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An author and political activist, Tillie Olsen writes about the struggles of working people, particularly women, with insight that comes from personal experiences. While her output was slender, her work is considered of the highest quality by most critics. Using a strongly emotional style, Olsen is widely considered a chronicler of the poor and powerless, as well as a leading feminist writer. Among her best-known works is the award-winning short story collection Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection (1961).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Tillie Lerner on January 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska, Olsen was the daughter of Samuel Lerner and his wife, Ida (Berber). Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who had been political activists in Russia. They immigrated to the United States after the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. (This revolution was launched by workers demanding better conditions from Czar Nicholas II. While their revolt led to drastic changes in the Russian government, such as the introduction of Russia’s first elected legislative assembly, the imperial regime remained in place.) In the United States, Samuel Lerner worked as a laborer and later became an official in the Nebraska Socialist Party.
As a young girl, Olsen became passionate about writing. As a teenager, she was especially inspired by reading Rebecca Harding Davis’s fictional work Life in the Iron Mills (1861). Olsen was so moved by Davis’s descriptions of the working class that she vowed to become a writer. After dropping out of Omaha Central High School in 1917, Olsen held a variety of jobs, such as factory worker, to help support her family, but continued to educate herself through books at public libraries. She also joined the Young Communist League and Young People’s Socialist League when she was seventeen years old and became a political activist.
Begins Writing First Novel
Olsen was jailed in Kansas City, Kansas, for helping packinghouse workers organize unions in 1932. While in prison, she developed pleurisy (an inflammation of the membrane that surrounds and protects the lungs) and incipient tuberculosis (a bacterial lung infection for which the only treatment, in this time period before the development of antibiotics, was bed rest). After her release, Olsen moved to Fairbault, Minnesota, to recover from the first stages of tuberculosis. While living there, she began working on her novel Yonnondio (1974), about a migrant family. A chapter of it, the short story ”The Iron Throat,” was published in the Partisan Review in 1934.
Work on the book was put aside when she moved to California. By this time, Olsen was a mother, having given birth to her daughter, Karla, in 1932. She also made a move to San Francisco, California—the city that would become her long-time home—in 1933. While living in San Francisco, Olsen was arrested for taking part in the San Francisco Maritime Strike. She also wrote poetry and contributed poems, essays, and reportage to left-wing journals such as Waterfront Worker and Daily Worker.
Break From Writing
Olsen’s professional writing career then took a nearly two decade long hiatus because of family, economic, and social concerns. She had three more daughters and married Jack Olsen, a longshoreman and union organizer, in 1936. Olsen also held a succession of low-paying jobs—such as waitress, punch press operator, secretary, and trimmer in a slaughterhouse—to help support her family and participated in community, union, and political activities. She, like many Americans, faced economic challenges in the 1930s because of the Great Depression. The failure of the stock market in 1929 caused the economy, first in the United States, then the world, to fall in a dramatic and sustained economic depression which lasted through the 1930s.
Despite the many demands on her time, Olsen stole moments to write. By the 1950s, she was devoting more time to her writing. She also studied creative writing at San Francisco State College from 1953 to 1954, then won a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University in 1955. That same year, Olsen published ”I Stand Here Ironing,” a short story that announced the resurrection of her career. She no longer held working-class jobs but obtained numerous grants and fellowships that provided the financial resources needed to devote her time to writing.
Wins O. Henry Award
A few years later, Olsen published what many critics consider her most significant work, the short story collection Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection (1961). That same year, the title story won the O. Henry Award for the year’s best American short story. This short story focuses on the female half of an elderly couple who is forced to reevaluate her past, family life, and marriage in the face of her impending death. The rest of the four stories—among them ”I Stand Here Ironing”— in the collection also explore human relationships.
During the rest of the 1960s, Olsen received numerous fellowships, teaching appointments, and several stays at the MacDowell Colony. As a writing teacher, Olsen promoted works by neglected women writers, such as Davis, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Agnes Smedley. In 1972, Olsen published an edition of Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, which included a biographical and literary commentary on the book, as well as restoring that story to the canon.
Olsen gained greater recognition as an author in the 1970s as she published several works. In 1971, she published the novella, Requa, which told the story of a young boy raised by his bachelor uncle after his mother dies. In 1973, Olsen rediscovered the Yonnondio manuscript and began working on it again. It was published in 1974 as Yonnondio: From the Thirties to widespread acclaim. The novel focuses on the struggles of a family living in the Midwest during the Great Depression. In 1979, Olsen published a collection of lectures and essays, Silences. The book looks at the issue of unnatural silences and hiatuses in literary production through the prism of her own experiences as well as that of other authors. Her thesis is that the social and economic circumstances surrounding class, color, and gender have adversely affected the potential to create literature.
Olsen’s reputation also expanded because she began working internationally as a visiting scholar beginning in the late 1970s, traveling to such countries as Norway, the Soviet Union, and China. She also continued to teach in the United States, holding visiting professor and lecturer positions at the University of Minnesota and the University of California Los Angeles in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Her literary output continued to expand as she wrote her first play in 1981, I Stand Here Mourning.lt is a monologue of a mother who is mourning the blighting of her nineteen-year-old daughter’s life. In 1984, Olsen edited the nonfiction collection, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: A Day Book and Reader. Three years later, she co-authored Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Pictures.
After her husband’s death in 1989, Olsen’s original output decreased, though revised editions of Silences and Yonnondio were published in 2003 and 2004, respectively. She also suffered through years of declining health, including Alzheimer’s. Olsen died of complications from the disease on January 1, 2007, in Oakland, California, at the age of 94.
Works in Literary Context
In both her fiction and nonfiction works, Olsen writes about people who, because of their class, sex, and/or race, have been denied the opportunity to express and develop themselves. 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 the sensitive rearing of children. Olsen particularly focuses on the lot of working-class women and their frequently heroic ability to persevere. She pays close attention to the pain of being a wife and mother, while also esteeming those who endure and prevail in spite of suffering. Olsen combines in her writing her socialist upbringing, her concern for the poor, and her love of language. As an author, she was also greatly influenced by such authors as Rebecca Harding Davis.
Many of Olsen’s writings focus on working-class families and their search for self-fulfillment. She returns again and again to the tension in characters’ lives, between the demands of living in poverty and the need for accomplishment and meaning. Olsen’s only novel, Yonnondio, follows the lives of a poor working-class family as they struggle during the Great Depression. Centering on two strong women, the novel presents their lives in terms of failures and successes, always locating the source of their strength within themselves. Two other short stories—”Hey Sailor, What Ship?” and “Requa”— feature male characters dealing with the human condition. In the former, for example, a sailor named Whitey enjoys his time ashore with an adopted family in San Francisco. While Whitey goes on drinking bouts, the family enjoys his visits because they bring 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. Many of the essays in Silences touch on the obstacles to writing that some people face, including poverty and prejudices against class, color, and gender. Olsen lamented the literary void created by the silences of these people.
Mothers, Children, and Lost Dreams
Another predominant theme in Olsen’s works is the relationship between mothers and their children. She argues that the greatest demands are placed upon mothers, often to the detriment of the women’s hopes and dreams. The title story of Tell Me a Riddle focuses on a grandmother’s efforts to make sense of her life as she is dying of cancer, surrounded by the family for whom she has sacrificed all her own ambitions. ”I Stand Here Ironing” focuses on a mother’s internal conflict as she remembers all the trials and failures she has encountered as she tried to raise her daughter. She mourns that her daughter has not had more advantages and fears that her daughter will be forced to endure a life much like her mother’s. Olsen’s nonfiction works touch on these ideas as well. In Silences, a collection of essays and speeches, she discusses the sacrifices that women writers have had to make for their families and refutes the common claim that women writers have not been as successful as men because they are not as talented. Instead, Olsen points out, such writers have to focus on child rearing while dealing with prejudice.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have been nearly unanimous in their praise of Olsen’s fiction. Although she published very little, reviewers agree that her short stories and novel are peerless in their portrayal of the working class, women, and the powerless. Stylistically, scholars praise Olsen’s use of dialect, internal conflict, and flashbacks, as well as her ability to evoke a sense or experience with an economy of words. Critics were less impressed by Olsen’s nonfiction, often considering such works far less evocative and convincing than her fiction.
Yonnondio: From the Thirties
When Yonnondio was published in the mid-1970s, it was generally well-received. Some critics, however, found the story too depressing and hopeless. A contributor to the New Yorker wrote that the novel ”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.” Similarly, Susannah Clapp of the Times Literary Supplement stated that ”By the end of the novel . . . pain, rather than building the Holbrook characters, has bleached it out.” While Nation reviewer Catherine R. Simpson noted that 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.” Despite such doubts, critics like Peter Ackroyd of the Spectator declared “Yonnondio is one of the most powerful statements to have emerged from the American thirties’.”
Silences Of Olsen’s nonfiction works, Silences was considered a powerful statement about the difficulties some people face in writing. 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.”
- Cardoni, Agnes Toloczko. Women’s Ethical Coming of Age: Adolescent Female Characters in the Prose Fiction of Tillie Olsen. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.
- Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
- Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and A Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: The University of Mississippi, 1987.
- Ackroyd, Peter. Review of Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Spectator (December 14, 1974).
- Clapp, Susannah. Review of Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Times Literary Supplement (January 10, 1975).
- McNeil, Helen. Review of Silences. Times Literary Supplement (November 14, 1980).
- Miller, Nolan. Review of Silences. Antioch Review (Fall 1978): 513.
- Review of Yonnondio: From the Thirties. New Yorker (March 25, 1974).
- Simpson, Catherine R. Review of Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Nation (April 10, 1972).
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