(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Written to “re-dedicate and encourage” writers, Silences is a compendium of essays, quotations, and commentaries devoted to the reasons various writers either have not written more or have not written at all. It includes two essays written by Tillie Olsen, her afterword to a reprinting of Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 novel Life in the Iron Mills, and more than 150 pages of commentary and original source material relating to the “silences” of many well-known authors, such as Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, and Herman Melville. Olsen calls this long section “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions.” Each entry is keyed to the two essays that begin the text.

Of major importance in Silences are the two essays that begin the text. The first, “Silences in Literature,” was first published in 1965. In this essay Olsen decries the silences that have stopped great literary talents from producing to their full potential. Olsen assigns the term “silences” various categories: “some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all.” Other silences are caused by censorship, restrictive governments, or narrow societal roles. She concludes, “Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Silences Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Silences is about circumstances that foster and that thwart artistic expression. It is written not in the vein of traditional literary criticism but as a sourcebook for those who have yet to find their voices or who have been silenced by events outside their control. It is, as Tillie Olsen writes, “written to re-dedicate and encourage.”

One of her aims is to prod women to foster their creativity and productivity, but she is aware that the conditions she is describing cut across sexual, racial, and economic lines. To support her point, early in the book she makes reference to the “mute inglorious Miltons,” whose situations conspire against their creative urges. She demonstrates this contention by pointing to the richness found in the folk and oral traditions. It is not, Olsen argues, for lack of talent that these creators remain unknown, but for lack of a sustaining environment that would allow them the time and confidence to find their voices.

For Olsen, writing is more than giving voice to one’s own muse. It is a means of legitimating and clarifying others’ realities by providing another perspective. For this reason, Olsen focuses attention on women writers, and her own creative writing often focuses on domestic situations. To her, common and ordinary events that are easy to dismiss are the most telling.

Silences is informed by an abiding humanism and a belief that by articulating one’s own vision, one cannot only overcome one’s past mistakes but also can make it easier for others to do so. For this reason, Olsen urges others to appreciate the value of their private reflections and imaginings and transform them into concrete expressions. Her hope seems to be that by making the formerly silenced aware of the fact that others have faced similar circumstances and, in some instances, overcome them, they will experience a new sense of validation and purpose.

In cataloging the factors that contribute to silences, Olsen has done much to demystify the circumstances that make it possible for some to be prolific while others must struggle to get a hearing. She has also done much to explain the silences that often follow a promising first novel and the relative obscurity of authors who have published extensively and yet are virtual unknowns to the majority of the reading public.