Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006
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, but a creative writer such as Olsen would more likely rely on an intuitive instead of an analytical approach.
Such leaps underscore the patchwork effect of Silences, Olsen’s “refusal to integrate or discipline her raw materials.” This type of objection again illustrates that Olsen’s work is not scholarly, that she has, as she explains, gathered her materials piecemeal over a period of fifty years with no intention of writing on the subject of stifled creativity. The laxity of her methodology would probably appeal more to the silenced artists and first-generation writers to whom she dedicates her book than to established, professional scholars and writers.
That Silences does not fit an established genre illustrates the unscholarly nature of this work. Because it is a blend of literary history, sociology, literary criticism, and the psychology of creativity, it defies conventional classification. This is, indeed, part of the subversive nature of this work: It blurs boundaries, explores new territory.
Overall, Olsen’s departures from traditional scholarship argue eloquently that this book was written by an author with “no academic training in notation,” one too busy to attend to the niceties of documentation and too honest to pretend that she alone knows the objective truth about the subjects under discussion.
Her style and tone also emphasize Olsen’s commitment to making the world of letters accessible to the uninitiated. Never pedantic, she writes clearly, directly, and lyrically. For example, she begins by asking,What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me.
Olsen poses her questions so lucidly that any reader can grasp her meaning. She displays no need to absent herself from the text, to appear as an infallible authority, or to apologize for her motivations and her failures.
Such informality pervades the work, allowing Olsen to express her emotions honestly. When she talks of her first reading of Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills in a “water-stained, coverless, bound” edition of The Atlantic Monthly which she bought for ten cents, she admits that she discovered the work by accident in an Omaha junkshop and was too ignorant of library methods to discover the book’s author. Tracing the slow chain of events which eventually led to her discovery that Davis was the author, she writes of her own surprise and eagerness during her search and again admits her fallibility: “It did not occur to me to try the index of periodicals.” Olsen preserves and communicates the enthusiasm with which scholars pursue their research.
Fragments and elliptical statements abound in Silences, again adding to the work’s informality and accessibility. Especially near the end of Silences, Olsen’s prose takes on the breathless, hurried quality which so many writers experience when nearing completion of the long task of composition.
Olsen speaks as a woman with a message who does not have time to waste on superfluities or empty gestures. Through her refusal to refine her work, her honesty of style and tone, she again illustrates her major points: Working-class people and women have as much to contribute to literature as do the more leisured classes; however, they have less time and energy in which to do so.
Olsen states as one of her principal purposes that she intends “to rededicate and encourage” silenced people and first-generation writers from minority groups. Through her informality and casual use of scholarly protocol, she speaks that language of those whom she encourages and provides a role model for her readers who also may be able to speak their own minority language with as much clarity and courage as she possesses.
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