Tillie Olsen (born 1913) is widely regarded as one of the most important women writers in America. Although her reputation was built on a relatively small body of work, she is recognized for her skill as a storyteller and her determination to give voice to the hopes and frustrations of people stifled because of their class, sex, or race.
Born Tillie Lerner on January 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska, Olsen was the second of seven children of Samuel and Ida Beber Lerner. The Lerners were Jewish, and had fled czarist Russia after the failed 1905 rebellion, in which they had participated. Because of his leftist political sympathies, Samuel Lerner was forced from many jobs, including farm worker, packinghouse worker, painter, paperhanger, and candy maker. He was blacklisted in the 1920s for his role in a failed strike and served for some time as state secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party. Olsen later would recount being influenced ideologically by her father, whom she remembered as organizing men to help poor blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma to rebuild their burnt-out houses after a 1920s race riot.
In 1928, Olsen bought three copies of the Atlantic Monthly from a junk shop, noted Mickey Pearlman and Abby Werlock in their critical work, Tillie Olsen. In an April 1861 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she found a reprint of Rebecca Harding Davis's unsigned novella, Life in the Iron Mills. This work would exert a profound influence on her, although she did not even learn the author's name until 1958. "The message she received," Pearlman and Werlock recounted, "was that even a poor girl like herself could write—and publish—a tale of the lives of the despised and ignored people for whom she would continue to speak for more than a half century."
Leaving Omaha Central High School in 1929 without a diploma, Olsen went to work in a tie factory, the first of a long series of unremarkable jobs. At the age of 17, Olsen joined the Young Communist League and attended the Communist party school in Kansas City, Kansas. In an unpublished story she wrote at 18, which later became part of the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, Olsen's protagonist declared: "I shall write stories when I grow up, and not work in a factory."
Olsen remained an activist, and was jailed in 1930 after trying to organize workers in a meat-packing house in Kansas City, Kansas. While in jail, she contracted two debilitating lung diseases: pleurisy and tuberculosis. During a long recovery in Faribault, Minnesota, Olsen began writing a novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties. In 1932, she gave birth to a daughter, who she named Karla after the socialist ideologue, Karl Marx.
Olsen moved to California in 1933, eventually settling in San Francisco, where she would live in the Mission and Fillmore districts for 40 years. She was arrested along with her future husband, Jack Olsen, and several others for her participation in the San Francisco Maritime Strike of 1934. An eruption of violence on July 5, nicknamed "Bloody Thursday," left several strikers dead and many injured. Olsen was arrested on a charge of violating the city's handbill ordinance, with bail set at $1,000—an outrageous sum at the time, especially considering the charge. She penned two essays about the experience. "The Iron Throat," which appeared in the Partisan Review while Olsen was still in jail, later became part of the first chapter of Yonnondio. The "Thousand-Dollar Vagrant" told of Olsen's encounter with a judge and was published in the New Republic.
In 1936, Tillie and Jack Olsen moved in together, and married later that year. Olsen abandoned Yonnondio to spend the next 20 years working to support her family. Olsen gave birth to Julie in 1938, Katherine Jo in 1943, and Laurie in 1948. Her activist focus shifted to issues facing her children. As president of the Parent-Teacher Association, Olsen fought to add a library and playground to her daughters' school.
Like her father, Olsen was forced to change jobs frequently, not because of blacklisting but because the FBI harassed her bosses. She held positions as a waitress, punch press operator, trimmer in a slaughterhouse, hash slinger, mayonnaise jar capper in a food-processing plant, checker in a warehouse, secretary, and transcriber in a dairy equipment company.
Despite the many demands on her time, Olsen always managed to steal moments to write, while riding the bus to work, or at night, while her family slept. During the 1950s, she began to devote more time to her writing, penning the stories "I Stand Here Ironing," and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?"
In 1955, Olsen enrolled in a creative writing course at San Francisco State College. "I did not come to our writing class that late September day in 1955 as the others came," she later wrote, as quoted in the critical essay collection Tell Me a Riddle edited by Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt. "I was a quarter of a century older. I had had no college. I came from that common, everyday, work, mother, eight-hour-daily job, survival (and yes, activist) world seldom the subject of literature." Balancing child-rearing and the struggle to earn a living with creative expression has informed her writing, Olsen wrote in her book Silences. "It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moved tormented back and forth with the iron."
The turning point in Olsen's career as a writer came in 1956, when she won a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. Rubbing elbows with fellowship recipients including James Baldwin, Flannery O'Connor, and Katherine Ann Porter, she used her eight months of writing time to revise and to produce stories including "Baptism," later published as "O Yes."
The next year, "I Stand Here Ironing," appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1957. Since then, it has been anthologized more than 90 times, besides serving as a cornerstone of Olsen's story collection, Tell Me a Riddle. The collection, which also includes the stories "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "O Yes," plus the novella Tell Me a Riddle, was first published in 1961 by Lippincott.
Tell Me a Riddle is regarded by many scholars as Olsen's most significant work. Its title story earned her the 1961 O. Henry Award for best American short story. Tell Me a Riddle relates the story of Eva, whose husband convinces her to travel around the country visiting their children and grandchildren, despite her protests. Craving home and solitude, Eva withdraws into her own world as she dies of cancer, her family having withheld this information from her. Like "I Stand Here Ironing," Tell Me a Riddle was widely anthologized. It was also adapted as a play, a film, and an opera.
After her initial literary successes, Olsen's days as a hired hand were over. She received numerous grants that provided the financial resources needed to devote her time to writing. These included a 1962 fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, a 1967 National Endowment for the Arts award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition, she taught at Amherst, the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Stanford University, the University of California at San Diego and Berkeley, and Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
In 1968, Olsen began writing Requa. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of a young boy raised by his bachelor uncle after his mother dies. The novella was published in the Iowa Review in 1970, and in The Best American Short Stories in 1971.
In 1972, Jack Olsen unearthed his wife's abandoned manuscript of Yonnondio. While in residence at the MacDowell Writers' Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Olsen revised the book, which chronicles a working class family trying to survive during the Depression. Delacorte Press published the work in 1974.
The next year, Olsen was awarded the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters award for a distinguished contribution to American literature. In 1978, she published Silences, a nonfiction work about the obstacles to writing some people face: poverty, child rearing, and prejudices against color, class, and gender. She lamented the literary void created by the silences of these people.
In the New York Times Book Review, Margaret Atwood wrote that Olsen's achievements are highly valued. "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."
Women writers are not the only people to value Olsen's work. The writer who never finished high school has received honorary degrees from the University of Nebraska, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 1981, the mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors proclaimed May 18 as "Tillie Olsen Day" in San Francisco. She had an entire week named after her at the Five Quad Cities Colleges in Iowa and Illinois in 1983, and was awarded a senior fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities the same year. In 1986, Olsen visited the Soviet Union as a guest of the Writers' Union, taking the opportunity to visit Minsk, the city of her mother's birth. The same year, she traveled to China with a contingent of women writers that included Paule Marshall and Alice Walker.
As a feminist educator, Olsen has used her position to shine the spotlight on other important women writers. Her college courses "have introduced male and female students to long-forgotten works by women," noted Marleen Barr in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "After it was published in the Women's Studies Newsletter, the reading list she developed was used widely in women's studies courses." Furthermore, "she has encouraged women and minorities to write their own stories and to break through the encoded silences that surround the lives of the powerless," wrote Pearlman and Werlock. "Her appearances across the country, where she talks about such silences, empower, support, and encourage writers and women in ways that she herself was not empowered, supported, or encouraged until very late in life." Concluded Barr: "Although Olsen's output is small, her work is important because it gives a voice to people who are routinely not heard."
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Susan M.Trosky, Gale, 1994.
The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen, edited by Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, edited by Daniel Walden, Gale, 1984.
Martin, Abigail, Tillie Olsen, Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1984.
Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H.P. Werlock, Tillie Olsen, Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Educational Gerontology, March 1999. p. 129.
Frontiers, September-December 1997, p. 159.
Melus, Fall 1997, Vol. 22, Issue 3, p. 113.
New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1978.
Peace Research Abstracts Journal, February 1999, p. 81.
Publishers Weekly, April 11, 1994, p. 13.
Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1990, Vol. 27, p. 509; Spring 1991, Vol. 28, p. 235; Fall 1994, Vol. 31, p. 728.
Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1998, Vol. 44, p. 261.