Olsen, Tillie 1912(?)-

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OLSEN, Tillie 1912(?)-


Born January 14, 1912 (some sources say 1913), in Omaha, NE; daughter of Samuel (Nebraska state secretary of Socialist Party) and Ida (Beber) Lerner; married Jack Olsen (a printer), 1936 (died, 1989); children: Karla Olsen Lutz, Julie Olsen Edwards, Katherine Jo, Laurie. Education: High school graduate.


Home—2333 Ward St. Rear, Berkeley, CA 94705-1110. Agent—Elaine Markson Literary Agency, 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011.


Worked in industry and as typist/transcriber. Visiting professor, Amherst College, 1969-70, and University of Massachusetts, 1974; visiting instructor, Stanford University, 1971; writer-in-residence, Amherst College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1973, and Kenyon College, 1987; visiting lecturer, University of California, San Diego, 1978; International Visiting Scholar, Norway, 1980; Hill professor, University of Minnesota, 1986; Regents Lecturer, University of California at San Diego, 1978, and University of California at Los Angeles, 1987.


Authors Guild, PEN, Writer's Union.


Stanford University creative writing fellowship, 1956-57; Ford Foundation grant in literature, 1959; O. Henry Award for best American short story, 1961, for "Tell Me a Riddle"; fellowship, Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, 1962-64; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975-76; award in literature, American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975; honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters, University of Nebraska, 1979, and Hobart and William Smith College, 1984; Ministry to Women Award, Unitarian Women's Federation, 1980; British Post Office and B.P.W. award, 1980; Tillie Olsen Day designated in San Francisco, 1981; honorary Litt.D., Knox College, 1982, and Albright College, 1986; honorary L.H.D., Clark University, 1985; Bunting Institute fellowship, Radcliffe College, 1985; Litt.D., Wooster College, 1991; Rea Award, 1994; Litt.D., Mills College, 1995; Fred Cody Award for a writer whose body of work has contributed greatly to the San Francisco Bay community, Bay Area Book Reviewers Awards, 2001.


Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection (stories), Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1961, with an introduction by John Leonard, Delta/Seymour Lawrence (New York, NY), 1994, edited with an introduction by Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1995.

(Editor and author of biographical interpretation) Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills (nonfiction), Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1972.

Yonnondio: From the Thirties (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1974, revised with introduction by Linda Ray Pratt, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2004.

Silences (essays), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1978, revised with introduction by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2003.

Tillie Olson [i.e. Olsen]: A Profile (sound recording), National Public Radio (Washington, DC), 1980.

Tillie Olsen Reading Selections (sound recording), American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1981.

(Editor) Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: A Daybook and Reader, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1984.

(With Julie Olsen Edwards and Estelle Jussim) Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photographs, Aperture Foundation (New York, NY), 1987.

Also recorded Tillie Olsen Reads from Her Fiction in the Recording Laboratory, June 3-5, 1996. Olsen's short stories appear in more than one hundred anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1957, 1961, and 1971, Fifty Best American Stories, 1915-1965, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, 1961, Norton Introduction to Literature, 1977, Elements of Literature, 1978, and The Modern Tradition, 1979. Contributor to Ms., Harper's, College English, and Trellis.

A collection of Olsen's manuscripts is housed in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.


Tillie Olsen writes about those people who, because of their class, sex, or race, have been denied the opportunity to express and develop themselves. In a strongly emotional style, she tells of their dreams and failures, of what she calls "the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being but cannot." Olsen has published relatively little, citing her own life circumstances as the cause. She was forced to delay her writing for some twenty years while working at a number of jobs and raising four children. Her novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties was begun during the depression but not finished until the early seventies. As Margaret Atwood wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "few writers have gained such wide respect on such a small body of published work.… 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."

The daughter of politically active Jewish immigrants, Olsen was influenced by her parents' philosophies about politics and economics, and by the age of eighteen she was a member of the Young Communist League. After leaving high school, Olsen worked various jobs as a laborer, had her first child, and remained politically active. During this time, Olsen was arrested twice for her political activities. In Kansas City, she was jailed for organizing workers at a packinghouse, which induced her to write about the terrible conditions in the slaughterhouses.

Olsen's writing during the 1930s was in the vein of contemporary radical fiction, popular during that era. The aim of such fiction was to use art for political and social ends. Olsen was determined to write about the lives of marginalized people, those who got no respect from mainstream society. In 1934 she published "The Iron Throat," a piece against capitalism; "Thousand Dollar Vagrant," a fictionalized account of her arrest; and "The Strike," an account of a violent clash between police and striking longshoremen. Her poem "I Want You Women up North to Know" expresses the injustices of working in a sweatshop. An essayist for Feminist Writers remarked, "These pieces, taken along with Yonnondio, are indicative of what separates the writing of women from that of men during the 1930s; namely, a concern with issues of class and gender."

Also during the early 1930s, Olsen was prompted to begin her first book, Yonnondio: From the Thirties. She then left the Midwest for California, became involved in the San Francisco Longshoremen's strike of 1934 and was jailed again for her support of unions. In 1936 she married Jack Olsen, also a union organizer. From 1937 onward, Olsen became consumed with her family and did not complete Yonnondio, focusing her energy instead on raising her four daughters and working as a waitress and secretary.

Olsen did not take up writing again until 1956, when she received a fellowship from Stanford University after taking a creative writing course at San Francisco State University. In 1959, she received a Ford Foundation grant and completed the O. Henry award-winning short story "Tell Me a Riddle." This novella describes the conflict of a Jewish couple, Eva and David, who have endured thirty-seven years of marriage. The wife, suffering from a terminal disease, also suffers from her husband's insensitivity. Eva has spent her entire life satisfying the needs of her husband and children and continues to do so through her cancerous death. When David's wish to travel supersedes Eva's need for rest and her desire to be in her own home, he sells their house and they travel the United States, visiting their children along the way. Eva finds her only escape from the continuous demands of her husband and children is to hide herself in a closet and relive earlier episodes of her life.

"Tell Me a Riddle" received much critical acclaim. "This novella," commented Margaret B. McDowell in Contemporary Novelists, "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." The Los Angeles Times Book Review's Elena Brunet praised Olsen's talent for capturing "the modes of speech of characters" regardless of their age. "Tell Me a Riddle," along with several other short stories, was published in a highly praised collection in 1961, also titled Tell Me a Riddle. One of the most highly praised works in the collection is the monologue titled "I Stand Here Ironing," in which a woman looks back over the nineteen years of her daughter's life, reliving many events, and feeling with special intensity the painful times she had to leave her infant in the care of others so that she could make a living to support them both, after the child's father abandoned them. "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" relates the story of Whitey, a sailor who spends his time ashore in San Francisco with an adopted family. For years they have enjoyed his visits, despite his drinking bouts, because he brings them a sense of romance and adventure. From them, Whitey gets a feeling of security and understanding. The relationship is marred when the eldest daughter, embarrassed by Whitey in front of her friends, turns on him. Another kind of separation is chronicled in "O Yes," in which a white child feels a special closeness to her black friend when she visits her church, but finds the warmth and openness they have shared cannot withstand the rigid social structure of their junior high school. Speaking of the collection, R. M. Elman of Commonweal stated that "there are stories in this collection which are perfectly realized works of art."

Teaching positions and grants allowed Olsen to continue to develop her work. Eventually she finished her novel Yonnondio, almost forty years after she began it. Described by some critics as one of the best novels about the 1930s, Yonnondio details the life of a poor family, the Holbrooks, during the Depression. The story is narrated by Mazie Holbrook, the young daughter. Mazie details the family's journey to find work from Wyoming to North Dakota and then Chicago. Initially hopeful and responsive, Mazie gradually becomes absorbed by the futility of their plight when the family moves to the city. Her father becomes increasingly ill-tempered and as he sinks into alcoholism, his physical and verbal abuse towards his wife increases. The narration then shifts to the mother, Anna. Her life is absorbed by those around her—her children and her husband. She endures not only oppression by class, but also by gender. Like Eva in "Tell Me a Riddle," Anna finds her escape in avoiding reality; her solution is to break down mentally rather than confront the pain of reality.

Yonnondio "is important both for what it is—a novel left unfinished as a result of the multiple challenges faced by Olsen as artist, mother, activist, and worker— and for what it is not—a work that reflects the conventions dictated by the masculinist tradition of proletariat fiction," commented the Feminist Writers essayist. Yonnondio was well received, although some critics found the story too depressing and hopeless. Yonnondio "is the story of real people who are visibly shackled by having no money at all and by the daily insults offered by the world to their pride," wrote a contributor to the New Yorker. "By the end of the novel … pain, rather than building the Holbrook character, has bleached it out," stated Times Literary Supplement contributor Susannah Clapp. Nation reviewer Catherine R. Stimpson noted that although the condition of poverty "seeks to destroy" the characters, "Olsen's compelling gift is her ability to render lyrically the rhythms of consciousness of victims."

Some critics have named the book as one of the most important works of its time. "Yonnondio is one of the most powerful statements to have emerged from the American 'thirties,'" related Spectator contributor Peter Ackroyd. "A young woman has pulled out of that uneasy time a living document which is full of the wear and tear of the period, and she has done so without doctrinaire blues, and without falling into the trap of a sentimentality which is, at bottom, self-pity." Likewise, Washington Post Book World writer Jack Salzman noted, "Yonnondio clearly must take its place as the best novel to come out of the so-called proletarian movement of the '30s."

Silences, Olsen's subsequent book, is about the difficulties some people have in writing due to economic, social, or familial obligations, as well as from prejudices against color, class, and gender. Because of these difficulties, Olsen contends, some people have written little or nothing; as a result, these voices are never heard, these stories are never told, and they create a void in the world of literature. Olsen supports her viewpoint with examples from her own experience and as well as the struggles of other authors. She includes selections from other writers to illustrate the optimum conditions for writing, then discusses the obstacles that prohibit writers, especially women, from creating. "Tillie Olsen's remarkable power comes from having almost never written at all," observed Times Literary Supplement reviewer Helen McNeil. "First a silent, then a vocal conscience for American women's writing, Olsen writes with an elegance, compassion, and directness rare in any period." Commenting on Olsen's emotional voice, Antioch Review contributor Nolan Miller noted that Silences "bears the stamp of a passionate and reasonably angry voice. What is said here needed to be said."

The Feminist Writers contributor felt that Olsen's fiction and essays "address the challenges faced by women as they seek personal fulfillment in the face of their duties as mothers, artists, and workers. Although Olsen's subjects are rooted in the political activism of the '30s, she recognizes that the shaping influences of gender and race are as significant as those of class. In her work, class consciousness and feminist consciousness intertwine." Speaking with Anne-Marie Cusac in an interview for Progressive, Olsen stated that she wrote because she was "a human being and human beings have a need to express themselves." She said that she felt many writers are still silenced by their economic circumstances and other life circumstances; and that her writing education was learned "in the college of literature" and "the great college of motherhood." She concluded that while the world has changed a great deal during her lifetime, "still, power is primarily held by people of wealth and position. By and large, class interest still rules in our country. Who are the people who make policy and how do they get there? You may get an elite education, but you don't learn labor history (which means the lives of most of humanity).… There is entrenched power, and with few exceptions it has no feeling for the vulnerability and sacredness of human life. And they have the weapons and the power until there is a movement of people, as has happened over and over in the past."



Baker, Christina Looper, and Christina Baker Kline, The Conversation Begins: Mothers and Daughters Talk about Living Feminism, Bantam (New York, NY), 1996.

Cardoni, Agnes Toloczko, Women's Ethical Coming of Age: Adolescent Female Characters in the Prose Fiction of Tillie Olsen, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1997.

Coiner, Constance, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975; Volume 13, 1980.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.

Faulkner, Mara, Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1993.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Frye, Joanne S., Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (New York, NY), 1995.

Hedges, Elaine, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Listening to Silences, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Nelson, Kay Hoyle, and Nancy Lyman Huse, The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1994.

Orr, Elaine Neil, Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision, University of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1987.

Rabinowitz, Paula, Labor & Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1991.

Roberts, Nora Ruth, Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst, Garland (New York, NY), 1996.

Short Story Criticism, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Van Buren, Jane Silverman, The Modernist Madonna: Semiotics of the Maternal Metaphor, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1989, pp. 161-67.


American Poetry Review, May-June, 1979.

Antioch Review, fall, 1978.

Atlantic Monthly, September, 1978.

Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1961; September 18, 1978.

Commonweal, December 8, 1961.

Feminist Studies, fall, 1981, pp. 370-406.

Library Journal, May 1, 1995, Lesley Jorbin, review of Tell Me a Riddle, p. 97.

Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1980.

Mothering, September-October, 2003, "Living Treasure," p. 88.

Ms., September, 1974.

Nation, April 10, 1972.

New Leader, May 22, 1978.

New Republic, November 13, 1961; March 30, 1974; December 6, 1975; July 29, 1978.

New Yorker, March 25, 1974.

New York Times, July 31, 1978.

New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1961; March 31, 1974; July 30, 1978; June 19, 1983.

Progressive, November, 1999, Anne-Marie Cusac, interview with Tillie Olsen, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, November 23, 1984; April 11, 1994, p. 13.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2001, Heidi Benson, "BABRA Awards Honor Olsen, Chabon, Winick," p. B2.

Studies in American Fiction, spring, 1989, pp. 61-69; autumn, 1993, p. 209.

Studies in Short Fiction, fall, 1963; fall, 1986, pp. 401-406; fall, 1994, p. 278.

Time, October 27, 1961.

Times (London, England), October 26, 1985.

Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1980.

Twentieth Century Literature, fall, 1998, Anthony Dawahare, "'That Joyous Certainty': History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen's Depression-Era Literature," p. 261.

Virginia Quarterly Review, fall, 1974.

Washington Post, September 11, 1978; March 30, 1980.

Women's Studies Quarterly, spring, 1995, p. 219.

Yale Review, winter, 1979.*