Olsen, Tillie (c. 1912—)

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Olsen, Tillie (c. 1912—)

American writer whose fiction and nonfiction speaks for those who are least represented in Western literature and who has, through her writing and life, brought to the reading public hundreds of writers who would otherwise have remained silent or unknown. Name variations: Tillie Lerner. Born Tillie Lerner in 1912 or 1913 in Nebraska (neither the date nor the town is documented); daughter of Samuel Lerner (a laborer and political activist) and Ida (Beber) Lerner; attended Omaha public schools through 11th grade; studied creative writing at San Francisco State College, 1953–54, and Stanford, 1955–56; married Jack Olsen, in 1943 (died 1989);children: Karla (b. 1932); Julie (b. 1938); Katherine Jo (b. 1943); Laurie (b. 1948).

Honorary degrees:

Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York (1984), Clark University, Worchester, Massachusetts (1985), Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania (1986); Litt. D. from University of Nebraska (1979) and Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois (1982).


Stegner fellowship in creative writing (1955–56), Radcliffe fellowship (1962–64), National Endowment for the Arts award (1967), American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters award (1975), Guggenheim fellowship (1975–76), Ministry to Women Award of Unitarian Universalist Federation (1980), Senior Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1983–84), Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe (1985–86), Mari Sandoz Award (1991), Rea Award for the Short Story (1994).

Visiting professorships:

Stanford (1971), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1973–74), Amherst College (1969–70), University of Massachusetts, Boston (1974), University of California, San Diego (1978), Radcliffe (1980), University of Minnesota (1986), University of California, Los Angeles (1987).

Family settled in Omaha, Nebraska (c. 1917); left Omaha Central High School (1929); worked at odd jobs to help support family; joined Young Communist League and was jailed in Kansas City, Kansas, for organizing packinghouse workers (1932); moved to Faribault, Minnesota, to recover from first stages of tuberculosis; began Yonnondio and gave birth to Karla (1932); settled permanently in San Francisco (1933); arrested for taking part in San Francisco Maritime Strike, wrote poetry and reportage for YCL (1934); attended American Writers Congress in New York (1935); spent next 20 years raising her four daughters, working at a succession of low-paying jobs to help support family, participating in community, union, and political activity, and writing; enrolled in creative writing course at San Francisco State University (1953–54); received Stegner fellowship in creative writing to attend Stanford University (1955–56); received Ford Foundation grant in literature (1959); won O. Henry award for year's best American short story for "Tell Me a Riddle" (1961); worked on recovered manuscript of Yonnondio and biographical interpretation of Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis (1972); was international visiting scholar, Norway; film version of "Tell Me a Riddle" produced (1980); May 18 declared Tillie Olsen Day in San Francisco (1981); visited Soviet Union and China (1984).

Selected writings:

(fiction) "Requa" (Iowa Review, Vol. 1, Summer 1970, reprinted as "Requa-I" in Best American Short Stories , edited by Martha Foley and David Burnett, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), Tell Me a Riddle (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1961, includes "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?," "O Yes," "Tell Me a Riddle"), Yonnondio: From the Thirties (NY: Delacorte, 1974); (poetry) "I Want You Women Up North to Know" (under name Tillie Lerner, Partisan, Vol. 1, March 1934, reprinted in Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930–1940, edited by Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz, NY: The Feminist Press, 1987); (nonfiction prose) Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: A Daybook and Reader (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1984), Silences (NY: Delacorte, 1978), "The Strike" (under name Tillie Lerner, Partisan Review, Vol. 1, September–October 1934).

The circumstances and choices of Tillie Olsen's life—political involvement, the struggle to survive the Depression, wide reading, marriage, motherhood, and work—convinced her that she could and must make literature "out of the lives of despised people," as she writes in Silences, her 1978 nonfiction work. In the 1930s, she described in her diary the people she wanted to write about:

[T]hat whole generation of exiled revolutionaries, the kurelians and croatians, the bundists and poles; and the women, the mothers of six and seven; … the housewives whose Zetkin and Curie and Bronte hearts went into kitchens and laundries and the patching of old socks; and those who did not speak the language of their children, who had no bridge … to make themselves understood.

This steady vision has guided every phase of Olsen's writing career, leading her to work that moves powerfully against the literary and critical currents of the mainstream, and even partially against the countercurrents created by the literary Left and the feminist movement of the 1970s, both of which shaped and supported her as a writer. She believes strongly that circumstances, rather than lack of skill or courage, silenced her for 20 years and almost completely stopped her from writing, as she believes they silence many potentially fine writers. In turn, it was, in her opinion, a combination of social, political, and economic circumstances, supportive communities, and "special, freaky luck" that allowed her to envision herself as a writer and, finally, to carve out the territory of her stories. Her fiction—the four short stories in Tell Me a Riddle, her novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, and the novella "Requa"—rescues from oblivion the lives and communal histories of people still out-side the visual field of most American readers, writers, and scholars. Through her example and her urging, she has inspired many people usually marginalized by society to begin to imagine themselves as writers; since the publication of Silences, "breaking silence" has become readily understood as a shorthand description of the event in which an individual or group tells a long-suppressed story. Finally, and just as important, Olsen has been responsible for restoring forgotten writers to new generations of readers. In the 1970s, she gleaned and published in Women's Studies Newsletter long lists of writers, almost all of them women, whom most readers had never heard of, let alone read; and at her urging the Feminist Press reprinted Rebecca Harding Davis ' Life in the Iron Mills, the first of many forgotten classics to be recovered in the last decades of the 20th century.

In the question session after a reading and lecture Olsen gave during her residency at the University of Minnesota in 1986, a member of the audience asked her where she got her serenity. Her answer was vehement: "I have no serenity." Yet, a few days earlier a newspaper interviewer had asked her what she thought of critics who characterize her works as grim and pessimistic. Her answer then was also vehement: "What the world has given to us doesn't have to stay as it is because we are capable and have changed it…. It's not unremittingly grim to know that we haven't changed enough things yet…. I have a lot of belief in us." These are the oppositions Olsen's writing holds in balance: urgency and anger, but never despair; hope, but never a serene or cynical acceptance of the contradictions that fragment the lives of the people she identifies with and portrays—mothers, the old, working men and women, members of ethnic and cultural minorities, struggling artists. Olsen has, in Annie Gottlieb 's words, "taken an oath, with a character in Yonnondio, 'to rebel against what will not let life be.'"

Tillie Olsen was born in 1912 or 1913 (her birth certificate is lost) to committed Jewish socialist parents. She was the second of six children of Samuel and Ida Beber Lerner , Russian Jews who had taken part in the 1905 Revolution to overthrow the tsar. When the revolution failed, they fled to the United States to avoid imprisonment, eventually settling in Omaha, Nebraska. Like many revolutionary Jews of their generation, they had rejected their religion but not the strong sense of communal responsibility that is part of the Eastern European Jewish tradition. Their socialist and communal convictions were reinforced in the United States, where Olsen's father was active in the burgeoning labor movement and the Nebraska Socialist Party, of which he served as secretary. As well, both her mother and father were active in the Omaha Workmen's Circle, a socialist organization that took the place of the synagogue for Jews who no longer held traditional religious beliefs. The young Tillie Lerner, therefore, spent her childhood in a home that was a center of political activity; she remembers that she and her brothers and sisters slept on chairs placed next to each other when guests stayed at their house. Part of her early education certainly came from the conversation and oratory of socialist leaders like Eugene V. Debs and from political pamphlets.

Davis, Rebecca Harding (1831–1910)

American novelist. Born Rebecca Blaine Harding on June 24, 1831, in Washington, Pennsylvania; died in Mt. Kisco, New York, September 29, 1910; grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and Wheeling, West Virginia; graduated from the Washington (Pennsylvania) Female Seminary, 1848; married L. Clarke Davis (editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Public Ledger), in March 1863; children: Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916, a journalist); and others.

Rebecca Harding Davis was the first novelist in the country to introduce the labor question into fiction. A regional writer, she began gaining her reputation for grim reality with Life in the Iron Mills, which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861. The following year, the Atlantic serialized her "A Story of Today," which became Margaret Howth in book form. Davis contributed many short stories and sketches to periodicals, was contributing editor for the New York Tribune, and wrote a number of novels, including A Law Unto Herself (1878) and Waiting for the Verdict (1868), about racism in America. Her later works include Dallas Galbraith, Berry-town, Natasqua, Silhouettes of American Life, Kent Hampden, and Doctor Warrick's Daughters. Davis' eldest son, Richard Harding Davis, followed his mother's path, becoming a war correspondent, novelist, and one of the most influential journalists of his day.

When she was very young, Olsen began working to help support her family, but even so she was able to stay in school through the 11th grade, several years longer than most children of working-class parents at the time. Her college-prep high school made her painfully aware of the economic and class differences between her own family and the families of her wealthier

classmates; it also introduced her to the wonders of literature, and books quickly became a refuge. In high school, she set out to read her way through the Omaha public library's collection of fiction, poetry, and biography. The reading list gleaned from her journals by Deborah Rosenfelt is amazingly broad and deep, but it shows that Olsen, even at that young age, was especially drawn to those writers who shared her commitment to social justice. One of the most influential events of her life was reading Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills "in one of three water-stained, coverless, bound volumes of the Atlantic Monthly, bought for ten cents each in an Omaha junkshop" when Olsen was 15. Although she did not discover the author's name until many years later, this anonymously published work told her "literature can be made out of the lives of despised people," and "you, too, must write." Life in the Iron Mills, along with the rest of her wide reading, provided an impetus to her own writing: she discovered that the lives of the people she knew well and the language they spoke were a part of literature. What she could say had not yet been said.

Olsen began writing for publication in the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression. Young political activists like Olsen were concerned not only about unjust economic structures in the United States, but also about revolutionary movements around the world and the struggle against fascism in Europe. In her study of the socialist roots of Olsen's fiction, Rosenfelt writes: "Olsen felt herself to be part of a valid, necessary, and global movement to remake the world on a more just and humane model."

Because Olsen, even at age 18, was involved in the labor movement and was a member of the Young Communist League (YCL), while at the same time eager to write, this climate was invigorating for her. This double dedication also created problems, because her time, energy, and talent were divided. She worked at a wide variety of jobs (from tie presser to model to packing house worker) simply to stay alive; she was a grassroots labor organizer in a movement that demanded action as well as words; and she was a writer torn between her desire to write fiction and the movement's need for pamphlets and articles.

By an odd twist, these conflicting demands came together to produce the early chapters of Yonnondio: From the Thirties, Olsen's first piece of fiction. She was jailed in 1932 for helping organize packing-house workers in Kansas City, Kansas. As she describes the experience: "I spent some time in KC in the Argentine jail, where I developed first pleurisy, then incipient T.B. It meant I had to be taken care of, was given thinking-writing time." She spent that time in Faribault, Minnesota, where she began working on Yonnondio. She also became pregnant, and was 19 when her daughter Karla was born.

That same year, Olsen moved to California, where she continued both her writing and her political activities. She helped organize maritime and agricultural workers, and again was jailed for her efforts. She wrote two accounts of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, both of which were published—"Thousand Dollar Vagrant" in New Republic and "The Strike" in Partisan Review. The latter magazine also published the first chapter of Yonnondio, then called "The Iron Throat," and two poems. Based on the promise they saw in that first chapter, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klapfer of Random House offered her a contract for the novel. However, in addition to her political activities, Olsen was holding down a job, sometimes two, and caring for her daughter. She gave up the contract and didn't finish the book until 38 years later.

Olsen says of the early years of the Depression:

In 1931 and '32 and '33, when a third of the nation was ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-nourished, there were a million people riding the boxcars, most of them young, the homeless youth…. The family behind us cooked … their dog to eat. Those were the Hoover years of no welfare, no-nothingism, and denial, when there were long, long lines and apples, everything that people know about now in that shadowy mythical way.

Yet it is surely part of Olsen's good luck that she began to write in an atmosphere of heightened social consciousness surrounded by people who valued writing and saw it as revolutionary political work. She found in the Left, and particularly in socialist-feminist writers, a two-stranded tradition that did not consider either her perceptions or the world in which she lived to be subjects unsuited for literature.

Important as the influence of the political Left was on Olsen's writing, it would be a mistake to emphasize it to the exclusion of other shaping circumstances, the most important being her life as a wife, mother, and worker. This combination of circumstances both modified and deepened her vision and almost silenced her as a writer. Sometime before the end of the '30s, Olsen stopped writing. In 1936, she began living with Jack Olsen, a longshoreman, union organizer, and companion in the YCL, and had two more daughters, Julie in 1938 and Katherine Jo in 1943. She and Jack were married that same year, before he left for the Army. In 1948, daughter Laurie was born. During most of those years, Olsen continued to work at a long succession of jobs to help support her family. She notes that her "hands were maybe two, three years of my life in water washing clothes, before the automatic washer, instead of writing on my pad"; she did not begin writing again until the mid-50s.

When Olsen describes herself as a writer, she says that she has been extraordinarily lucky for a person from her circumstances, but also that she has suffered irreparable harm. She documents both the luck and the harm in Silences, in which she describes her triple life of mother, worker, and writer:

A full extended family life; the world of my job; … and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around within me through work, through home. Time on the bus even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work, enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron."

In 1954, at the urging of her daughter Karla, Olsen took a creative-writing class at San Francisco State University. The story she began for that class, "Help Her to Believe," earned her a Stegner fellowship in creative writing at Stanford. In the eight months of relative freedom that followed, she finished "Help Her to Believe" (which became "I Stand Here Ironing") and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?," and began "Tell Me a Riddle." These three stories plus "O Yes" were published in periodicals between 1956 and 1960; in 1961, "Tell Me a Riddle" was awarded the O. Henry first prize for the best American short story of the year. That year also saw publication of a collection of these four stories, titled Tell Me a Riddle.

While the stories in Tell Me a Riddle are deceptively simple, Olsen's compressed, poetic style, broken by gaps and silences, suggests ever-widening social, historical, and political contexts. In "I Stand Here Ironing," a mother ponders the life of her 19-year-old daughter Emily, a child she gave birth to when she herself was 19 and a single mother. In an internal monologue, the nameless mother traces the life of this child of the Depression, of poverty, of "anxious, not proud, love," of a world shadowed by the Cold War and the atomic bomb. The story ends with a plea: "Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

"O Yes," another story of mothers and daughters, evokes the racial climate of the early 1950s, before the civil-rights movement. Carole, a white girl, and Parialee, a black girl, are close friends, as are their mothers, until junior high inexorably sorts them by race and class. At a black Baptist church service, Carole realizes the depth of her betrayal of her friend, and the depth of her identification with people she has been told are not like her.

"Tell Me a Riddle" details the story of Eva and David, Eastern European Jews, who, like Olsen's parents, fled Russia after the 1905 revolution. After 47 years of marriage and the hard work of raising seven children through war and depression, their differing needs now threaten to tear them apart. David wants to settle into a retirement home established by his Workmen's Circle; Eva, after living the traditional role of wife and mother, wants "to move to no one's rhythms but her own," in a solitude that will permit her to reclaim her early revolutionary self. David has given up his early dreams and wants to enjoy the relative affluence of the '50s; Eva, now dying of cancer, has never given up those dreams of universal peace and freedom from oppression, not only for their children but for all children. As she speaks of their youthful dreams on her deathbed, David says in wonder, "Eva! Still you believed?"

Alice Walker">

[Tillie Olson is] a writer of such generosity and honesty, she literally saves our lives.

Alice Walker

In view of the political climate of the '50s, these stories seem even more remarkable. Olsen has described 1955–56, the time of her Stegner fellowship at Stanford and one of her most fruitful as a writer, as "a presage year for our country." It was the year "of Rosa Parks , Birmingham, Little Rock. Year of the first happenings of freedom movements, movements against wrong, which were to convulse and mark our nation and involve numberless individual lives." But is was also, she writes, a "year that began still in the McCarthyite shadow of fear; of pervasive cynical belief that actions with others against wrong were personally suspect, would only end in more grievous wrong, year of proclamation that the young were a 'silent generation,' future 'organization men.'" Tillie and Jack Olsen had already fallen under the McCarthyite shadow of fear. In 1953, Jack was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on charges that he was a Communist. He was blacklisted, which meant that he could no longer work in the warehouses on the San Francisco docks. Though Olsen was not called before the Committee, she has said in an interview with Abby Werlock that she was fired from several jobs when FBI agents arrived at her workplace to reveal her affiliations. However, despite the conformity of the 1950s and the McCarthy-induced fear of communal action, all of Olsen's stories from this period call readers into kinesthetic and emotional identification with "thwarted lives." Her stories gather around themselves a community whose members are called to acknowledge responsibility and work for social change.

In 1970, Olsen published "Requa," her least known but most experimental work. In both "Requa" and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" the protagonists are working men and boys, to whom Olsen accords the same respect she gives her women characters. In "Requa," Stevie is orphaned and left traumatized when his mother dies. He has no one but his uncle Wes, a salvager in a Depression-era junkyard who is battling his own poverty, loneliness, and exhaustion. Wes discovers a depth of patience in himself as he performs the ordinary tasks of child-rearing, and, despite his own need for love, offers love to this "ghostboy." In this story of loss, Olsen delineates the strength and courage that explain, to borrow Blanche Gelfant 's description, "the mystery of survival in a wasteland."

Under the impetus of the feminist movement of the 1970s, Olsen's stories began to be read and taught, sometimes from mimeographed copies passed from hand to hand, and she began to receive fellowships, honorary degrees, and requests to speak and teach. In 1971, she participated in the Modern Language Association (MLA) forum, "Women Writers in the Twentieth Century," where she gave a speech that has since become famous under its published title, "Women Who are Writers in Our Century: One Out of Twelve." In this talk, she urges her listeners to count the number of women writers included in anthologies, class lists, critical overviews, etc., and then account for the small numbers. She writes that the ratio of women writers to men who are published, anthologized, and awarded prizes can be understood "only in the context of this punitive difference in circumstance, in history, between the sexes; this past, hidden or evident, that … continues so terribly, so determiningly to live on."

In 1978, Olsen published Silences, a compilation of two addresses ("Silences in Literature" and "One Out of Twelve"), her biographical interpretation of Life in the Iron Mills, and an after-section called "Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions," in which she liberally documents the ideas presented in the two talks that begin the book. Olsen writes that silence should be the natural environment for the word, "that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation." But for most of humanity throughout most of history, silence has not been that fertile environment. "The silences I speak of here are unnatural," she writes, "the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot." Olsen concentrates most on the societal circumstances that stifle creativity, and in particular the creation of literature.

The 1970s also brought Yonnondio: From the Thirties to readers. Olsen had thought the manuscript was lost until, some 38 years after she published the first chapter, scattered pages were discovered. Working at Marian MacDowell 's MacDowall Colony, the older Tillie Olsen entered into "an arduous partnership" with that "long ago young writer," ordering the manuscript pages and choosing among the drafts, as she says in her foreword to the book. But the vision and the words of the Yonnondio that was finally published in 1974 are those of her 19-year-old self.

Although it is less artistic and more overtly political than "Requa" and the stories in Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondio heralds the themes that have preoccupied Olsen all her life. The novel traces the Holbrook family's desperate migration, from a mining town in Wyoming, to a tenant farm in South Dakota, to a packing-house city much like the Omaha where Olsen grew up. Jim and Anna Holbrook use all their strength to create a better life for their five children, but in one powerful scene after another, Olsen shows the loneliness and fragility of working-class families in an uncaring society. While the story evokes great sympathy for men like Jim, Anna Holbrook and her oldest daughter Mazie are the story's center. As Deborah Rosenfelt says, Yonnondio, like all of Olsen's work, "testifies to her concern for women, her vision of their double oppression if they are poor or women of color, her affirmation of their creative potential…. Indeed, her writings about … the complex, painful, and redemptive interactions between mother and child have helped a new generation of women writers to treat that subject with a fullness and honesty never before possible in American literature." In 1984, Olsen collected in the daybook Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother the writings of many women about the sometimes joyful, sometimes painful subject of mothering. She introduces the collection with her regret that mothers still have not told their stories in their own words; the book's blank pages, arranged like a calendar, are an invitation for busy mothers to do just that.

Jack Olsen, her husband of 46 years, died in 1989. Olsen remains in the third-floor San Francisco apartment that she has lived in for over 30 years. Her works continue to be read, reprinted, anthologized, and translated into many languages, and the body of critical responses to her life and work is growing. Writers around the world, especially women and writers of color, name her as an inspiration, and readers find in her fiction a revolutionary power that makes it both useful and beautiful.


Burkom, Selma, and Margaret Williams. "De-Riddling Tillie Olsen's Writings," in San Jose Studies. Vol. 2, no. 1. February 1976, pp. 65–83.

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

Gelfant, Blanche H. "After Long Silence: Tillie Olsen's 'Requa,'" in Studies in American Fiction. Vol. 12, no. 1. Spring 1984, pp. 61–69.

Gottlieb, Annie. "Feminists Look at Motherhood," in Mother Jones. November 1976, pp. 51–53.

Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H.P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1991.

Rosenfelt, Deborah Silverton, ed. "From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition," in Tell Me a Riddle: Women Writers, Texts and Contexts. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1995, pp. 133–176.

Van Horn, Christina. "Writer Tillie Olsen: Upbeat on Women's Future," in The Boston Globe. Vol. 31. May 1981, p. 6A.

Walker, Alice. "Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life," in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1983.

Yalom, Marilyn. "Tillie Olsen," in Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Edited by Marilyn Yalom. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra, 1983, pp. 57–66.

suggested reading:

Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen andMeridel Le Sueur . NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hedges, Elaine, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds. Listening to Silences: New Feminist Essays. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Nelson, Kay Hoyle, and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen. NY: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.


Some of Olsen's manuscripts housed in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

related media:

Tell Me a Riddle, film starring Melvyn Douglas, Lila Kedrova , and Brooke Adams ; directed by Lee Grant , Filmways, 1980.

Stories recorded by WBAI-radio in New York City and the Lamont Poetry Room at Harvard University.

Mara Faulkner , O.S.B., assistant professor of English, College of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota, and author of Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen (University Press of Virginia)