Cary Nelson: On "I Want You Women Up North to Know"

Tillie Olsen, who was then writing under her maiden name Lerner, wrote a poem based on a letter that had been published in the January 9th, 1934, issue of New Masses . . . New Masses published the letter under the heading "Where the Sun Spends the Winter," a version of the slogan adopted by a Texas Chamber of Commerce as the motto for a tourist campaign. The letter describes the impossible lives of four women who survive by hand embroidering children's dresses for a few pennies each. The author of the letter, Felipe Ibarro, may well have been a journalist or a social worker or perhaps simply an activist, so the letter is not the direct testimony of the workers described but reported testimony that is already self-consciously rhetorical. Nonetheless, it offers nonetheless one interesting version of this distinctive 1930s genre. It is worth comparing the opening two paragraphs of the letter with the first three stanzas of the poem. Here is the opening of the letter:

I want the women of New York, Chicago and Boston who buy at Macy's, Wannamaker's, Gimbel's and Marshall Field to know that when they buy embroidered children's dresses labeled `hand made' they are getting dresses made in San Antonio, Texas, by women and girls with trembling fingers and broken backs.

These are bloody facts and I know, because I've spoken to the women who make them. Catalina Rodriguez is a 24-year-old Mexican girl but she looks like 12. She's in the last stages of consumption and works from six in the morning till midnight. She says she never makes more than three dollars a week. I don't wonder any more why in our city with a population of 250,000 the Board of Health has registered 800 professional `daughters of joy' and in addition, about 2,00 Mujeres Alegres (happy women), who are not registered and sell themselves for as little as five cents.

Here are the opening stanzas of the poem:

 

i want you women up north to know

how those dainty children's dresses you buy

    at macy's, wannamaker's, gimbels, marshall fields,

are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,

down in San Antonio, "where sunshine spends the winter."

 

I want you women up north to see

the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill

    "exquisite work, madame, exquisite pleats"

vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,

    gouging the wages down,

dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,

    stitching these dresses from dawn to night,

    in blood, in wasting flesh.

 

Catalina Rodriguez, 24,

    body shrivelled to a child's at twelve,

catalina rodriguez, last stages of consumption,

    works for three dollars a week from dawn to midnight.

A fog of pain thickens over her skull, the parching heat

    breaks over her body.

and the bright red blood embroiders the floor of her room.

    White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say,

    white gulls of hands, darting, veering,

    white lightning, threading the clouds,

this is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth,

and her cough, gay, quick, staccato,

    like skeleton's bones clattering,

is appropriate accompaniment for the esthetic dance

    of her fingers

and the tremulo, tremulo when the hands tremble with pain.

Three dollars a week,

two fifty-five,

seventy cents a week,

no wonder two thousands eight hundred ladies of joy

are spending the winter with the sun after he goes down . . .

 

Olsen works with Ibarro's letter to draw out its drama and intensify the metaphoric power of the suffering it recounts. The title, "I Want You Women Up North to Know," drawn from the letter, serves as a refrain line that becomes a paradigm for North/South relations and for those who benefit, often indifferently and sometimes in ignorance, from economic exploitation. Olsen uses her own metaphors as well as Ibarro's, but her poem remains nonetheless an inventive extension of the original letter. Keeping true to Ibarro's wish to have women up north understand the economic and social relations that are hidden within the clothing they buy, Olsen adds a passage describing a department store where the children's dresses are sold. Notably, however, the poem's most explicit challenge--a challenge built into the original letter--is not to the businessmen who hire the dressmakers or to the department store owners who sell them but to the consumers who buy them and thus fuel the entire set of transactions. Olsen is not alone in focusing on how ordinary people's actions help sustain economic exploitation--Kenneth Fearing, for example, often satirizes the way people's illusions reinforce the ideology of the market place--but attacks on industrialists were certainly more common during the period.

The primary change from Ibarro's text to Olsen's, as with most poems based on worker correspondence, is the generic shift itself, the move from prose to poetry. This is a shift Olsen embraces, but with uneasiness, as her effort to emulate (and thereby critique) a bourgeois poet's lyrical evocation of Catalina Rodriquez's dying efforts at embroidery suggests: "White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say, / white gulls of hands, darting." As Constance Coiner points out in her reading of the poem, Olsen moves "abruptly from a parody of traditional lyrical poetry, which, in her view would ignore or distance the reader from the plight of these exploited workers, to prosaically announcing their low wages and their only available alternative for employment, prostitution." But Olsen's poem is itself, as Coiner demonstrates, "at points sensitive to the richness and rhythm of language. The free verse form and the repetition of words and phrases may represent a debt to Whitman, while a bold central metaphor transforms the women into the clothing they embroider—that is, into commodities" (163). Yet Olsen cannot actually cast out the imagined bourgeois poet's literariness without casting out her own as well. She would reject an obfuscating metaphoricity that substitutes fantasies of birds on the wing for hand movements that are actually painful. Yet one could also take the line as celebrating a deft beauty in the midst of suffering. The poem in short puts forward an argumentative dichotomy which the poem itself simultaneously destabilizes and undermines, making the reader examine his or her own relationship to the moral and political implications of figurative language.

Where Coiner and I differ is in how much weight we are finally willing to place on the poem's reflective self-consciousness about language and about the final effect of its unwavering critique of border capitalism. Coiner's conclusion lays out her doubts:

While the text succeeds in its intention to force us to confront the agony and injustice of these garment workers' lives, it is also unsettling because it preempts our emotional and moral responses. It bludgeons us, its exhortatory language announcing a distrust that the reader will respond appropriately to the garment workers' suffering. The language announces itself, too, as "movement" discourse, which in practice turns back on itself rather than to a general audience—that is, the already converted speak to the already converted in the special discourse of converts. Because those who might have been persuaded are, in effect, excluded by this discourse, the poem's intention is undercut (p. 163).

Yet the audience that Olsen has her doubts about—as the poem makes clear—is the audience of consumers. Will upper middle-class consumers stop buying these dresses? Almost certainly not. The expectation that she cannot reach those consumers is built into the poem's adoption of a revolutionary solution. But the revolutionary context of the poem is not so much armed insurrection as it is the more utopian versions of trade unionism at work in the country just as Olsen was writing. As Coiner points out, "as Olsen began her writing career, workers started pouring into the available unions . . . their strength came in sheer numbers, and those numbers came from other workers willing to join the picket in solidarity" (160). The poem urges this sort of solidarity on sympathetic readers, including workers themselves, and does not seek a transformed upper middle class. Whether one admires the results is partly a matter of taste, politics, class identification, and literary training. One may be hailed or alienated by the poem's rhetoric and by the general rhetoric of 1930s revolutionary poetry; in the case of either response, it is not a matter that can be objectively resolved, despite the temptation to turn our preferences into transcendent values . . . .

For all these reasons I find Olsen's poem aesthetically and politically successful. The concise specificity of its account of exploited labor is persuasive and moving. The continuing existence of such sweat shops around the world nearly seventy years later gives the poem continuing and long-term historical relevance. The poem's final homage to the Russian revolution may seem dated but its detailed story of the garment industry is as current as yesterday's news. A single witness's testimony about four women in one 1930s city becomes synecdochic in four senses: these workers become representatives of their class, their suffering becomes emblematic of a whole range of values the culture should either resist or espouse, their time becomes a figure for economic inequities of long duration, and readers now as then are challenged about their complicity in an economic system and urged to reposition themselves within solidarity. The experience of working people thereby becomes a fitting ground for all the ideological investments the culture makes in literariness, particularly in poetry. Finally, to make poetry out of working-class experience, to return to working people their own narratives (or narratives about them) in poetic form, is explicitly to overturn much of the class prejudice inherent in the culture's hierarchical view of aesthetic value.

In all of this Olsen is effectively Ibarro's agent in the domain of literariness. The first person in the title of Olsen's amplifies what she feels we should know. Olsen thus draws out the structural implications of the underpaid work these women do and of the religious faith that helps keep them positioned as they are. Ibarro reports Ambrosa Espinoza's struggle to "pay rent for her shack, pay insurance, support the Catholic Church and feed herself." Olsen intensifies the ironies and adds an explicit anti-religious commentary:

 

but the pennies to keep god incarnate, from ambrosa,

and the pennies to keep the priest in wine, from ambrosa,

ambrosa clothes god and priest with hand-made children's dresses.

 

Olsen also offers a more explicit revolutionary message. Espinoza's crippled brother, who lies "on a mattress of rags" and "dreams of another world" does not quite know that an alternative world "was brought to earth in 1917 in Russia,/ by workers like him." Except for a slight rearrangement of the words in the first line, however, the last stanza (with its revolutionary promise) is quoted directly from Ibarro's letter:

 

Women up north, I want you to know,

I tell you this can't last forever.

 

I swear it won't. 

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Cary Nelson: On "I Want You Women Up North to Know" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Tillie Lerner Olsen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left
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