Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981
Tillie Olsen, the second of six children, was the daughter of Samuel and Ida Lerner. Her parents, Russian Jews, immigrated to America after the 1905 rebellion. Her father was a laborer, and he served for many years as secretary to Nebraska’s Socialist Party.
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Olsen knew she wanted to become a writer when she was fifteen. She bought a number of issues of The Atlantic Monthly in an Omaha junk shop. In those volumes she read in serialized form the novel Life in the Iron Mills. At that time The Atlantic Monthly did not publish the names of contributors. For many years Olsen d id not realize that the author of the novel was a woman, Rebecca Harding Davis. Olsen was impressed by the realism of this story and realized that literature could be made from the lives of ordinary people who struggled to eke out a living and raise a family. Olsen left high school during her senior year in order to find work and help her family. Shortly thereafter she was jailed after helping to organize packinghouse workers in Kansas City. That experience inspired her to begin a novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974), about the experiences of a working-class family whose hopes for a better life are dashed by a cruel capitalist economic system.
Olsen began to write this novel in 1932. Despite a battle with pleurisy, she continued to work on the manuscript. She moved to California and settled in San Francisco, where she worked closely with labor unions, was arrested for organizing, and was an active member of the Young Communist League. She published two poems and “The Iron Throat,” a small section of the manuscript of the novel in progress, in Partisan Review in 1934.
In later issues of Partisan Review in 1934, she contributed an essay on the warehouse strike in San Francisco called “The Strike,” and she wrote a first-person account of being arrested and brutally questioned with other communist sympathizers in “The Thousand Dollar Vagrant.” “The Iron Throat” was enthusiastically received by critics. Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, editors with Random House, offered her a monthly stipend if she would complete a chapter each month. She signed a contract and moved to Los Angeles to begin the project, but she was unable to concentrate on the writing. After canceling the contract, she returned to San Francisco. She never finished Yonnondio: From the Thirties.
In 1936, she married Jack Olsen, a union printer. They had four daughters: Karla, Julie, Katherine, and Laurie. She contributed no further stories, poems, or essays to Partisan Review. Instead, she worked as a transcriber in a dairy equipment company and worked at various part-time jobs; she produced no further published writings for twenty years.
Between 1953 and 1954, she composed “Help Her to Believe,” a short story about a mother’s reminiscences of her daughter. This story was published in 1956 in the Pacific Spectator and reprinted in 1961 under the title “I Stand Here Ironing” in her collection of four stories, Tell Me a Riddle. The other stories in the collection were “O Yes,” the title story, and “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” With the publication of this book, Olsen broke her silence. The stories in the collection have been anthologized more than fifty times, and the book has been translated into several languages. Critical response to the book was enthusiastic, and her reputation as a writer and a spokesperson for the feminist literary tradition was assured with its publication.
Between 1961 and 1972, Olsen published three articles that arose from her involvement in grants and fellowships received after publication of Tell Me a Riddle. “Silences: When Writers Don’t Write” appeared in Harper’s in 1965. It was based on a 1964 seminar, “Death of the Creative Process.” A second article, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century” (1972), was developed from notes from a 1971 address to the Modern Language Association Forum on Women Writers. In 1972, Olsen contributed the afterword to the Feminist Press reprint of Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 classic novel, Life in the Iron Mills. This substantial essay was important both professionally and personally to Olsen. The fifteen-year-old girl who had read the novel in The Atlantic Monthly was now a highly regarded author. Having the opportunity to write the afterword to this novel closed an important circle in her life.
Another closing of a circle was the 1974 publication of her unfinished novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Her husband had discovered the manuscript while looking for other papers. Rather than try to add to the manuscript or revise it, she organized it from many drafts and versions of the text. After eight chapters the text ends suddenly, and the author adds a note commenting on its incomplete state. Critics hailed this unfinished novel as a great work of fiction.
During the 1970’s, Olsen taught courses in literature and in women’s studies at several universities in the United States and abroad, and she became well known as a lecturer to women’s groups, university students, and writers organizations. In 1978, her book Silences was published. The book includes the two previously published essays noted above, the afterword from Life in the Iron Mills, and a compendium of quotations, excerpts, and comments by and about famous men and women writers who were “silenced” at some time in their creative lives.
Olsen became a mentor for young writers and a spokesperson for feminist concerns. She developed reading lists of works by women, and she promoted the reprinting of significant literary classics written by women. In 1979, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska. Olsen’s Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering was published in 1984. The text includes a calendar of months, a series of excerpts from women’s writings arranged according to topic based on mother-daughter relationships, and a list of titles of works by women. Olsen died in Oakland, California on January 1, 2007.