Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Silences Analysis

Although Olsen’s work is rather subversive, the literary establishment lauded it when it appeared in 1978, and she increasingly has become a literary heroine. Olsen explicitly sets out the boundaries of her work’s content: She is “concerned with the relationship of circumstances—including class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born—to the creation of literature.” Dealing only with “unnatural” social and economic silences, she does not attempt to account for “natural,” personal silences. Her book is a sociological analysis of literary creativity.

She organizes her material clearly, part 2 echoing part 1. Through the repetition of key phrases and passages, she keeps the reader in a circle of discovery, emphasizing, expanding, explaining, then reemphasizing her central points. The reoccurrence of such lines as “when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false” provides images which, when validated by the experience of both famous and obscure writers, become increasingly charged with association and meaning. Also, the reoccurrence of quotes from Woolf’s works prepares those readers for whom this writer may seem socially privileged to accept her as a member of the “outsiders” with whom Woolf classes herself.

Olsen’s methodology is definitely more literary than scholarly. She emphasizes that her work “is not an orthodoxly written work of academic scholarship.” Her numerous footnotes therefore sometimes lack complete citations or have an informal quality to which traditional English teachers would probably object. She offers “abashed apologies” to Hortense Calisher for using excerpts somewhat unfairly from her “superb essay” and admits her reluctance to quote John Gardner’s comments on using his wife as an unacknowledged collaborator because the “true ‘leech’ writers,” which she would rather have quoted, are not as honest as Gardner. Such honesty flies in the face of the “objectivity” of formal footnoting methods.

One critic accuses Olsen of “a deliberate misreading” of some of the excerpts she uses, such as these lines by Sylvia Plath: “Perfection is terrible./ It cannot have children/ It tamps the womb.” Making an intuitive rather than a logical leap, Olsen comments that until recently most famous women writers have been childless. Using quotes as a springboard for thought is not a common method used in formal scholarship,...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)