Tillie Olsen 1913–
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Olsen's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 13.
Olsen's work—which focuses on the plight of the poor, the powerless, and women—has earned her almost universal praise. Although she has published relatively little throughout her career, her short stories and novel are of the highest quality. Her fiction and her essays have placed her in a role as a chronicler of the working class as well as a leading feminist writer.
Olsen was born on January 14, 1913 (some sources say 1912) in Omaha, Nebraska. Her Jewish parents had been political activists in Russia and immigrated to the United States after the failed 1905 revolution. While a teenager, Olsen read Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills and was so moved by the description of the working class that she vowed to become a writer. After high school, Olsen took a variety of jobs to supplement her family's income and became active in leftist politics, joining the Young People's Socialist League and the Young Communist League. While working in Kansas City, Olsen was arrested in 1931 for encouraging packinghouse workers to unionize. While in prison, Olsen developed pleurisy and incipient tuberculosis. Upon her release, she moved to Minnesota to recover. There she began her first novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, working on it until 1937 when she abandoned it, not to publish it until 1974. In 1936 she married Jack Olsen, a longshoreman, and raised four daughters in a working class neighborhood of San Francisco. She published some poems, articles and short stories about the plight of the working class in socialist periodicals such as Partisan, the Waterfront Worker, and the Daily Worker. In 1954 she enrolled in a writing class at San Francisco State University and won a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship. Another grant enabled her to finish Tell Me a Riddle, which was published in 1961. The 1970s where the most prolific time for Olsen as she published three works and gained wider recognition. Since then she has held a number of visiting professorships, writer-in-residence, and lecturer positions across the country.
Olsen has only published a small volume of material: a handful of short stories, a book of essays and speeches, and one unfinished novel. Writing about working class families and their search for self-fulfillment, Olsen again and again returns to the tension in characters' lives between the demands of living in poverty and the need for accomplishment and meaning. Olsen has particularly focused upon the relationship between mothers and their children, arguing that the greatest demands are place upon mothers, often to the detriment of the women's hopes and dreams. Tell Me a Riddle, which won the O Henry Award for best American short story in 1961, consists of four short stories. Most famous is the title story which is often compared to Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch." It chronicles a grandmother's efforts to make sense of her life as she is dying of cancer, surrounded by the family for whom she has sacrificed all her own ambitions. "I Stand Here Ironing", also in this collection, focuses on a mother's internal conflict as she remembers all the trials and failures she has encountered as she tried to raise her daughter. She mourns that her daughter has not had more advantages and fears that her daughter will be forced to endure a life much like her mother's. In Silences, a collection of essays and speeches, Olsen discusses the sacrifices that women writers have had to make for their families, and refutes common held beliefs that women writers have not been as successful as men because they are not as talented. Yonnondio, her only full length (though unfinished) novel, takes its name from Walt Whitman's poem. The book follows the lives of a working class family in the 1930s as they struggle against the Depression. Centering on two strong women, it presents their lives in terms of failures and successes, always locating the source of their strength within themselves.
Critics have been unanimously overwhelming in their praise of Olsen's fiction. As one critic states, "Olsen writes with an elegance, compassion, and directness rare in any period." Although she has published little, reviewers agree that her short stories and novel are peerless in their portrayal of the working class, of women, and of the powerless. Blanche Gelfant comments on the recurring theme of human survival, even when the characters' "lives seem broken and futile, and life itself full of pain." Stylistically, scholars praise Olsen's use of dialect, internal conflict and flashbacks, as well as her ability to evoke a scene or experience with a brevity of words. However, critics have some reservations about Olsen's role as a leading feminist writer. Ellen Cronan Rose argues, "Olsen has made the mistake, in her recent oratory, of confusing the general human situation and the particular plight of women in our society. What she emphatically knows because she is an artist she thinks she knows because she is a woman." Critics point to her convincing male characters in the short stories "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "Requa" as evidence of her ability to address the human condition regardless of gender. Scholars such as Mickey Pearlman point out that some of Olsen's popularity is based upon her life experiences and what she represents to women. Reviewers find that her book of feminist essays, Silences, is far less evocative and convincing than her fiction.