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Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen (born 1913) is widely regarded as one of the most important women writers in America. Although her reputation was built on a relatively small body of work, she is recognized for her skill as a storyteller and her determination to give voice to the hopes and frustrations of people stifled because of their class, sex, or race.

Born Tillie Lerner on January 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska, Olsen was the second of seven children of Samuel and Ida Beber Lerner. The Lerners were Jewish, and had fled czarist Russia after the failed 1905 rebellion, in which they had participated. Because of his leftist political sympathies, Samuel Lerner was forced from many jobs, including farm worker, packinghouse worker, painter, paperhanger, and candy maker. He was blacklisted in the 1920s for his role in a failed strike and served for some time as state secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party. Olsen later would recount being influenced ideologically by her father, whom she remembered as organizing men to help poor blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma to rebuild their burnt-out houses after a 1920s race riot.

In 1928, Olsen bought three copies of the Atlantic Monthly from a junk shop, noted Mickey Pearlman and Abby Werlock in their critical work, Tillie Olsen. In an April 1861 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she found a reprint of Rebecca Harding Davis's unsigned novella, Life in the Iron Mills. This work would exert a profound influence on her, although she did not even learn the author's name until 1958. "The message she received," Pearlman and Werlock recounted, "was that even a poor girl like herself could write—and publish—a tale of the lives of the despised and ignored people for whom she would continue to speak for more than a half century."

Leaving Omaha Central High School in 1929 without a diploma, Olsen went to work in a tie factory, the first of a long series of unremarkable jobs. At the age of 17, Olsen joined the Young Communist League and attended the Communist party school in Kansas City, Kansas. In an unpublished story she wrote at 18, which later became part of the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, Olsen's protagonist declared: "I shall write stories when I grow up, and not work in a factory."

Olsen remained an activist, and was jailed in 1930 after trying to organize workers in a meat-packing house in Kansas City, Kansas. While in jail, she contracted two debilitating lung diseases: pleurisy and tuberculosis. During a long recovery in Faribault, Minnesota, Olsen began writing a novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties. In 1932, she gave birth to a daughter, who she named Karla after the socialist ideologue, Karl Marx.

Olsen moved to California in 1933, eventually settling in San Francisco, where she would live in the Mission and Fillmore districts for 40 years. She was arrested along with her future husband, Jack Olsen, and several others for her participation in the San Francisco Maritime Strike of 1934. An eruption of violence on July 5, nicknamed "Bloody Thursday," left several strikers dead and many injured. Olsen was arrested on a charge of violating the city's handbill ordinance, with bail set at $1,000—an outrageous sum at the time, especially considering the charge. She penned two essays about the experience. "The Iron Throat," which appeared in the Partisan Review while Olsen was still in jail, later became part of the first chapter of Yonnondio. The "Thousand-Dollar Vagrant" told of Olsen's encounter with a judge and was published in the New Republic.

Working Mother

In 1936, Tillie and Jack Olsen moved in together, and married later that year. Olsen abandoned Yonnondio to spend the next 20 years working to support her family. Olsen gave birth to Julie in 1938, Katherine Jo in 1943, and Laurie in 1948. Her activist focus shifted to issues facing her children. As president of the Parent-Teacher Association, Olsen fought to add a library and playground to her daughters' school.

Like her father, Olsen was forced to change jobs frequently, not because of blacklisting but because the FBI harassed her bosses. She held positions as a waitress, punch press operator, trimmer in a slaughterhouse, hash slinger, mayonnaise jar capper in a food-processing plant, checker in a warehouse, secretary, and transcriber in a dairy equipment company.

Reclaimed Writing

Despite the many demands on her time, Olsen always managed to steal moments to write, while riding the bus to work, or at night, while her family slept. During the 1950s, she began to devote more time to her writing, penning the stories "I Stand Here Ironing," and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?"

In 1955, Olsen enrolled in a creative writing course at San Francisco State College. "I did not come to our writing class that late September day in 1955 as the others came," she later wrote, as quoted in the critical essay collection Tell Me a Riddle edited by Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt. "I was a quarter of a century older. I had had no college. I came from that common, everyday, work, mother, eight-hour-daily job, survival (and yes, activist) world seldom the subject of literature." Balancing child-rearing and the struggle to earn a living with creative expression has informed her writing, Olsen wrote in her book Silences. "It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moved tormented back and forth with the iron."

Full-Time Writer; Earns Accolades

The turning point in Olsen's career as a writer came in 1956, when she won a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. Rubbing elbows with fellowship recipients including James Baldwin, Flannery O'Connor, and Katherine Ann Porter, she used her eight months of writing time to revise and to produce stories including "Baptism," later published as "O Yes."

The next year, "I Stand Here Ironing," appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1957. Since then, it has been anthologized more than 90 times, besides serving as a cornerstone of Olsen's story collection, Tell Me a Riddle. The collection, which also includes the stories "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "O Yes," plus the novella Tell Me a Riddle, was first published in 1961 by Lippincott.

Tell Me a Riddle is regarded by many scholars as Olsen's most significant work. Its title story earned her the 1961 O. Henry Award for best American short story. Tell Me a Riddle relates the story of Eva, whose husband convinces her to travel around the country visiting their children and grandchildren, despite her protests. Craving home and solitude, Eva withdraws into her own world as she dies of cancer, her family having withheld this information from her. Like "I Stand Here Ironing," Tell Me a Riddle was widely anthologized. It was also adapted as a play, a film, and an opera.

Literary Success

After her initial literary successes, Olsen's days as a hired hand were over. She received numerous grants that provided the financial resources needed to devote her time to writing. These included a 1962 fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, a 1967 National Endowment for the Arts award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition, she taught at Amherst, the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Stanford University, the University of California at San Diego and Berkeley, and Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

In 1968, Olsen began writing Requa. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of a young boy raised by his bachelor uncle after his mother dies. The novella was published in the Iowa Review in 1970, and in The Best American Short Stories in 1971.

In 1972, Jack Olsen unearthed his wife's abandoned manuscript of Yonnondio. While in residence at the MacDowell Writers' Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Olsen revised the book, which chronicles a working class family trying to survive during the Depression. Delacorte Press published the work in 1974.

The next year, Olsen was awarded the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters award for a distinguished contribution to American literature. In 1978, she published Silences, a nonfiction work about the obstacles to writing some people face: poverty, child rearing, and prejudices against color, class, and gender. She lamented the literary void created by the silences of these people.

Living Legacy

In the New York Times Book Review, Margaret Atwood wrote that Olsen's achievements are highly valued. "Among women writers in the United States, respect is too pale a word: reverence is more like it. This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer."

Women writers are not the only people to value Olsen's work. The writer who never finished high school has received honorary degrees from the University of Nebraska, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 1981, the mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors proclaimed May 18 as "Tillie Olsen Day" in San Francisco. She had an entire week named after her at the Five Quad Cities Colleges in Iowa and Illinois in 1983, and was awarded a senior fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities the same year. In 1986, Olsen visited the Soviet Union as a guest of the Writers' Union, taking the opportunity to visit Minsk, the city of her mother's birth. The same year, she traveled to China with a contingent of women writers that included Paule Marshall and Alice Walker.

As a feminist educator, Olsen has used her position to shine the spotlight on other important women writers. Her college courses "have introduced male and female students to long-forgotten works by women," noted Marleen Barr in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "After it was published in the Women's Studies Newsletter, the reading list she developed was used widely in women's studies courses." Furthermore, "she has encouraged women and minorities to write their own stories and to break through the encoded silences that surround the lives of the powerless," wrote Pearlman and Werlock. "Her appearances across the country, where she talks about such silences, empower, support, and encourage writers and women in ways that she herself was not empowered, supported, or encouraged until very late in life." Concluded Barr: "Although Olsen's output is small, her work is important because it gives a voice to people who are routinely not heard."

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Susan M.Trosky, Gale, 1994.

The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen, edited by Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse, Greenwood Press, 1994.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, edited by Daniel Walden, Gale, 1984.

Martin, Abigail, Tillie Olsen, Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1984.

Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H.P. Werlock, Tillie Olsen, Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Educational Gerontology, March 1999. p. 129.

Frontiers, September-December 1997, p. 159.

Melus, Fall 1997, Vol. 22, Issue 3, p. 113.

New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1978.

Peace Research Abstracts Journal, February 1999, p. 81.

Publishers Weekly, April 11, 1994, p. 13.

Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1990, Vol. 27, p. 509; Spring 1991, Vol. 28, p. 235; Fall 1994, Vol. 31, p. 728.

Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1998, Vol. 44, p. 261. □

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"Tillie Olsen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Tillie Olsen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 15, 2017).

"Tillie Olsen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Olsen, Tillie

OLSEN, Tillie

Nationality: American. Born: Tillie Lerner, Omaha, Nebraska, 14 January 1912 or 1913. Education: Some high school. Family: Married Jack Olsen in 1943 (died); four daughters. Career: Has worked in the service, warehouse, and food processing industries, and as an office typist. Writer-in-residence, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1969-70; visiting professor, Stanford University, California, Spring 1971; writer-in-residence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1973; visiting professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1974; visiting lecturer, University of California, San Diego, 1978; International Visiting Scholar, Norway, 1980; Hill Professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1986; writer-in-residence, Amherst College; writer-in-residence, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1987; Regents' professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1988. Creative Writing fellow, Stanford University, 1956-57; fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962-64. Awards: Ford grant, 1959; O. Henry award, 1961; American Academy award, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; Unitarian Women's Federation award, 1980; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1966 and 1984; Bunting Institute fellowship, 1986; Nebraska Library Association Mari Sandoz award, 1991; Rea award, for distinguished contribution to the short story, 1994; Distinguished Achievement award, Western Literary Association, 1996. Doctor of Arts and Letters: University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1979; D. Litt.: Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, 1982; Hobart and William Smith College, Geneva, New York, 1984; Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1985; Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania, 1986; Wooster College, Ohio, 1991; Mills College, 1995; Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1998. "Tillie Olsen Day" observed in San Francisco, 1981. Address: 2333 Ward Street Rear, Berkeley, California 94705-1110, U.S.A.



Yonnondio: From the Thirties. New York, Delacorte Press, 1974;London, Faber, 1975.

Short Stories

Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1961;London, Faber, 1964.

Dream Vision. New York, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother, n.d.

Uncollected Short Story

"Requa-I," in The Best American Short Stories 1971, edited byMartha Foley and David Burnett. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1971.


Silences. New York, Delacorte Press, 1978; London, Virago Press, 1980.

Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photographs, with Julie Olsen-Edwards and Estelle Jussim. New York, Aperture, 1987.

Afterword, Life in the Iron Mills. Old Westbury, New York, FeministPress, 1972.

The Word Made Flesh. Iowa City, Iowa Humanities Council, 1984.

Editor, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering. Old Westbury, New York, Feminist Press, 1984; London, Virago Press, 1985.


Manuscript Collection:

Berg Collection, New York Public Library; Stanford Library American Literature Archives, Stanford University, California.

Critical Studies:

Tillie Olsen by Abigail Martin, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1984; Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision by Elaine Neil Orr, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1987; Tillie Olsen by Abby Werlock and Mickey Pearlman, Boston, Twayne, 1991; Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen by Mara Faulkner, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 1993; The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen edited by Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse, Westport, Connecticut, and London, Greenwood Press, 1994; Listening to Silences edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994; Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur by Constance Coiner, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995; Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction by Joanne Frye, Boston, Twayne, 1995; Tell Me A Riddle by Deborah Rosenfelt, Rutgers, Rutgers University Press, 1995; Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst by Nora Ruth Roberts, New York, Garland, 1996; Women's Ethical Coming-of-Age: Adolescent Female Characters in the Prose Fiction of Tillie Olsen by Agnes Toloczko Cardoni, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1997.

* * *

Tillie Olsen repeatedly expresses her conviction that literature is impoverished to the degree that creativity is not nourished and sustained in women and in people of the working class. Her speeches and essays on the waste of talent and on periods of aridity in the lives of authors, her long treatise on Rebecca Harding Davis's thwarted career following marriage, and her notes and quotations of this themecollected over a period of 15 yearsconstitute Silences. Her own artistic recognition was postponed by the exigencies of making a living for herself and her children. She "mislaid" a novel for 35 years and wrote no story she thought worthy of publication until she was 43.

Tell Me a Riddle includes the three stories and the novella published between 1956 and 1960. "Tell Me a Riddle" centers on the antagonism which arises between two Jewish immigrants after their 37 years of marriage. In this novella Olsen reflects also upon the embarrassment and bewilderment of their married children as the "gnarled roots" of this marriage split apart. The wife's slow death from cancer greatly intensifies the conflict, but also dramatizes the love that remains only because it has become a habit. The wife returns in her delirium to their 1905 revolutionary activism, as her husband sighs, "how we believed, how we belonged." Almost without plot, this novella demonstrates Olsen's artistry in characterization, dialogue, and sensory appeal, and it fully displays, as does all her fiction, her highly rhythmic and metaphorical use of language.

In the monologue "I Stand Here Ironing" a woman reviews the 19 years of her daughter's life and mourns those days which blighted the daughter's full "flowering." Most intense are the mother's memories of being torn away from her infant in order to support her after they were abandoned. In "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" Whitey, a sailor, is given to drink and to buying admiration from the children of Lennie and Helen by giving them expensive gifts. Here he endures his last visit with his adopted family, with whom he has spent San Francisco shore leaves for years. The oldest daughter, embarrassed before her friends, turns in judgment upon the man who has brought a sense of adventure and romance to the family, while they have provided him some understanding and security over the years. In the elegiac close, Whitey pauses at the top of the third of seven hills to look back through the fog to the house with "its eyes unshaded." In the story "O Yes" a 12-year-old black girl invites her white friend to her baptism. As the throb of voices and clapping and the swaying of bodies intensifies the congregation's religious fervor, the white child feels her senses assailed and faints. The next year in junior high, as rigid social patterns separate the two friends, she mourns the warmth and openness she felt momentarily at the baptism.

The novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, which Olsen began at the age of 19 (when she was already a mother), she abandoned five years later, a few pages short of its close. The manuscript was found 35 years later, and in 1973, in "arduous partnership" with her younger self, Olsen selected, edited, and organized the fragments, but she could not write the ending or rewrite sections. The novel significantly adds to American fiction of the Depression years, and it provides remarkable evidence of Olsen's artistry in her early youth. Greatly impressive are the imagery, the use of smells and sounds, the rhythms which shift notably between the first two sections written from the view of the child Mazie, and the third section which emerges from the narrative consciousness of the mother, Mary Holbrook, dying gradually of exhaustion, childbearing, and malnutrition. The title of this novel is taken from Walt Whitman's "Yonnondio" and in Iroquois means a lament for the aboriginesthe authors mourn the common folk who suffered greatly but left "No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future." During the course of the novel, Jim Holbrook moves from a Wyoming mine to a North Dakota tenant farm and finally to a Chicago or Omaha meat-packing plant with his wife and family. The zestful and imaginative Mazie in the early months of their life on the farm becomes ecstatically pantheistic in the style of Whitman's nature poetry, but in the city, in section three, she has lost her aspiration and much of her sensitivity and moves into the background in her bewilderment at her mother's illness and her father's increasing bad temper and dependence on alcohol. Critics generally acclaimed the novel, but several complained that Olsen gives her readers no mercy and that her work may be too painful for sustained reading and too unrelenting in its despair to allow characters to triumph through suffering.

Margaret B. McDowell

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