Tillie Olsen Olsen, Tillie (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olsen, Tillie 1913–

Olsen is a prize-winning American novelist and short story writer. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In [Yonnondio,] a mercifully brief, emotionally charged narrative incorporating all imaginable horrors experienced by a destitute, ill, and starving family during the Depression in the early thirties, [Tillie Olsen] forcefully portrays their plight, not sparing the reader intrepid enough to endure so brutal an account of so much gloom and despair. Here is art of a kind for those who take vicarious delight in the contemplation of absolute human degradation. (p. cxx)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 4 (Autumn, 1974).

Catharine R. Stimpson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Olsen's compelling gift is her ability to render lyrically the rhythms of consciousness of victims [in Yonnondio: From the Thirties]. Imaginative, affectionate, they are also alert to the sensual promise of their surroundings. Harsh familial, social, political and economic conditions first cramp, then maim, and then seek to destroy them. The fevers of poverty, dread and futility inflame their sensibilities. They risk reduction to defensive fantasy, pain, madness or cruelty. They remain, if in shadow, heroes and heroic.

Olsen assumes that such victims cannot often speak for themselves. Their dumbness is no fault of their own. Her self-imposed task is to become their voice as well as their witness, their text as well as their mourner. She signifies her respect for their dignity in the exactitude and scrupulous effort of her work. She sardonically tells her reader that the received categories of culture, such as classicism and romanticism, also fit the citizens of a Wyoming town as they wait to hear how many men have died in a mine explosion that official cowardice, incompetence and corruption have caused. If she were to take part in that theological quarrel over whether an artist's primary commitment is to craft or to social change, she might say that an artist can work for change through writing about the oppressed with all the craft and tools at hand. She also comments on the economic basis of high culture. She writes of an adolescent boy forced into the mines:

Earth take your dreams that a few may languidly lie on couches and trill "How exquisite" to paid dreamers.

Olsen's politics and anger are a part of a particular decade: her subtitle, "From the Thirties," is seriously meant. She notes that Yonnondio "bespeaks the consciousness and roots of that decade, if not its events." An anachronism or two betrays the gap between narrative setting and actual reference. Despite her nostalgia for rural ritual, she refuses to offer an exclusive vision of bucolic joy. She wants unions and solidarity among all workers, no matter what their race or ethnic heritage. (p. 565)

Catharine R. Stimpson, "Three Women Work It Out," in The Nation (copyright 1974 The Nation Associates), November 30, 1974, pp. 565-66.

Peter Ackroyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Yonnondio] is a conventional story, as stories go, but the plot is in fact the least important element of the novel. This is not because it is incomplete (the book has only recently been recovered in a less than perfect form), but because the narrative is consumed by the effects of Miss Olsen's prose. A pattern of images is cast over the writing from the opening chapters, and there is a characteristic attention to description rather than analysis—it is a matter of dialogue rather than character, of situations rather than incidents. Yonnondio is a romantic novel, in the sense that Man and Nature are seen in a close and often destructive relationship, and its language becomes the space between them—instinctive with life, both mortal and at the same time capable of expressing certain permanent truths.

It is out of the mouths of children that this will come most naturally and there are some marvellously childish moments in this book. (pp. 767-68)

Yonnondio is one of the most powerful statements to have emerged from the American 'thirties; a young woman has pulled out of that uneasy time a living document which is full of the wear and tear of the period, and she has done so without doctrinaire blues, and without falling into the trap of a sentimentality which is, at bottom, self-pity. (p. 768)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 14, 1974.

Robert Coles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Tillie Olsen] is, has been for decades, a feminist—unyielding and strong-minded, but never hysterical or shrill. Her essays reveal her to be brilliant, forceful and broadly educated….

At times she has allowed herself, in a confessional vein not unlike that of "I Stand Here Ironing," a moment of regret, if not self-pity: if only there had been more time, an easier life—hence more stories, novels, essays written…. Everything she has written has become almost immediately a classic—the short stories especially, but also her two essays, her comment on the life and writing of Rebecca Harding Davis…. She has been spared celebrity, but hers is a singular talent that will not let go of one; a talent that prompts tears, offers the artist's compassion and forgiveness, but makes plain how fierce the various struggles must continue to be. (p. 30)

Robert Coles, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 The New Republic, Inc.), December 6, 1975.

Margaret Atwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tillie Olsen's is a unique voice. Few writers have gained such wide respect based on such a small body of published work…. Among women writers in the United States, "respect" is too pale a word: "reverence" is more like it. This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer. The exactions of this multiple identity cost Tillie Olsen 20 years of her writing life. The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance but, as at a grueling obstacle race, for the near miracle of her survival.

Tillie Olsen's third book, "Silences," is about this obstacle course, this ordeal, not only as she herself experienced it but as many writers have experienced it, in many forms. (p. 1)

Though Tillie Olsen begins with her own experience, she rapidly proceeds to that of others. The second part of the book is a grab bag of excerpts from the diaries, journals, letters and concealed autobiographical work of a wide range of writers, past and present, male and female. They are used to demonstrate, first, the ideal conditions for creation as perceived by the writers themselves, and second, almost every imaginable impediment to that creation…. Reading this section may be hazardous if you are actually writing a book. It's like walking along a sidewalk only to be shown suddenly that...

(The entire section is 616 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In examining the failure of various talented writers (mostly women) to produce the amount or quality of work warranted by their apparent ability, Ms. Olsen blames, in Silences, everything except that standard ailment known as writer's block, while quoting the lamentations of a number of writers (mostly men) who suffered no other impediment. The result is a discussion with more eloquence than logic. (p. 96)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1978 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1978.

Nolan Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a good reason for [Tillie Olsen's] low production. For more than forty years she has been a wife and mother, a family wage-earner at dull and time-sapping menial jobs. She has been, like multitudes of other talents, frustratingly "silent"—silent because, most of all, of the necessities of earning a living and keeping a family together.

Silences, her third book, tells us all this—tells us why, and how arduous and obstructed her life, a woman's life, has been. She has not been alone. Her abundant quotations from others who have endured silently, both men and women, may seem abundant only to those unacquainted with or indifferent to society's waste of individual talents.

If categories are wanted, call this a highly personal commonplace book. Call it a case-book, a text. Above all, it bears the stamp of a passionate and reasonably angry voice. What is said here needed to be said, however it is said. Value the book as one values the person, the talent. One can only return to a reading of "Tell Me a Riddle" and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" marveling the more. The experience of these stories can only be deepened by our knowledge of how they managed, eventually, to struggle into lasting significance. (p. 513)

Nolan Miller, in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1978 by the Antioch Press; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. 36, No. 4, 1978.

David Dillon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Silences] is a book about the relationships between literature and circumstances as well as a commentary on the mysterious workings of the creative imagination….

Several of the essays in Silences were written in the early sixties, before the women's movement was really under way, and therefore seem a bit dated. What remains fresh and compelling is Tillie Olsen herself. Angry, sensitive, persistent, she has managed to create enduring literature under the most unpromising circumstances. Among women writers she is something of a saint, although she has done her best to avoid canonization. She makes it clear throughout this book that she is talking about a writer's problem, not just a woman's problem. (p. 105)

David Dillon, "Art and Daily Life in Conflict," in Southwest Review (© 1979 by Southern Methodist University Press), Winter, 1979, pp. 105-07.