Tillie Olsen is regarded as one of the more important American women writers of fiction in the twentieth century. She was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on January 14, 1912, the daughter of Samuel and Ida (Beber) Lerner. Because of humble circumstances, the future writer had but a limited education. In 1936, she married Jack Olsen, and they had four daughters: Karla, Julie, Katherine Jo, and Laurie. Olsen spent most of her life in San Francisco, California. For twenty years, she worked there in industry and as a typist-transcriber. She used her lunch hours to read in public libraries, thus securing her higher education.
In 1955, she was awarded the Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship and in 1959 a Ford grant in literature. In 1961, she published a collection of stories, Tell Me a Riddle, whose title story won first prize in the 1961 O. Henry Awards as the best story of that year. From 1962 to 1964, Olsen held a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. In 1967, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Award. She served as writer-in-residence or visiting professor in English at Amherst College, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts, and Kenyon College.
Olsen’s work can be roughly divided into three phases: the activist political phase of the 1930’s, the short fiction phase of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the feminist nonfiction phase beginning in the 1970’s. In the 1930’s, Olsen published several polemics. By the mid-1950’s, she was writing her best fiction, including the stories collected in Tell Me a Riddle. Beginning in the 1970’s, Olsen published several works in which she theorizes about the feminist literary artist.
Olsen published a substantial biographical study for a 1972 reprint of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman, originally published in 1861 in The Atlantic Monthly. Davis’s work...
(The entire section is 820 words.)