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 In an unpublished story she wrote at 18, which later became part of the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, Olsen's protagonist declared: "I shall write stories when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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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. □
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.
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.*
Berg Collection, New York Public Library; Stanford Library American Literature Archives, Stanford University, California.
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 theme—collected over a period of 15 years—constitute 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 aborigines—the 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
Nationality: American. Born: Tillie Lerner, Omaha, Nebraska, 14 January 1912 or 1913. Education: High school education. 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; creative writing fellow, Stanford University, 1956-57; fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962-64; visiting professor, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1969-70; visiting instructor, 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, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1987; Regents' Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1988. Lives in San Francisco. Awards: Ford grant, 1959; O. Henry award, 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, and senior fellowship, 1984; American Academy award, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; Unitarian Women's Federation award, 1980; Bunting Institute fellowship, 1986. Doctor of Arts and Letters: University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1979. Litt.D.: Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, 1982; Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania, 1986. L.H.D.: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, 1984; Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1985; Wooster College, Ohio, 1991.
Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection. 1961; enlarged edition, 1964.
Yonnondio: From the Thirties. 1974.
Silences (essays). 1978.
Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photographs, with Julie Olsen-Edwards and Estelle Jussim. 1987.
Editor, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering. 1984.*
Olsen by Abigail Martin, 1984; Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision by Elaine Neil Orr, 1987; Olsen by Abby Werlock and Mickey Pearlman, 1991; Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen by Mara Faulkner, 1993; The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen edited by Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Lyman Huse, 1994; Better Red: The Writing and Resistence of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur by Constance Coiner, 1995; Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction by Joanne S. Frye, 1995; Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Hart by Nora Ruth Roberts, 1996.* * *
Tillie Olsen is author of one novel, numerous essays, a few poems, and the highly influential nonfiction work Silences. On balance, however, she is best known in the literary world as a writer of short fiction. Writers ranging from Margaret Atwood to Tim O'Brien have admired the superb quality of her small but highly distinguished literary achievement.
The daughter of Russian revolutionaries who immigrated to Nebraska, Olsen combines in her writing her socialist upbringing, her concern for the poor, and her love of language. Her stories repeatedly embrace and affirm the humanity of underprivileged individuals who suffer the exigencies of subsistence-level work, grueling hours, and lack of free time to devote either to the development of creative talents or to the sensitive rearing of children. Olsen particularly focuses on the lot of working-class women and their frequently heroic ability to persevere.
Olsen's work may be divided into three periods. First, in the 1930s she published several politically polemical essays and poems and wrote her unfinished novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, which remained unpublished until 1974. The second and greatest period of her fiction writing occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Olsen wrote and published the four short stories that comprise Tell Me a Riddle: "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?," "O Yes," and "Tell Me a Riddle." In the third period, from the 1970s into the 1990s, Olsen published little fiction, only "Requa I" and the rediscovered and unfinished
Yonnondio. She has instead channeled her talents into nonfiction writing, edited collections, and numerous speaking engagements.
The four stories in Tell Me a Riddle are linked by the aching hardship of poverty, the difficulties of motherhood, and the themes of exile or exclusion. Olsen relentlessly presents us with the inexorable riddle of human existence. It paradoxically includes not merely the endurance of poverty, bigotry, illness, and pain but also the ultimate ability to surmount these debilitating circumstances. Her style is dense, rich, and experimental, as she often employs imagistic language, meaningful refrains, innovative structure, and a variety of monologues, dialogues, and narrative interruptions to convey the components of her themes, her characters, her "riddles."
In "I Stand Here Ironing," a story anthologized more than 100 times, Olsen moves our attention back and forth in an echo of the ironing rhythm as the mother ponders the way she raised her eldest daughter, Emily. Silently accusing herself of neglecting Emily, she searches deliberately through her memories for explanations. Her flashbacks, which recall scenes during the Depression and World War II, reveal past events that rendered her powerless: her desertion by Emily's father, her insecure series of jobs, her constant need of caretakers for Emily, her remarriage and the births of four additional children.
The mother returns to the postwar present and Emily's offhand reference to the atom bomb. The mother concludes by voicing a prayerlike hope for her daughter: "Only help her to know … that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." Mother and daughter emerge as survivors as well as victims. Olsen's implication is that Emily has developed talents and independent strategies that, like those of her mother, will help her survive.
By comparison with the first, the next story, "Hey Sailor, What Ship?," is experimental and complex, for here Olsen employs modernist literary allusions and motifs reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's The Waves and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. That Olsen has never returned to these techniques isolates "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" from the rest of her work and may suggest why critics have virtually neglected the tale.
Olsen repeatedly uses the title question to illustrate the dilemma of Michael "Whitey" Jackson, the main character. Whitey, an aging merchant seaman, agonizes between two ways of life: the itinerant life of the alcoholic sailor he has become, and the middle-class existence he used to enjoy with his old friends Lennie and Helen and their three children, Jeannie, Carol, and Allie. (This family appears in three of the stories in the collection.) At the end the aging Whitey, like Emily of "I Stand Here Ironing," asserts his independence, preferring his "otherness" to allowing his old friends to dictate his behavior.
Lennie, Helen, Jeannie, and Carol reappear in the third story, "O Yes," which takes place two years after the episode with Whitey and focuses on the now 12-year-old Carol and her metaphorical baptism into the riddle of life. Counterbalancing the white family with a black family, Olsen relates the story of the friendship between the black mother Alva and the white mother Helen and between their two daughters Parry and Carol. As Carol hovers on the threshold of womanhood, she wavers between her natural feelings of love for Parry and the social reality of white racism and middle-class elitism.
Beginning in a black church service, Olsen imagistically evokes Carol and Parry's affectionate childhood friendship and then succinctly and poignantly portrays their painful final meeting as they helplessly draw apart to enter their separate worlds. At the end Helen invokes her adult friendship with Alva as a model for her daughter and a testament to a future time when class and racial prejudice will disappear.
"Tell Me a Riddle" is frequently cited as one of the most sensitive and artistically rendered of American short stories. Olsen herself testified to its impact: "People read it for the 20th time and they weep." The chief characters are David and Eva, the Russian immigrant parents of Lennie and grandparents of Jeannie, Carol, and Allie. As Eva and her family cope with her imminent death from cancer, she grudgingly embarks with David on a westward journey that culminates in her death. Her final visits with each of her adult children along the way elicit past memories of herself as young girl, ardent Russian revolutionary, and young wife and mother whose intellectual talents and interests remain unrealized.
Eva embodies Olsen's understanding of life as the commingling of hope with pain. Grandmother and mother, Eva is linked with all of Olsen's fictional women. The connections among generations of women become clear as Jeannie, through her love and understanding of her grandmother, both honors the dying woman and suggests a brighter future for the descendants of hardworking immigrants.
In "Requa I" Olsen continues to write of the working poor, but this time she creates a "family" of two marginalized men—the 14-year-old Stevie and his bachelor uncle Wes, with whom he goes to live after his mother's death. Departing from the relatively stable families of the other stories, in "Requa I" Olsen pairs these two emotionally needy and motherless men in the ironically named town of Requa, a Native American word for "broken in body and spirit." Just as the young girls Emily, Jeannie, and Carol learn to surmount obstacles through aid from caring parents, nearly always either mothers or grandmothers, Stevie and Wes learn not only to survive but also to care for one another.
Although Olsen herself might be disconcerted about the comparisons, her fiction shares surprising affinities with such different American writers as Edith Wharton, in her close attention to the pain of being a wife and mother, and William Faulkner, in her esteem for those who endure and prevail. Olsen has persuaded us that the stories of the underprivileged as well as the elite constitute a fitting subject for literary depiction and celebration.
—Abby H. P. Werlock
See the essay on "Tell Me a Riddle."
Born 14 January 1913, Omaha, Nebraska
Daughter of Samuel and Ida Beber Lerner; married Jack Olsen,1936 (died 1989); children: Karla, Julie, Katherine Jo, Laurie
Tillie Olsen has been active on behalf of political, union, and feminist causes since her youth. As a member of the Young Communist League, she was jailed in Kansas City for her efforts to organize packinghouse workers. In 1932, ill with pleurisy, Olsen began work on a proletarian novel, Yonnondio, a chapter of which was enthusiastically received after publication in the Partisan Review in 1934. Olsen worked on the novel while continuing her political activities—in the San Francisco warehouse strike of 1934 and the Spanish Civil War. Married in 1936 to a printer and union man, Olsen put aside her writing as she assumed her responsibilities as wife, mother of four daughters, and wage earner. Writing again in the 1950s, Olsen won the O. Henry Award for the best American short story of 1961 for "Tell Me a Riddle," the title story of her first book. The Yonnondio manuscript, rediscovered by Olsen's husband, was published in 1974 without rewriting or additions. Since that time Olsen has been active teaching writing and women's studies and helping to rediscover and reprint the works of women writers.
In Silences (1978), Olsen eloquently describes the loss to literature that occurs when great or potentially great writers are stunted by circumstances—especially of class, race, or sex—which often deny them the continuity and calm so conducive to creation. For women especially, Olsen argues, the discontinuity comes from the need and desire to nurture as well as the physical responsibilities for daily living. Olsen's own experience and the excellence of her slender work lend credence to her argument.
A powerful motive for Olsen's writing is to give a voice to the inarticulate, to those that are silenced. She is unsurpassed in her power to make readers understand and empathize with the lives of people they have seen but have never known in their essential humanity. The elderly couple of "Tell Me a Riddle," in facing the wife's death from cancer, reevaluate their lives and affirm their idealism and love, despite years of bickering and betrayal which have divided them. As revolutionaries, Eva and David had fought and suffered for "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." But in America, David has compromised his ideals, without achieving material success, and Eva has had to bury within herself her idealism and love of beauty as she responded to their poverty and the needs of their seven children. Eva's fatal illness, kept secret from her, leads to a series of visits to children and grandchildren. Finally, aware of impending death, Eva can open herself again to beauty and idealism. Her delirious affirmations force David to confront his own betrayals and accept the burden of love imposed by his dying wife.
"Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is the tragedy of an aging seaman. With his friend Lennie, Whitey has fought for brotherhood in early union battles, but the old spirit is dying, and drink and age are decaying him. Lennie's family is Whitey's only haven of love and the old values, but he realizes his behavior embarrasses the oldest child, and he leaves. Another story about Lennie's family, "O Yes," chronicles the separation of two "best friends"—one white, one black—as they enter junior high school and respond to the "sorting" pressures exerted by their race and class. The mothers try to help, but when the white girl asks, "Oh why is it like it is and why do I have to care?" the mother silently responds, "…caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched."
Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974) testifies to Olsen's early and continuing commitment to give voice to the silent. Named after Walt Whitman's lament for the Native Americans, the novel chronicles the struggles and aspirations of the Holbrook family. The vows of Anna and Jim to work for a decent life and a better chance for their children are "vows that life will never let them keep," whether Jim works in a coal mine, on a tenant farm, or in sewer construction or packinghouse work. Illness, squalor, and despair poison the parents' relationship and warp or maim their five children, but the urge to live and to fight nevertheless survives.
Olsen's ability to create and explain character, to involve and move the reader, is coupled with an ear for everyday cadences and the lyricism of unvoiced aspirations. She portrays the victories of the human spirit—not grand in the absolute height achieved, but inspiring because of the awesomeness of the forces to be battled. During her career, she has often had to balance her writing against these other responsibilities, particularly motherhood. Never a prolific writer, part of Olsen's lasting appeal has been the struggle she has gone through to continue writing. She has published little since Silences (1978), but she has become increasingly the subject of critical attention.
Mother and Daughter, Daughter to Mother: A Daybook and Reader (1984) consists of a daily calendar and monthly readings selected by Olsen. The collection also contains an essay in which she recounts the circumstances leading up to her mother's death. In her hands, this potentially depressing scenario becomes instead an inspirational scene, as she is able to see within her mother's dream visions signs of the wisdom she had obtained throughout a difficult life. It is this well-earned knowledge that Olsen keeps as her mother's legacy.
Similarly, in an introduction to Mothers and Daughters, That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photographs (1987, with Julie Olsen Edwards) Olsen celebrates the special bond between mothers and daughters. She finds "this crucial relationship still veiled in the unseen, the unexpressed, the unarticulated." In commenting on the photographs, Olsen wishes for more pictures of women engaged in everyday activities, believing it is these commonplace, shared experiences "which create, condition the relationship."
Olsen has continued to lecture and promote the rediscovery and publication of women's writing in the later 1980s and 1990s. She has written very little for a public reading audience since editing the publication of two mother-and-daughter volumes, though a short piece in Newsweek (3 January 1994) appeared, commemorating the magazine's first 60 years, in which she considers the Depression era of the 1930s.
"Tell Me a Riddle," the title story from the much acclaimed collection of the same name (1963), continues to be reproduced and anthologized in a number of important collections of works by Jewish American writers, including American Jewish Fiction, edited by Gerald Shapiro (1998). In it, an elderly immigrant Jewish woman, dying of cancer, must come to terms with the disappointments and emotional entanglements of social and economic life in America. "I Stand Here Ironing," another often anthologized short story collected in the same volume, is powerfully told in the form of an internal monologue, and speaks to the difficulties of a single mother in raising children. The play version of "I Stand Here Ironing" was produced in New York in 1981, and "Tell Me a Riddle" was adapted for film (Filmways, 1980).
The relatively small number of published works of fiction has not prevented Olsen's work from continuing to be the source of extensive literary criticism and analysis, especially but not limited to her place in the long-standing tradition of fiction by American Jewish women. Two such compendia include the notable America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers, edited by Joyce Antler (1990), and Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, edited by Ann R. Shapiro (1994).
Througout her career, Olsen has received a number of honorary degrees, awards, and university fellowships. Her husband, Jack Olsen, died in 1989; Olsen continues to live in California near her daughters and grandchildren.
Blumberg, B. L., "A Voice of Their Own": An Inquiry into the Theme of the Discovery of the True Self in the Writings of Helen Yglesias, Muriel Rukeyser, and Tillie Olsen (thesis, 1982). Davis, L. and M B. Mirabella, eds., Left Politics and the Literary Profession (1990). Frye, J., Tillie Olsen (1994). Kamel, R. W., Aggravating the Conscience: Jewish-American Literary Mothers in the Promised Land (1988). Martin, A., Tillie Olsen (1984). Meese, E., Crossing the Double Cross (1986). Orr, E. N., Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision (1987). Pearlman, M, ed., Mother Puzzles (1989). Pearlman, M. and A. P. Werlock, Tillie Olsen (1991).
CANR (1981, 1994). CLC (1980). DLB (1984). DLBY (1981). FC (1990). MTCW (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
MELUS (Fall 1997). Studies in American Fiction (Autumn 1993). Studies in Short Fiction (Fall 1990). Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 1993). Twentieth-Century Literature (Fall 1998).
—HELEN J. SCHWARTZ,
UPDATED BY JAMES O'LOUGHLIN
AND VICTORIA AARONS
OLSEN, TILLIE (1913– ), U.S. author. Born Tillie Lerner in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of Russian immigrants, her stature rose steadily over the years and she became regarded as one of America's leading writers. Self-taught, with little formal education, she writes about the world with which she is most intimately familiar – the struggles of working people, particularly women.
She was raised in a socialist background and developed her passion for writing as a young girl. In the 1930s she became involved in a variety of political and trade union movements. After dropping out of high school, she was briefly jailed in Kansas City for trying to organize packing-house workers. She then worked full time in various trade unions while writing for left-wing journals.
Married in 1945, she thereafter devoted herself to raising her four daughters, while employed in various menial jobs. A novel begun in the 1930s was finished only 40 years later, and her first book, Tell Me a Riddle (1962), a collection of four stories exploring human relationships, was published when she was nearly 50. The title story, published separately in 1961, received the O. Henry Award. It deals with the last months of a terminally ill elderly woman and her attempts to resolve deep-rooted marital conflicts. Another much anthologized story in the collection, "I Stand Here Ironing," explores the relationship of mothers and daughters and the repression of women.
As a result of her publication, Olsen began receiving writing fellowships, including grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, and served as a visiting professor at several universities. In 1974, her novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties was finally published to widespread acclaim. The novel deals with the struggles of a midwestern family during the Depression.
Olsen has also written a biographical and literary commentary of the writer Rebecca Harding Davies who was an early influence on her writing, and a collection of essays, Silences (1978). In her 1981 play I Stand Here Mourning – a monologue – a mother mourns the blighting of her 19-year-old daughter's life.
[Susan Strul (2nd ed.)]
OLSEN, Tillie. American, b. 1913. Genres: Novels, Biography, Essays. Career: Writer-in-Residence, Kenyon College, Ohio, 1987-. Writer-in- Residence, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1967-70, and Masschusetts Institute of Technology, 1973-74; Visiting Professor, Stanford University, California 1972, and University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1974. Publications: Tell Me A Riddle (short fiction), 1962 (O Henry Award); (ed.) Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis, 1972; Yonnondio, from the Thirties, 1974; Silences, 1978; (ed.) Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering, 1984; The Word Made Flesh, 1984; Mothers and Daughters, That Special Quality, 1989. Address: c/o Elaine Markson Literary Agency, 44 Greenwich Ave, New York, NY 10011, U.S.A.