On the Side of the Mother: 'Yonnondio' and 'Call It Sleep.'
Orr, Elaine, Studies in American Fiction
Culture has taught us to consume the mother's body--natural and spiritual--without being indebted.
The relation between the mother's body and language, between maternity and theory, has been a vexing subject for feminist readers. If, as some propose, language and culture rely on the loss of the mother, how do we make sense of the mother as subject in literature? On the other hand, if mothering practices construct a maternal subjectivity, how do we recognize authentic forms of her written expression? And what is the relation between feminist desires to reconstruct mothering and the actual perspectives of mothers that may or may not have been textualized?
As currently posed, these questions beg a restructuring, one that does not reinscribe the gap between "mothers" and "theory," "body" and "text." Indeed, much feminist theorizing appears compelled by an implied necessity to continue distancing "ourselves" from maternity.(1) Such a move is analogous to intellectual distancing from the subject of racism. As bell hooks points out, liberal applications to plurality and multiplicity as evidence that racism is "over" elide the living memory of those for whom it is not.(2) Thus, I begin this essay by asking if there is a feminist way to read with the mother, to read "on her side."(3) Is there, for example, a medial space between reader and textualized mother, between interpretive desire and the scenes of mothering, a space that requires feminist critics to move in closer to the maternal subject while honoring a partial separateness, some "view" the reader cannot entirely replace or reproduce?
The two novels I read here, Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1936) and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) explicitly enact textual viewings of the mother. Composed in historical and political proximity, both texts amplify the problematic issue of interpretive appropriation vis-a-vis the maternal body. Foregrounding pre-adolescent sexuality (in Olsen's novel, a daughter's; in Roth's, a son's), each novel emphatically links a mother's physical exposure with narrative insinuations of the reader's positionality. As I will show, only in Olsen's novel are readers obliged to stay with the mother, reviewing her less and reading with her more.
What I find intriguing about the juxtaposition of Olsen and Roth are their otherwise several commonalities. Writing in the Depression, Roth and Olsen revivify shared spaces of marginality--urban working class landscapes, violently modeled juvenile interactions, memories of painful migration and "naturalization." Both novels give witness to the double alienation of working class men whose lives are experienced as a succession of displacements. In this interest, both novels offer intimate portrayals of a Depression-era masculinism urging work for every able-bodied man. Indeed, in its remythologizing of male agency, the Depression became an exaggerated instance of American gendering. Within this scene of male desire, a woman's inscription is best summarized as sexual mother: physical companion to her husband and mother to her family.(4) But what if we were able to reread texts of the thirties not as an exercise in reviewing maternal representations but in order to look with her at textual and cultural appropriations of a mother's identity?
Nineteen and pregnant, Olsen began Yonnondio in 1932, worked on the manuscript intermittently for several years but never completed it.(5) Though not published until 1974, most of Yonnondio was thus written in the same years that Roth was composing his novel,(6) and Olsen read Roth's book when it came out in 1934, admiring its domestic preoccupations.(7) At the same time, as Deborah Rosenfelt writes, in the thirties
Olsen was consciously writing class literature from a woman's
point of view, incorporating a dimension . . . ignored and neglected
in the works of most contemporary male leftists. …