Olsen, Tillie (Vol. 114)
Tillie Olsen 1913–
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Olsen's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 13.
Olsen's work—which focuses on the plight of the poor, the powerless, and women—has earned her almost universal praise. Although she has published relatively little throughout her career, her short stories and novel are of the highest quality. Her fiction and her essays have placed her in a role as a chronicler of the working class as well as a leading feminist writer.
Olsen was born on January 14, 1913 (some sources say 1912) in Omaha, Nebraska. Her Jewish parents had been political activists in Russia and immigrated to the United States after the failed 1905 revolution. While a teenager, Olsen read Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills and was so moved by the description of the working class that she vowed to become a writer. After high school, Olsen took a variety of jobs to supplement her family's income and became active in leftist politics, joining the Young People's Socialist League and the Young Communist League. While working in Kansas City, Olsen was arrested in 1931 for encouraging packinghouse workers to unionize. While in prison, Olsen developed pleurisy and incipient tuberculosis. Upon her release, she moved to Minnesota to recover. There she began her first novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, working on it until 1937 when she abandoned it, not to publish it until 1974. In 1936 she married Jack Olsen, a longshoreman, and raised four daughters in a working class neighborhood of San Francisco. She published some poems, articles and short stories about the plight of the working class in socialist periodicals such as Partisan, the Waterfront Worker, and the Daily Worker. In 1954 she enrolled in a writing class at San Francisco State University and won a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship. Another grant enabled her to finish Tell Me a Riddle, which was published in 1961. The 1970s where the most prolific time for Olsen as she published three works and gained wider recognition. Since then she has held a number of visiting professorships, writer-in-residence, and lecturer positions across the country.
Olsen has only published a small volume of material: a handful of short stories, a book of essays and speeches, and one unfinished novel. Writing about working class families and their search for self-fulfillment, Olsen again and again returns to the tension in characters' lives between the demands of living in poverty and the need for accomplishment and meaning. Olsen has particularly focused upon the relationship between mothers and their children, arguing that the greatest demands are place upon mothers, often to the detriment of the women's hopes and dreams. Tell Me a Riddle, which won the O Henry Award for best American short story in 1961, consists of four short stories. Most famous is the title story which is often compared to Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch." It chronicles 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", also in this collection, 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. In Silences, a collection of essays and speeches, Olsen discusses the sacrifices that women writers have had to make for their families, and refutes common held beliefs that women writers have not been as successful as men because they are not as talented. Yonnondio, her only full length (though unfinished) novel, takes its name from Walt Whitman's poem. The book follows the lives of a working class family in the 1930s as they struggle against the Depression. Centering on two strong women, it presents their lives in terms of failures and successes, always locating the source of their strength within themselves.
Critics have been unanimously overwhelming in their praise of Olsen's fiction. As one critic states, "Olsen writes with an elegance, compassion, and directness rare in any period." Although she has published little, reviewers agree that her short stories and novel are peerless in their portrayal of the working class, of women, and of the powerless. Blanche Gelfant comments on the recurring theme of human survival, even when the characters' "lives seem broken and futile, and life itself full of pain." Stylistically, scholars praise Olsen's use of dialect, internal conflict and flashbacks, as well as her ability to evoke a scene or experience with a brevity of words. However, critics have some reservations about Olsen's role as a leading feminist writer. Ellen Cronan Rose argues, "Olsen has made the mistake, in her recent oratory, of confusing the general human situation and the particular plight of women in our society. What she emphatically knows because she is an artist she thinks she knows because she is a woman." Critics point to her convincing male characters in the short stories "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "Requa" as evidence of her ability to address the human condition regardless of gender. Scholars such as Mickey Pearlman point out that some of Olsen's popularity is based upon her life experiences and what she represents to women. Reviewers find that her book of feminist essays, Silences, is far less evocative and convincing than her fiction.
SOURCE: "The Stories of Tillie Olson," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 21-5.
[In the following essay, O'Connor praises Olsen's short stories, for the power of their scenes of everyday life.]
Tillie Olsen writes about anguish. One character thinks: "It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion and in pain than to live untouched. Yet how will you sustain?"
In one story a soft-hearted sailor has lived a boisterous, rowdy, hard-drinking life. His world is empty, meaningless and in an eerie flux of days and nights at sea, transient acquaintanceships at bars and brothels when he is very drunk. His only refuge is a man whose life he had once saved, and the man's family. He has given the wife and children presents and much needed money. They have all loved him, and welcomed his visits. But now that he can tolerate his anguish only by constant drinking, during which he uses foul language and is an embarrassment before their friends, they are torn between devotion to him, or to what he once was, and their own respectability. Not being able to tolerate their disapproval, he leaves. Drunken, he looks back from a hill at their house, an island of light and warmth. The image blurs, and the house becomes impersonal and anonymous. One knows the sailor will find release from his pain only in the bottle, and finally in death.
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SOURCE: "The Passion of Tillie Olsen," in The Nation, Vol. 715, No. 15, April 10, 1972, pp. 472-74.
[In the following review of Tell Me a Riddle, Fisher praises Olsen's efforts as a feminist writer.]
You won't find her in Who's Who … nor is her name going to be listed in the forthcoming reference book, World Authors. Her total published work probably runs to under 200 pages: the first story came out in 1934, the latest in 1970. In between there were the four stories in Tell Me a Riddle, reissued in paperback this August after being out of print for several years, stories written and published between 1953 and 1960, and—its own kind of explanation—the essay, "Silences, When Writers Don't Write," published in Harper's magazine in 1965. "I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having let writing die over and over again in me." Yet in the 116 pages of Tell Me a Riddle—small ones with large type and large margins, too—are contained several lives and lifetimes, as if all the writing Tillie Olsen didn't do has coalesced in intensity and packed itself into these stories.
The title story is her masterpiece. My first reading of it was one of those shattering discoveries, an experience that, at first, reminded me of coming on Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, because that book,...
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SOURCE: "Limming: or Why Tillie Writes," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIII, No. 2, April, 1976, pp. 1-13.
[In the essay below, Rose explores Olsen's philosophy on writing and suggests that Olsen, a renowned feminist, is as powerful at depicting men as she as at depicting women.]
Tillie Olsen was born in Nebraska 65 years ago. In 1960, when she was 50 years old, she published her first book, a slim volume of short stories called Tell Me A Riddle. In 1974 she finally published a novel—Yonnondio—she had begun in 1932 and abandoned in 1937. To women in "the movement" she is a major literary figure, not so much despite as because of the paucity of her publications.
Since 1971, when Delta reissued Tell Me A Riddle in paperback, Olsen has been stumping the country, speaking about women who have been prevented by their sex from utilizing their creative talents. These are her words:
In the twenty years I bore and reared my children, usually had to work on the job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist. When the youngest of our four was in school, the beginnings struggled toward endings…. Bliss of movement. A full extended family life; the world of my job; and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around with me through work, through home. Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the...
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SOURCE: "Silences," in The New Republic, Vol. 179, No. 5, July 29, 1978, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review, Oates contends that Silences suffers from omissions, uneven tone, and faulty logic.]
The highest art appears to contain an entire world in miniature: entering it, one experiences the illusion of entering into the very center of the human cosmos, penetrating immediately the depths of the human imagination. If the most perfect forms of art have the quality of being "static"—in Joyce's sense of the term—it is because they are beyond and above time. Of course they exclude a great deal, and yet they give the impression of excluding nothing. They are complete; they point to nothing outside themselves; one grasps them as esthetic wholes, moved by their authority.
There is no more powerfully moving a piece of fiction in recent years than Tillie Olsen's long story "Tell Me a Riddle," which was first published in New World Writing in 1960, and reprinted as the title story in Tillie Olsen's first book, in 1969. Forty-seven years of marriage, hard work and impoverishment and the dizzying passage of time, an old woman's death by cancer, a frightened old man's realization of love: bitter, relentless, supremely beautiful in its nuances, its voices and small perfect details: and certainly unforgettable. All of the stories of Tell Me a Riddle are superb but the title...
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SOURCE: "Extending the Boundaries of the Ego: Eva in 'Tell Me a Riddle.'" in Midwestern Miscellany X, edited by Marilyn J. Atlas, Midwestern Press, 1982, pp. 38-48.
[In the following essay, Culver discusses Olsen's views on self-fulfillment and motherhood.]
And if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.
Fruit from a blighted tree will always be sparse. Tillie Olsen's collected works weigh lightly in one hand, yet they weigh more heavily in the mind than many more luxuriant volumes.
Her fiction, a rich trove from a gift "nursed through the night," cherished and preserved against the forces that could have killed it—motherhood in straitened circumstances—retains some of the bleakness where it had to endure. It is remarkably condensed. In "Tell Me A Riddle" she sketches an entire life in fifty-three pages; she writes as if she were distilling the experiences from a crucible in her own body.
This story reveals the depth of wasture which results from using as a servant and breeding machine a woman whose intellect, courage and idealism served only to make her painfully aware of the distance between her life as it was lived, and her life as it could have been lived. Gifts that rot unused in the bearer breed poisonous resentment and the bitterness that seeps up through the surface of...
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SOURCE: "After Long Silence: Tillie Olsen's 'Requa'," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 61-9.
[In the following essay, Gelfant addresses the protagonist's need to find meaning and self-renewal during the Depression in Olson's short story "Requa."]
No one has written so eloquently about silences as Tillie Olsen, or shown as poignantly that a writer can recover her voice. In her most recent fiction, a long story called "Requa," she reclaims once more a power of speech that has proved at times extremely difficult to exercise. Silence followed the publication, almost fifty years ago, of sections from her early and still unfinished novel Yonnondio. Then came Tell Me a Riddle, bringing Olsen fame but not the sustained power to write she needed, and for another long period her voice was stilled. In 1970 "Requa" appeared, an impressive work which received immediate recognition and was reprinted as one of the year's best stories. ["Requa" is part of a larger work-in-progress Olsen plans to complete.] For apparently fortuitous reasons, it is now little known, though as Olsen's most innovative and complex work of fiction, it deserves critical attention it has yet to receive. Complete but unfinished, "Requa" is a still-to-be-continued story that develops the theme of human continuity in ways which seem almost subversive. Its form is discontinuous, as though to challenge...
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SOURCE: "Literary Foremothers and Writers' Silences: Tillie Olsen's Autobiographical Fiction," in Melus, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 55-72.
[In the essay below, Kamel discusses the elements which are common within Olsen's writings.]
Ellen Moers observes the consistent and fervent penchant for women writers, themselves rendered invisible by patriarchy, to read other women's writings, even those from whom they were geographically and culturally distanced:
Not loyalty but confidence was the resource that women writers drew from possession of their own tradition. And it was confidence that until very recently could have come from no other source…. The personal give-take of the literary life was closed to them. Without it, they studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex, and developed a sense of easy, almost rude familiarity with the women who wrote them.
Moers supports this observation with extensive examples of nineteenth-century women writers reading their counterparts' lives and texts. She also notes that despite changes for the better in the lives of twentieth-century writers, women persist in reading and writing about other women:
In the case of most women writers, women's traditions have been fringe benefits superadded upon the literary associations of period,...
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SOURCE: "Tillie Olsen: The Writer as a Jewish Woman," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, No. 5, 1986, pp. 89-102.
[In the following essay, Lyons argues that while Judaism shapes Olsen's work, her writing is most influenced by her experiences as a woman.]
That Tillie Olsen's work is radically perfectibilistic in spirit and vision is obvious to most of her readers. Less obvious is that the two principal sources of that vision derive directly from her experience as a Jew and as a woman.
What is most deeply Jewish in Olsen is the secular messianic utopianism she inherited from her immigrant parents. That is, her political and social ideology directly reflects the radical Jewish background in which she grew up. But while her Jewish background provides a foundation for Olsen's basic political vision, it would be a mistake to view Jewishness itself as the living core, either in theme or imagery, of her work. Her experience as a woman is much more central, and is especially noticeable in her patterns of imagery. From the weak propagandistic early poetry to the great "Tell Me a Riddle," Olsen repeatedly emphasizes the human body and the mother/child relationship, aspects of human experience strongly identified with the female.
This is not to suggest that Olsen's explicit "femaleness" makes her work restricted in scope or marginal. Her habitual focus on the body does not...
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SOURCE: "The Struggle for 'Selfness' through Speech in Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 131-39.
[In the following essay, Staub traces Olsen's focus on self-articulation and the freedom it brings.]
Tillie Olsen's only novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, written between 1932 and 1937 but not published until 1974, concerns a migrant family's impossible dream: the search for happiness and security in a world they never made. It is an often shocking book, one that makes vivid the brutal consequences of homelessness and poverty on a married couple, Jim and Anna Holbrook, and their five children: Mazie, Will, Ben, Jimmie, and baby Bess. As it proceeds, however, it is apparent that the novel belongs primarily to Anna and to Mazie, her oldest daughter, and their efforts to speak and be heard in a hostile environment. From its opening sentence ("The whistles always woke Mazie") through to its final description ("He is too dazed to listen" [p. 154]), Yonnondio is a highly compressed catalogue of sounds and silences. As the family migrates eastward from a Wyoming coal-mining community to a South Dakota tenant farm to the slaughter houses of Kansas City, a theme emerges: that women and girls of the working class will never identify their own concerns at home or in the society at large, and will never be able to change their...
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SOURCE: "'A Child of Anxious, Not Proud, Love': Mother and Daughter in Tillie Olsen's 'I Stand Here Ironing,'" in Mother Puzzles: Daughter and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 35-9.
[In the following essay, Bauer remarks on the themes of hope and despair within the mother-daughter relationship in "I Stand Here Ironing."]
"I stand here ironing" begins the narrator in Tillie Olsen's short story that takes its title from that opening line. These are words that would never introduce a male narrator, and the facts of her woman's life, its emotional as well as economic exigencies and constraints, provide the context for this unnamed mother's meditation on her daughter Emily. A school counselor has asked to meet with her to discuss Emily, a child the counselor finds troubled and in need of help. The mother's unspoken response, "what good would it do?", introduces the questioning note on which the story expands. It is a tale of virtually unalleviated strain on the mother and daughter. But the conflicts in the story are not between them; they are within the mother. She weighs her own responsibility for the circumstances of Emily's life, acknowledges both her own power and powerlessness. And she looks with dread toward her daughter's future, afraid that it will be a joyless, meager existence consequent upon a childhood when there was not enough...
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SOURCE: "'Coming to Writing' Through the Impressionist Fiction of Tillie Olsen," in Midwestern Miscellany XXI, edited by David D. Anderson, Midwestern Press, 1993, pp. 57-67.
[In the following essay, Wolfe compares "I Stand Here Ironing" with "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" as she explores Olsen's concept of universal hope.]
Trying to define Tillie Olsen's "place" in the history of the short story is difficult, not only because of her comparatively small output, but also because she is "known and admired much more because of what she represents than because of what she has written." Olsen is best known for her insights (chronicled in Silences) into the difficulties—such as poverty, illness, family responsibilities, etc.—that block the way to success, especially in writing (and especially concerning women). She speaks of, and to, "the gifted among women (and men) [who] have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity … because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation."
Olsen herself experienced such circumstances, both first hand and through her family. She was born in Eastern Nebraska in either 1912 or 1913 to Ida and Samuel Lerner, Russian Jewish immigrants who came to America to escape punishment for their involvement in the failed 1905 uprising against the Czar. Her father worked several blue-collar jobs—packinghouse worker, farm...
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SOURCE: "Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle: The Dialectics of Silence," in Frontiers, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1994, pp. 1-22.
[In the following essay, Pfaelzer discusses the ways in which Olsen uses language and silence in Tell Me a Riddle to represent Eva's journey from alienation to engagement.]
Logos, the expressed word, empowers. "God said, 'Let there be light,' And there was light" (Gen. 1:3). By the act of speech, God ascribed reality and assigned meaning to the object of his desire. Inevitably, man arrogated this divine power to himself: "Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast in the field and every bird in the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them: whatever the man called every living creature, that was his name" (Gen. 2:19). And the word reified.
But by what word shall woman call every living creature? For the past decade, feminist critics have debated the phallocentric nature of language—the relationship between patriarchy and language, the relationship between patriarchy and silence. Feminist theorists Helene Cixous and Monique Wittig argue that phallocentrism is logocentrism; they find that a woman's speech, even rebellious or dissenting speech, is made up of the signs and signifiers of patriarchy. Hence, they call for a retreat from language, directly through silence or obliquely, through the discontinuities and disruptions...
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SOURCE: "Balancing the Hurts and the Needs: Olsen's 'I Stand Here Here Ironing,'" in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 15, Nos. 1-2, March, 1994, pp. 78-86.
[In the following essay, Kloss examines the daughter's emotional deprivation in "I Stand Here Ironing."]
Few modern short stories move readers to feel as much compassion toward the inherent vulnerability of the human child as does Tillie Olson's "I Stand Here Ironing." In the mother's wrenching narration of simple fact in response to a school psychologist's inquiry about her troubled nineteen-year-old daughter, she reveals all her anguish, past and present. At the same time, she tries not to "… become engulfed with all I did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped."
Indeed, this tale does raise significant questions about what can and cannot be helped in the upbringing of a child, and discussions of the story usually center on emotional deprivation, personal responsibility, and the question of guilt. Linda Kirschner, in her brief consideration, phrases her inquiry this way: "Yet, how much guilt must the mother bear for Emily's sense of alienations? For how much is she truly responsible?"
Though the question is certainly paramount, at least three separate and separable definitions of responsible become conflated and confused in examinations of this tale. Two of them (the third...
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Coiner, Constance. "Literature of Resistance: The Intersection of Feminism and the Communist Left in Meridel Le Sueur and Tillie Olsen." In Radical Revisions: Rereading the 1930s Culture, edited by Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon, pp. 144-66. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Places Le Sueur's and Olsen's work against the backdrop of Leftist culture in the 1930s.
Connelly, Julia E. "The Whole Story." Literature and Medicine 9 (1990): 150-61.
Explores the roles of patient and physician in Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle" and Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch."
Neihus, Edward L. "Polar Stars, Pyramids, and 'Tell Me A Riddle.'" American Notes and Querries XXIV, Nos. 5-6 (January-February 1986): 77-83.
Explains the significance of the reference to pyramids and pole stars in "Tell Me a Riddle."
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