Critical Context

Published one year before Adrienne Rich’s classic feminist work On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979), in which Rich refers to Olsen several times, Silences has also been acknowledged as a feminist classic. Rich participated with Olsen in 1971 on a panel sponsored by the Commission on the Status of Women on the topic of “The Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century,” at which time she presented her seminal essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” Describing the Modern Language Association as an old-boys’ network, a “marketplace and funeral parlor for the professional study of Western literature in North America,” Rich speaks of the “cynicism and desperation” of junior scholars, whipped by the publish-or-perish dictum, “rehearsing their numb canons in sessions dedicated to the literature of white males.” Such an attitude is clearly reflected in Olsen’s unscholarly methodology, style, and tone in Silences. Rich and Olsen have been two major forces behind subsequent changes in the content of sessions at the Modern Language Association, which ranged in the 1987 South Central regional conference from literature by contemporary Australian women to that of practicing Southwestern poets.

Writing not only as a feminist but also as a humanist, Olsen deals in essay form in Silences with the same concerns she brings to life in her two other published works: Tell Me a Riddle (1961), and Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974). In her short stories she lets the reader hear voices usually silenced, such as that of a mother standing at her ironing board thinking of the ways in which she has failed her eldest daughter and of a sailor who never had close ties with his family. In her novel, Yonnondio, she presents the devastating effects of poverty upon one family during the Great Depression. Silences makes explicit some of the universal concerns which Olsen expresses in her fiction.

Finally, Silences is an educational treatise. Urging American society to refuse to waste the potential of some of its most talented members because of their class, race, or gender, Olsen stands with courage against the strength of traditional educational practices. Silences is a work of rare honesty.