individual revolt was no good, kid, no good at all, you had to bide your time and take it till there were enough of you to fight it all together on the job, and bide your time, and take it till the day millions of fists clamped in yours, and you could wipe out the whole thing, the whole goddamn thing, and a human could be a human for the first time on earth. (64)
This passage is extrinsic to Jim's subjectivity, not only in content (he sounds like a well-seasoned radical labor organizer) but also in character. The patience and sympathy ("kid") is out of character for Jim, who is demoralized throughout most of the story. The inclusion of these editorials and the interior monologues is Olsen's method of bypassing and exposing the subjective limitations of her characters' individualism, and, as Michael E. Staub recently argues, they contribute to the novel's dialogism, which is characteristic of the rhetorical strategies of the communist press in the 1930s. Moreover, the editorials translate the hieroglyphs of utopian anticipatory consciousness in 1920s America (a consciousness that found mass expression in the 1930s) that tell of the time when "a human could be a human for the first time on earth." Deborah Rosenfelt is correct to point out that Olsen's imposition of class-conscious agitprop passages became less important as the novel progressed and her subject matter developed (393). And, I would argue, the novel would lose none of its explanatory power if these sections were cut from it, since it shows the dead end of individualism. The novel's own social or mass consciousness is sufficient to illuminate the problems with the reified consciousness of her characters.
However, it would be incorrect to conclude that Olsen, in the manner of, say, literary naturalists like Jack London, Stephen Crane, or the photonaturalist Jacob Riis, represents the working class as unconscious or semiconscious "brutes" unable to resist their dehumanization without the aid of socialists or philanthropists. What I refer to above as Olsen's translation of a coded utopianism also finds expression in her depiction of the Holbrooks' spontaneous resistance to their oppression, which occurs primarily through their capacities to use their imaginations to subjectively negate class restraints and to think utopianly. Anna's view of books, which, for her, are the repositories of the imagination, express Olsen's characters' yearning toward the "not yet." As Anna explains to Benjy, who while paging through a picture book asks her about the location of a place she does not know, "[y]ou read books, you'll know all that. That's what books is: places your body aint ever been, cant ever get to go. Inside people's heads you wouldn't ever know" (96). The imagination, in short, overcomes the material limitations of working-class life and is the means by which Olsen's unpoliticized characters are able to imagine (howsoever confused) the "not yet" of a life free from the multiple forms of dehumanization depicted in the novel.
While Olsen suggests that imagination is an inherited characteristic of human beings, she shows how it, like all things human, is not above the fray of social circumstances. Depending on one's subject position, one has a more- or less-developed imagination. Degrees of imagination, as forms of resistance in her characters, correspond directly to degrees of exploitation, with the least active imagination belonging to Jim Holbrook. Continually occupied or exhausted by the work he must perform, he has little time for imaginative activity. He is even suspicious of the use of figurative language. Anna, relating what an immigrant friend told her, tells Jim: "[s]he keeps talking about the old country, the fields, what they thought it would be like here - all buried in da bowels of earth, she finishes." Jim responds, "[s]ay, what does she think she is, a poet?" And, after Anna continues to relate what her friend has conveyed figuratively, Jim finally tells her to quit her "woman's blabbin" (2).
Like Jim, Anna is too downtrodden to give free play to her imagination for most of the story, except for a few moments while she is ill and idle after the miscarriage: ". . . a separation, a distance - something broken and new and tremulous - had been born in her, lying by herself those long unaccustomed hours free of task" (93). It is during this period that her aesthetic sense is reawakened. At one point she looks at the river and tells Jim: "[t] hat looks nice across the river, don't it? The mist comin up like way away soft laundry blowing on a line. White." Attentive to the social content of imagination, Olsen's choice of simile for Anna's perception of the mist is bound by the world of domestic work. (Overworked,Jim once again responds without understanding: "[y]ou fixin to get sick on me again?" ).
Anna's greatest moment of imagination occurs when she takes her children for a walk to gather greens in the wealthy section of the town. Enraptured with the natural environment, she is transformed: "A remote, shining look was on her face, as if she had forgotten them, as if she had become someone else, was not their mother any more" (100). She does not appear as their mother because their mother had previously appeared burdened with chores, ills, and worries. Olsen describes Anna in the same way that she earlier describes books, as "boundless" (102), momentarily free from the fetters of oppression, in this case, working-class motherhood. The novel suggests that Anna briefly experiences a joy that could only be sustained in a society free from class and gender exploitation.
Those with the most active imaginations are the children, whose struggles to free themselves from the mind-numbing effects of their reality are more successful than their parents. They too are victimized by their impoverished environment and the misery of an often loveless home - they are by no means the children of a Wordsworthian imagination, that is, pure, unscarred by social reality - but they have more opportunity to develop their creative energies. In chapter 8, we read of a flourishing of the children's imagination on the dump heaps of capitalism:
Children - already stratified as dummies in school, condemned as unfit for the worlds of learning, art, imagination, invention - plan, measure, figure, design, invent, construct, costume themselves, stage dramas; endlessly - between tasks, errands, smaller children to be looked after, jobs, dailinesses - live in passionate absorbed activity, in rapt make-believe. (103)
The children's creativity and imaginative activity is in itself an act of resistance to their social environment. They assert their humanity, even though they have been labeled "dumb," the common bourgeois epithet for workers. These children are the true bricoleurs of capitalism, who build ships, towers, clubhouses, and scooters out of the refuse of commodities their parents are too poor to purchase. Again, as earlier with Anna, we see the social content of Olsen's utopianism: workers, by an "investment" of their creativity, are able to transform even the products of exploitation (clean laundry, old commodities) into visions of a better (less alienated) world.
For Olsen, to be imaginatively engaged with the world is to regain a sense of self that is both centered and expansive, which is in contrast to the alienated work that robs workers of their sense of self and narrows their mind with mindless activity and concern. She coins the term "selfness" to describe this recuperation of self and creative relationship with the world. In spite of the unfortunate connotations associated with this concept of selfness (such as selfishness or self-centeredness), it functions as a critique of the kinds of individualism represented in the novel. It involves creative and noninstrumental (or nonexploitative) relationships with others and the world. Significantly, selfness, as a concept in the novel, emerges during Anna's moment of respite from the domestic drudgery in the greens-gathering scene discussed above; yet, I would argue, that the concept is descriptive of all such moments in the novel. For Olsen, selfness is the closest workers can subjectively come to experiencing the potential of humanity under capitalism; it is an organic protest against the attempt to reduce them to their biological functions or economic values.
The experience of selfness is also fundamental to the utopianism of the novel, since those rare moments of creative and joyful selfness provide images of a creative subjectivity that, for Olsen, could flourish under socialism. Thus, while for many readers the novel seems to be a grim and pessimistic portrayal of working-class life, for Olsen it is full of optimism borne out of her characters' many spontaneous acts of creative resistance, acts that she views as the true "content" of working-class life in the process of finding a suitable social form or structure. She points to the children's joy of learning and playing, Anna's garden, and Mazie's ability to aid her mother as examples of resistance to dehumanization (Olsen, personal interview). But we need not rely on the author's own ex post facto comments about the novel to substantiate this point. The novel virtually ends with baby Bess's declaration of her creative self and powers:
Bess who has been fingering a fruit-jar lid - absently, heedlessly drops it - aimlessly groping across the table, reclaims it again. Lightning in her brain. She releases, grabs, releases, grabs. I can do. Bang! I did that. I can do. I! A look of neanderthal concentration on her face. That noise! In triumphant, astounded joy she clashes the lid down. Bang, slam, whack. Release, grab, slam, bang, bang. Centuries of human drive work in her; human ecstasy of achievement; satisfaction deeper and more fundamental than sex. I can do, I use my powers; I! I! Wilder, madder, happier the bangs. The fetid fevered air rings with Anna's, Mazie's, Ben's laughter; Bess's toothless, triumphant crow. Heat misery, rash misery transcended. (132)
Bess's recognition of her self, and more importantly, her creative agency, is pleasurable to her, her mother, and her siblings precisely because it is a rudimentary protest against the external forces that work to make people "objects" and not "subjects" of history. Those "[c]enturies of human drive at work in her," still undefeated, have the potential to flower into "that joyous certainty" of mass agency against dehumanization that Olsen, like millions of workers, did in fact begin experiencing in the mass movements of the 1930s.
Rebecca Harding Davis's influence on Olsen's view of the creative capacity of workers is well known and unmistakable here.(3) Hugh Wolfe is the literary prototype of Olsen's workers and particularly her working-class children, who are represented as irrepressibly creative. However, unlike the essentially elitist Davis, Olsen does not identify a talented few workers who are able to resist their oppression through some creative endeavor. Even in the working-class shanty town, Olsen sees the work of "the nameless FrankLloydWrights of the proletariat [who] have wrought their wondrous futuristic structures of flat battered tin cans, fruit boxes and gunny sacks, cardboard and mother earth" (48). Given the opportunity to develop their utopian impulses, these "nameless FrankLloydWrights" and children "stratified as dummies" would be the imaginative architects of a socialist society.(4)
But Olsen does not privilege the creative self or, more narrowly, the imagination, as redemptive in and of itself. Old Man Caldwell's deathbed advice to Mazie is also Olsen's advice to her readers: "[k]eep that wondering, Mazie, but try to know. Build on the knowing with the wondering . . ." (37). Caldwell, who is representative of scientific knowledge in the novel (he scientifically instructs Mazie about the cosmos), is expressive of the strong rationalist strain in Olsen's work.(5) Her agitprop intrusions are likewise examples of her desire to impart knowledge about the functioning of capitalism. Yonnondio suggests that for workers to be free, they would need to transform their spontaneous resistance to reification and their spontaneous utopianism into a political program based on a scientific understanding of society.
As we have seen, for Olsen, working-class resistance to reification in domestic life is spontaneous. However, we should not forget that Olsen portrays the resistance of the Holbrooks as spontaneous because they live in the 1920s, a period without a mass, left-wing labor movement. If Yonnondio had been completed, Mazie would have become radicalized because of the lessons she would have learned during the Depression. Olsen comments: "Mazie was of a generation when we don't know how many millions of young people in one way or another came to political consciousness" (Olsen, personal interview). Understanding the importance of a mass movement to the political education of the working class, Olsen therefore most clearly locates conscious working-class agency in the labor struggles of the period. It is within the politically progressive labor movements of the Depression, and not within the isolation of the private sphere or an unpoliticized public sphere, where objective events pierce the veil of reification long enough for workers to gain an understanding of their social positioning and class interests.
In her piece of reportage entitled "The Strike" (1934), for example, we find an imaginative and analytical description of the 1934 longshoreman's strike on the West Coast that simultaneously demonstrates Olsen's political view of, and literary response to, mass action. She begins the piece with a sense of panic at the rush of events culminating in Bloody Thursday, the day when the National Guard killed two strikers. She claims to be on a smoke-filled battlefield with little time to write a coherent piece on the strike:
Do not ask me to write of the strike and the terror. I am on a battlefield. . . . If I could go away for a while, if there were time and quiet, perhaps I could do it. . . . But I hunch over the type-writer and behind the smoke, the days whirl, confused as dreams. (245)
Interestingly, however, we later learn that she was not on the battlefield and did not participate in the strike; she was in the strike's headquarters (24849). She constructs her piece of reportage from "words of comrades, of strikers, from the pictures filling the newspapers" (248), even though she leads us to believe the contrary. Her piece is an imaginative reconstruction of the events that primarily depends on the workers' own understanding of the events. And in honesty, Olsen, stuck in the office, can claim to be on "a" battlefield, for in her imagination, she relives the waterfront battle as if it were occurring to her - she explains that she is literally feverish when she writes of the events. At the heart of the piece lies her identification as a member of the working class, whose motto here is inscribed into the "Preamble of the International Workers of the World": "An injury to one is an injury to all." And the basis of this class identification is the capacity to imagine, through her own working-class experience, political struggle and current information, "places your body aint ever been." Significantly, this revolutionary imagination (to borrow a term from Alan Wald), which allows Olsen subjectively to overcome "material" conditions, is one that grows in the soil (to use one of Olsen's favorite tropes) of actual political struggle. In other words, we see what happens to the Holbrooks' spontaneous imagination when nurtured by an organized workers' movement.
Throughout the article Olsen makes it clear that, for herself and the strikers, the overcoming of reification or, conversely, the emergence of workers' class-consciousness is due to mass struggle against the ruling class of employers and bourgeois politicians. Thus the workers are galvanized when attacked by the National Guard and the San Francisco Police Department. "The city became a camp," writes Olsen, "a battlefield, the screams of ambulances sent the day reeling, class lines fell sharply . . ." (247, my emphasis). In truth, the city was in state of class war. On July 5, 1934, recounts David Milton, "2000 National Guard troops occupied the Embarcadero [with] mounted machine guns on the pier roofs . . ." (49). When the National Guard and police could not open the docks through intimidation and ground and aerial tear gassing, they began to shoot at the unarmed strikers, killing two, one bystander, and wounding over a hundred other people. One of the results of the state violence is that more than 15,000 longshoremen marched in a funeral procession for the slain strikers.
Aside from powerfully documenting how the longshoremen developed class consciousness in 1934, Olsen's piece is highly rhetorical as it constructs a subversive collage organized by her dialectical perspective. Her purpose is to undermine the reports from the anticommunist popular press and other official spokesmen that painted over the class struggle by blaming a few "un-American." "Red agitators" for the strike. "It is not a conflict between employer and employee - between labor and capital - " wrote J. W. Maillard, Jr., president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, "it is a conflict which is rapidly spreading between American principles and unAmerican radicalism. . . . There can be no hope for industrial peace until communistic agitators are removed as the official spokesmen of labor . . ." (qtd. in Milton 44). Olsen, therefore, spends considerable time in her article emphasizing the class character of the strike by showing the contradictions between bourgeois ideology and bourgeois practice, contradictions that functioned to educate politically American workers during the Great Depression. When she describes the massacre, she intersperses it with bourgeois legal watchwords:
LAW - you hear, Howard Sperry, ex-serviceman, striking stevedore, shot in the back and abdomen, said to be in dying condition, DEAD, LAW AND ORDER - you hear and remember this Ben Martella, shot in arm, face and chest . . . innocent bystander, shot in leg, shot in shoulder, chest lacerated by tear gas shell, gassed in eyes, compound skull fracture by clubbing, you hear - LAW AND ORDER MUST PREVAIL. (248)
She thereby exposes that "law and order" means the defense of the waterfront employers - so that "a few dollars might be saved to fat bellies" (247) - and not the defense of the rights of the longshoreman, "for," quotes Olsen from a striker's leaflet, "the right to earn a decent living under decent conditions" (249).(6)
"The Strike" presents a vivid image of Olsen's political ideals; that is, it celebrates the working-class solidarity experienced by the thousands of strikers and sympathizers during what has been called the greatest general strike in U.S. labor history up until that time.(7) Undoubtedly she was in awe of the ability of individual workers to organize themselves into a class-conscious labor organization that was, for her, a microcosm of a socialist society. Thus, during the funeral procession, Olsen sees "the look" of a future proletarian revolution: "I saw the people, I saw the look on their faces. And it is the look that will be there the days of the revolution" (250). Having surmounted the paralyzing "personal" doubts about social change, and the fears of being fired, clubbed, or shot, these workers Olsen describes have nothing other than "the look" of workers "[s]trong with the not yet in the now." As I have been arguing, it is this look, this utopian consciousness developed by knowledge gained in mass struggle of the period, that animates all of Olsen's work in different ways and (to now return to Bloch) penetrates "the darkness so near it of the just lived moment, in which everything that is both drives and is hidden from itself."
1 For important feminist readings of Olsen's life and work, see Coiner, Rabinowitz, and Rosenfelt.
2 I use reification and dialectical philosophy as antonyms throughout this essay, for the purpose of dialectical philosophy is conceptually to overcome the fragmentation of the various spheres of social life characteristic of reified perception; that is, dialectical thinking works to make the working-classes' contradictory and fragmentary view of the world into a coherent whole. For an informative discussion of the philosophical and political doctrine of the radical movement of which Olsen was a part, see Foley.
3 See Coiner, Rabinowitz, and Olsen's "A Biographical Interpretation."
4 In Labor and Desire, Paula Rabinowitz argues that, for Olsen, the imagination is gendered as female (133), but this reading overlooks Olsen's class analysis of her female characters' subject position under capitalism. Mazie and Anna are more imaginative because of their specific circumstances, not because they are female. And Rabinowitz's reading cannot account for the passages in which Olsen writes about working-lass imagination in general.
5 When I interviewed Olsen, one of her first comments was how she was fortunately influenced as a child by the rationalism of nineteenth-century republican and socialist thinkers.
6 Prior to the strike, which was successful, the longshoremen had to line up along the Embarcadero in the hopes that a foreman would hire them for a day's work, not unlike the situation for many immigrant Mexican farmworkers in the United States today.
7 See Milton and Quin.
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Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years' War. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: Grove, 1955.
Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Davis, Rebecca Harding "Life in the Iron Mills." Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories. Ed. Tillie Olsen. New York: Feminist Press, 1985. 11-65.
Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Kessler-Harris, Alice Women Have Always Worked: A Historical Overview. Old Westbury: Feminist Press, 1981.
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Milton, David. The Politics of U.S. Labor: From the Great Depression to the New Deal. New York: Monthly Review, 1982.
Olsen, Tillie. "A Biographical Interpretation." Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories. Ed. Tillie Olsen. New York: Feminist Press, 1985.69-174.
-----. Personal interview. 20-21 June 1992.
-----. "The Strike." Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940. Ed. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz. New York: Feminist Press, 1987. 245-251.
-----. "Tell Me a Riddle." Tell Me a Riddle. New York: Dell, 1994.63-116.
-----. Yonnondio: From the Thirties. New York: Dell, 1989.
Quin, Mike. "The San Francisco General Strike, 1934." On the Drumhead: A Selection from the Writing of Mike Quin. Ed. Harry Carlisle. San Francisco: Pacific Publishing, 1948.20-28.
Rabinowitz, Paula Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
Rosenfelt, Deborah. "From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition." Feminist Studies 7.3 (Fall 1981): 370-406.
Staub, Michael E. Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Susman, Warren I. "Culture of the Thirties." Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 150-83.
"This Beneficent Depression." The Literary Digest (20 Apr. 1932): 36.
Wald, Alan. The Revolutionary Imagination: The Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1983.
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ANTHONY DAHAWARE ia assistant professor of English at California State University, Northridge. He has published articles on the Depression-era writings of Meridel Le Sueur and Langston Hughes. Currently, he is working on a book on twentieth-century nationalism and interwar modern American literature.…
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Publication information: Article title: "That Joyous Certainty": History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen's Depression-Era Literature. Contributors: Dawahare, Anthony - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 44. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1998. Page number: 261. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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