Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
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 capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation.” Her central example is her own story. For twenty years (from 1934 to 1954) she did not publish. She writes, “The simplest circumstances for creation did not exist.” Although she kept alive in herself her love for writing, she was unable to bring any work to fruition. This essay is a lament for what she and other great writers have lost by not fulfilling their artistic potential.
The second essay, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century,” was first published in 1972. Olsen contends that of all writers cited in anthologies, listed on syllabi of modern literature courses, noted in the year’s best (or decade’s best) collections, listed on required reading lists, or considered in book review sections, only one in twelve writers is a woman. Beginning with this simple but devastating statistic, Olsen goes on to cite many of the ways in which women have been rendered secondary or inferior to men in many cultures. She lists stereotypes, taboos, religious characterizations, and narrow and confining roles. She also places her own experience in the context of other women who were “silenced” and devalued. She concludes, “You who teach, read writers who are women. There is a whole literature to be re-estimated, revalued. . . . Read, listen to, living women writers. . . . Not to have audience is a kind of death.” Both essays are an appeal for understanding that writers fail to create because of the “unnatural silences” that plague them.