Tillie Olsen Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

It is unusual for readers to look upon a writer as a role model, but that is the case for many readers of the works of Tillie Olsen. They have been inspired by this woman’s long and difficult struggle to sustain her writing, and they have been moved by her commitment to the realization of women as individuals in her writing. Olsen’s literary reputation is based primarily on an unfinished novel and a book of four stories, but her gifts as a writer have encouraged other writers and stimulated a new interest in feminist literary classics.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Tillie L. Olsen spent her youth in Nebraska and Wyoming. Her parents were active union members, so political commitment as well as economic pressures accompanied her early years. Her father served as state secretary in the Socialist Party. In 1933, she moved to California, where, in 1936, she married printer Jack Olsen. Because she raised four daughters and worked at full-time clerical jobs, she did not publish her first book until she was in her late forties. She worked as a pork trimmer in meat-packing houses, a hotel maid, a jar-capper, and a waitress. Then, with the help of a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship and a Ford grant in literature she put together Tell Me a Riddle, the title story of which received the O. Henry Award for the best American short story of 1961. There followed a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A grant from the MacDowell Colony allowed her to complete Yonnondio: From the Thirties, a novel she began in the 1930’s which was originally published in 1934 in the Partisan Review. After its revision and publication in 1974, Olsen continued writing essays and articles as well as editing collections of women’s writings. In addition, she has taught at Amherst College, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Minnesota, among others. In her nonfiction book Silences (1978), Olsen writes in her dedication, “For our silenced people, century after century, their beings consumed in the hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they madeanonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost.” She was twice arrested for her activism. Olsen died on January 1, 2007 in Oakland California.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Tillie Olsen began writing early in life. Circumstances, however, silenced her pen for decades. While rearing four children and working at a variety of jobs, she was only able to write fragments. Throughout her life, however, sheremained active and involved, helping laborers organize, giving encouragement to fledgling writers, and chronicling the life of the working class.

Olsen, who left school after the eleventh grade, worked on behalf of laborers, including the packing house workers in Kansas City and the dock workers in San Francisco. She acted on her belief that by working together, people can have a significant impact. She was sensitive, however, to those who must struggle alone and paid them tribute in her short fiction, lectures, and essays. Silences, for example, includes references to a multitude of little-known writers, and chronicles many of the circumstances that may have contributed to their obscurity.

Olsen refused to allow circumstances to dictate the literary canon. Instead, she was intent upon rediscovering lost classics, such as Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861), and upon encouraging academics to reconsider their reading lists. From her point of view, many deserving authors, along with their visions, have been overlooked as a result of groundless aesthetic and cultural biases.

Olsen might have been among the unheralded but, in her case, the social climate of the 1960’s and 1970’s afforded her a wide hearing. After that time, each of her published works was eagerly anticipated and greeted with enthusiasm in the literary world. In recognition of her talent and her achievements, she secured numerous fellowships, grants, and honorary degrees. She served as a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer throughout the United States. She also won numerous awards. These awards are a testimony to Olsen’s importance as a writer who has given others not only memorable portraits but also a fresh context in which to approach literature and life.