Tillie Olsen

’s Life–by Constance Coiner Essay, Research Paper

Constance Coiner

Tillie Olsen’s parents, Samuel and Ida Lerner, who were never

formally married, were Jewish immigrants. They participated in the abortive 1905 Russian

revolution, and, after Samuel escaped from a Czarist prison, fled to the United States.

They settled first on a Nebraska farm; when it failed about five years later, they moved

to Omaha. Despite laboring long hours as a farmer, packinghouse worker, painter, and

paperhanger, Samuel Lerner became State Secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party and ran

in the mid-twenties as the socialist candidate for state representative from his district

(Rosenfelt, "Thirties" 375). Ida Lerner, who was illiterate until her twenties,

was one of the people who inspired the highly acclaimed "Tell Me a Riddle." The

strong bonds she had with her mother, Olsen has said, "are part of what made me a

revolutionary writer" (Rosenfelt interview). Olsen’s conviction that capitalism

blights human development, which she has often expressed in relation to the enormous

potential evinced by young children, originated in the painful witnessing of her mother’s


If you [could see] my mother’s handwriting, [in] one of the few letters she ever wrote

me … she could not spell, she could scarcely express herself, she did not have written

language. Yet she was one of the most eloquent and one of the most brilliant . . . human

beings I’ve ever known, and I’ve encountered a variety of human beings in recent

years, some of whom have a lot of standing in the world. (interview)

When Olsen was 11 or 12, Ida Lerner wrote the following letter to her English


2512 Caldwell Street

Omaha, Nebraska

December 10, 1924

Dear Teacher:

I am glad to study with ardor but the children wont let me, they go to bed late so it

makes me tired, and I cant do my lessons. It is after ten o’clock my head dont work it

likes to have rest. But I am in a sad mood I am sitting in the warm house and feel

painfull that winter claps in to my heart. I see the old destroyed houses of the people

from the old country. I hear the wind blow through them with the disgusting cry why the

poor creatures ignore him, dont protest against him, that souless wind dont no, that they

are helpless have no material to repair the houses and no clothes to cover up their

bodies, and so the sharp wind echo cry falls on the window, and the windows original sing

with silver-ball tears seeing all the poor shivering creatures dressed in rags with frozen

fingers and feverish hungry eyes.

It is told of the olden days, the people of that time were building a tower, when they

were on the point of success for some reason they stopped to understand each other and on

account of misunderstanding, their hopes and very lives were buried under the tower they

had built. So as a human being who carries responsibility for action I think as a duty to

the community we shall try to understand each other. This English class helps us to

understand each other, not to feel helpless between our neighbors, serves to get more

respect from the people around us. We are human beings trying to understand, we learn

about the world, people and our surroundings. This class teaches us to understand each

other and brings better order in the every day life of the community.


Moreover, Ida Lerner "was very conscious of the situation of women." Olsen

remembers in particular a photograph of a statue–featuring a woman on all fours with an

infant "chained" to her breast–that her mother had clipped from a leftist

journal (interview).

In her adult life, Olsen saw her mother only three times. They were separated by a

continent, "by lack of means," and by Olsen’s jobs and responsibility to her own

children. Ida Lerner, who "had no worldly goods to leave," nevertheless left her

daughter "an inexhaustible legacy," Olsen writes, a "heritage of summoning

resources to make–out of song, food, warmth, expressions of human love–courage, hope,

resistance, belief; this vision of universality, before the lessenings, harms, divisions

of the world are visited upon it" (Mother 263-264).

Olsen’s birth was not recorded, although she has determined that she was born either

near Mead or in Omaha, Nebraska, in either 1912 or 1913 (however, her father once

declared: "You was born in Wahoo, Nebraska" [interview]). Olsen has compared the

harsh conditions on their Nebraska farm to those depicted in the film Heartland, which

was based on letters written by a turn-of-the-century woman homesteader, concluding,

"It’s difficult to conceive how hard those women worked" (interview). In her

family, as she reported to Erika Duncan, "economic struggle was constant. There was

never a time when she was not doing something ‘to help the family out

economically.’" As a 10-year-old, for example, Olsen had to work shelling

peanuts after school (209).

But the political commitment and activism of her socialist parents provided a rich

dimension to her upbringing. "It was a rich childhood from the standpoint of

ideas," she insists (quoted in Duncan 209). Like Le Sueur, Olsen was profoundly

influenced at an early age by the message and the rhetorical skills of socialist orators,

some of whom stayed in her home while attending meetings in Omaha (Duncan 209). Like Le

Sueur, Olsen particularly remembers admiring Eugene Debs. Both writers recall their

excitement as children when Debs gave them affection and when they were chosen to present

him with red roses at one of his speaking engagements.

The second oldest of six children, Olsen was burdened with the care of younger

siblings, and "she remembers from an early age that sense of never having enough

time" and solitude that "has haunted her most of her life, that sense of most

women and her own mother feeling starved for time" (Duncan 210). It was only because

she was often sick that she had any opportunity to read, although her parents could not

afford to buy books (Olsen first saw a home library when, as a teenager, she worked for a

Radcliffe graduate) (Rosenfelt interview). But she read "old revolutionary

pamphlets" and journals she found lying "around the house," including The

Liberator, a socialist journal of art and politics edited by Max Eastman; The

Comrade, which published international revolutionary literature; and Modern

Quarterly, a nonsectarian Marxist journal that "denied the distinction between

intellectual and worker and between pure art and propaganda" (Rosenfelt,

"Thirties" 376-377; Duncan 209; Aaron 323). The Cry for Justice: An

Anthology of Social Protest (1915), edited by Upton Sinclair and introduced by Jack

London, also influenced Olsen as a child. And she had access to the Haldeman-Julius little

Blue Books, which were published in Girard, Kansas, in the teens and ’20s on the premise

that "all the culture of the past … is the worker’s heritage" (interview).

Designed to fit into a worker’s shirt pocket, the five-cent Blue Books introduced Olsen to

modern poetry and to established writers such as Thomas Hardy, who became a lifelong

favorite. Novels by South African feminist Olive Schreiner, Story of an African Farm and

Dreams, also influenced Olsen. Determined to read all the fiction in the Omaha

Public Library, she would pick up a book, read a few pages, and, if she did not like it,

move on to the next (interview; Duncan 210-211).

Olsen was one of few in her working-class neighborhood to "Cross the tracks"

to attend an academic high school, where an exceptional teacher introduced her to

Shakespeare, De Quincey, Coleridge, and Edna St. Vincent Millay and made sure she was

present when Carl Sandburg came to Omaha to read his work. Olsen avidly read Poetry, a

journal edited by Harriet Monroe that was available in the school library. Although the

high school stimulated Olsen intellectually, it "crucified her socially, setting up

‘hidden injuries of class’" (Duncan 210). The necessity to work forced her to

drop out of school after the eleventh grade, although she is careful to remind

interviewers that few women in her generation enjoyed even that much educational


Olsen stuttered as a child, something she considers "part of [her] luck"

because the peculiar quality of her own speech made her curious about the

"intoxicating richness" of other speech patterns: "Just the music, the

varieties … of speaking . . . all had a magical tone" (quoted in Turan 56).

Listening attentively to immigrants who had to be creative with limited vocabularies, she

developed a keen ear for various dialects of "non-standard" English, a skill she

later used in her writing. Yet Olsen found that "not only the speech but so much of

the human beings around me was not in literature. Whitman’s indictment of the aristocratic

bias of literature was still true: Most of the people who wrote books came from the

privileged classes." She became "incited to literature," she says, adding

that the "factor which gave me confidence was that I had something to contribute, I

had something which wasn’t in there yet" (quoted in Turan 56).

Olsen became politically active in her mid-teens as a writer of skits and musicals for

the Young Socialist League. In 1931, at 18, she joined the Young Communist League (YCL),

the CP youth organization, and the next 18 months were a period of intense political

activity. She attended the Party school for several weeks in Kansas City, where she helped

support unemployed comrades by working in a tie factory. During this period Olsen was

jailed for a month for distributing leaflets to packinghouse workers and, while in prison,

was beaten up by one inmate for attempting to help another. She was already sick with

pleurisy, probably contracted as a result of the tie factory’s poor ventilation. Her

station was next to both the factory’s only open window and one of its few steam

radiators; "I got overheated and ‘overcold’ all the time," Olsen explains

(Rosenfelt interview). In jail she became extremely ill, and the Party sent her back to

Omaha to recuperate.

Olsen moved to Faribault, Minnesota, early in 1932, a period of retreat from political

work and wage-earning to allow for her recovery. She thinks of her illness, which had

developed into incipient tuberculosis, as a blessing. As a result of it she was bedridden,

and since she could not be politically active and was "in every way taken care

of," something women of her class rarely experience, she was free to write (Rosenfelt

interview). While in Faribault she began to write Yonnondio and completed its first

three chapters fairly quickly. She became pregnant, however, in the same month that she

started writing and bore a daughter, Karla, at nineteen. Olsen does not enjoy discussing

her personal life between 1932 and 1935; even the weary tone of her voice suggests that it

was a stressful period, financially and emotionally. "We were terribly, terribly

poor," she has said. "When you [couldn't] pay your rent you just moved."

The pregnancy had been unplanned. She had a "rough time of it," living only

sporadically with Karla’s father, who "left several times."

The reception of "The Iron Throat," a short story published (and titled) by Partisan

Review (April-May 1934), is especially relevant to Olsen’s biography. When Robert

Cantwell described his survey of 200 stories in 50 literary magazines (The New Republic,

25 July 1934), he singled out "The Iron Throat" as the best among them, "a

work of early genius." In a letter published in The New Republic on August 22,

1934, Cantwell drew even more attention to Tillie Lerner, who for some months had been

submerged in the politics surrounding the Maritime Strike. Cantwell recounts that after

his July 25 article appeared, the editors of two publishing houses wired him asking for

help in locating Tillie Lerner. They had read "The Iron Throat" when it first

appeared in Partisan Review and had tried to locate the author, but their letters

and telegrams had been returned. "There was, however, a good reason why the

publishers who wanted to see Tillie Lerner’s unfinished novel had trouble reaching

her," Cantwell explains in his letter.

She was in jail…. [and] meanwhile, two more publishers and a literary agent were

trying to locate her in order to see about publishing her novel . . . . I mention this

because I now feel that in my article I minimized the difficulties that impede the

progress of the young writers. To the difficulties of finding hospitable publishers must

now be added the problem of dodging the police. (49)

"The Iron Throat"’s literary promise and the publicity resulting from her

arrest caused Olsen to be "discovered," in her word, and she signed a contract

with Macmillan. But Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, founders of Modern Library and Random

House, were so impressed with "The Iron Throat" that they negotiated with

Macmillan to get her released from that contract. She then signed with Random House, which

offered her a monthly stipend in return for completing a chapter every month. In 1935 she

sent two-year-old Karla to live with her parents and moved to Los Angeles to write.

However, she felt uncomfortable in Hollywood Left circles, where as a bona-fide member of

the working class, she was "considered a curiosity," although she was befriended

by screenwriter Marian Ainslee and enjoyed literary discussions with Tess Slesinger

(Duncan 212; Rosenfelt interview). Unhappy at being separated from "her own kind of

people," she occasionally traveled to several California towns for three- or four-day

periods to help organize farm workers (Martin 10). The separation from Karla affected her

most of all. In 1936, although she "felt like a terrible failure" for not

leaving finished the novel, she forfeited her contract, moved back to San Francisco, and

brought Karla home. Nearly 40 years later, examining Yonnondio’s 11 rough drafts

and trying to figure out where she was when she wrote them," Olsen "realized

that most of her best writing was done" after her reunion with her daughter (Duncan


In 1936 Tillie Lerner began to live with her YCL comrade, Jack Olsen (with whom she had

been arrested in 1934); they married in 1944, just before Jack entered the military (Orr

38, n36). Tillie had three more daughters–Julie, Kathie, and Laurie. Between 1936 and

1959 she worked at a variety of jobs–waitress, shaker in a laundry, transcriber in a

dairy equipment company, capper of mayonnaise jars, secretary, and "Kelly

Girl"–and, against tremendous odds, tried to keep her writing alive.

She copied passages from books she could not afford to buy and tacked them on the wall

by the kitchen sink for inspiration. She seized every moment she could:

Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work,

enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in

bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the

first work I considered publishable began: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked

me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." (Silences 19)

When the demands of Olsen’s life–which included wage-earning, mothering, political

activism, housework, and writing–resulted in her "having to give primacy to one part

of her being at the expense of another," the children came first (Rosenfelt,

"Thirties" 380). Silences memorably records Olsen’s experience and that

of many mothers:

More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being

instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible, Children need one now (and

remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health

the outside world is not). The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as

one’s own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives

them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not

continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil…. Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished,

makes blockage–at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be. (Silences


When Olsen learned she was pregnant with her second child she made an appointment with

an abortionist and then, at the last minute, walked out of his office. After Julie’s

birth, Olsen reports, she gave up her thwarted attempts to complete Yonnondio;

although she had "fragments for another 70 pages of the novel," she had to go to

work "typing income tax forms" (interview). Only her last pregnancy was

"voluntary" (Rosenfelt interview).

Yet Olsen insists that the demands of mothering four children did not fracture her

selfhood. Being female and an artist are complementary, not contradictory, she believes.

Certainly a woman’s experience is not antithetical to art, despite the view expressed by

Le Sueur’s editor at Scribner’s who rejected "Annunciation" for its

"ersatz" subject matter, and Olsen’s texts provide ample evidence that parenting

richly fed her writing. However, since writing requires time and solitude, the practical

question arises: Why did Olsen have as many as four children when she had the ambition and

talent "to be a great writer" (Rosenfelt interview)? The answer lies partly in

Olsen’s firm belief that motherhood is not only the "core of women’s oppression"

but an extraordinary source of "transport" for women as well (Silences

202). Children and art "are different aspects of your being," she told me.

"There is . . . no separation." A life combining meaningful work and motherhood

"could and should be" possible for women (interview).

Silences acknowledges that "the maintenance of life" (34)–an activity

not limited to mothers but including all who in myriad ways attend to caring for

others–is often an impediment to literary productivity. Significantly, however, Silences

also expresses Olsen’s hope that a "complex new richness will come into

literature" as "more and more women writers … assum[e] as their right fullness

of work and family life" (32). Reeva Olson, who was married for many years to a

brother of Jack Olsen and who has been close to Jack and Tillie for over 50 years,

indirectly spoke to this issue of "the maintenance of life" as both an

impediment and a benefit to writing. She acknowledged that Tillie’s "involvement with

people and with her children and with family . . . has, in many ways, kept her from

writing," On the other hand, Reeva added, Olsen’s experiences "with people are

what have made her the kind of writer she is. I don’t think that she could have written

the way she does sitting up in some ivory tower," removed from her characteristically

"deep, deep involvement" with others (interview).

During the ’30s and ’40s Olsen was aware of "a real difference between [writers]

who were ‘rank-and-file,’ so to speak, involved in struggles right around us," and

those who considered themselves cultural activists, were in some instances funded by the

Federal Writers’ Project, and had the mobility to visit other countries to report on

events (interview). This second category, although dominated by men, included such women

as Josephine Herbst, Anna Louise Strong, and Agnes Smedley. Largely because of her

children Olsen could not make her writing her activism, as these childless women did, and

writing could not be counted on to provide the steady income Olsen’s family required.

Moreover, the jobs Olsen took to support her children led naturally to a different form of

political activism, Union organizing, which in turn affected her daily life in positive,

practical, and immediate ways–with higher wages, better working conditions, and more

control of the workplace. As a parent, Olsen also became increasingly involved in

educational issues and in the activities related to the particular schools her children


Class was also a barrier to Olsen’s becoming a full-time writer during the ’30s. As

noted above, during her stay in Los Angeles from 1934-36, Olsen had felt awkward around

the sophisticated Hollywood Left (or "the cocktail set," as she put it) and

unhappy separated from "her own kind of people." She felt similarly out of place

in what she terms the "Carmel crowd" of writers, to whom she was introduced when

Lincoln Steffens and Ella Winter invited her to their home after her release from jail in

1934. Although Olsen was attracting a lot of attention at this time (as noted above), she

did not feel at home in urbane literary circles. She has asked herself why she

"didn’t move heaven and earth to become part of that [writers'] world," since it

was her ambition at that time "to be a great writer," and remembers feeling

"an intimidation and wonder," based not only on gender but also on her class and

"first-generation" background (Rosenfelt interview).

Class identification in a positive sense also contributed to Olsen’s choosing a

rank-and-file existence over a "literary" life. Olsen’s comments in 1980 about

her working-class comrades suggest both the depth of her loyalty to them and how different

from them she sometimes felt because she aspired to be a writer:

They were my dearest friends, but how could they know what so much of my writing self

was about? They thought of writing in the terms in which they knew it. They had become

readers, like so many working class kids in the movement, but there was so much that fed

me as far as my medium was concerned that was closed to them. They read the way women read

today coming into the women’s movement who don’t have literary background–reading

for what it says about their lives, or what it doesn’t say. And they loved certain

writings because of truths, understandings, affirmations, that they found in them…. It

was not a time that my writing self could be first…. We believed that we were going to

change the world, and it looked as if it was possible. It was just after Hindenburg turned

over power to Hitler–and the enormity of the struggle demanded to stop what might result

from that was just beginning to be evident…. And I did so love my comrades. They were

all blossoming so. These were the same kind of people I’d gone to school with, who had

quit, as was common in my generation, around the eighth grade…. whose development had

seemed stopped, though I had known such inherent capacity in them. Now I was seeing that

evidence, verification of what was latent in the working class. It’s hard to leave

something like that. (quoted in Rosenfelt, "Thirties" 383)

Clearly Olsen did not share the problem of the enlightened middle-class writer who,

like Meridel Le Sueur, contemplated in the ’30s how best to identify with the working

class. Hers was a different dilemma: Whereas our social system defines Olsen’s

intellectual and professional aspirations as middle class, her personal and emotional

identification remained, profoundly with the class of her birth. Olsen appreciated the

power of class origin, which, as I have argued earlier, Le Sueur unintentionally

trivialized in "The Fetish of Being Outside." Both "intellectual"

pursuits and the struggles of working people to improve their lives were crucially

important to Olsen, and how to live in both worlds remained her insoluble riddle.

While Olsens writing career was obstructed byher gender and class origin, and by the

demands of wage and domestic labor, the historic conditions of the ’30s also pulled her

from writing into activism. The Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, the threat of

world war, and the apparent success of socialism in the Soviet Union instilled a sense of

urgency and possibility for radical change that competed along with everything else for

Olsen’s energies. "Every freedom movement has … its roll of writers participating

at the price of their writing," she comments in Silences (143). This was for

Olsen a period of collective effort in myriad forms–Party meetings, union organizing,

picket lines, demonstrations, leafleting–not the solitude necessary, for sustained

writing. About the threat of fascism in Europe, she says,

Sometimes [in conflict] with what needed to be done at home was an international sense

and an anti-war sense, the threat of war in the world…. We knew about Dachau very early,

we knew about the concentration camps, the Left press was full of it…. It made my kind

of book [Yonnondio] more and more difficult to write. . . . You remember how people

felt after Allende? You remember how people felt after things were not ending in Vietnam,

and you were so personally identified with it?… It was so much of one’s being…. You

lived with it in every room of your house… in every conversation whether it came up or

not. It was a living, actual presence and force. We had that kind of consciousness [during

the '30s], so many of us…. [It] made other concerns seem trivial by comparison.

(Rosenfelt interview)

Yet, as Rosenfelt points out, passages such as the following one from a ’30s journal

express Olsen’s frustration at the amount of time required for things that took her away

from writing, including political work and the necessity to write pieces on demand for

various political activities: "Struggled all day on the Labor Defender article. Tore

it up in disgust. It is the end for me of things like that to write–I can’t do it–it

kills me" (quoted in Rosenfelt, "Thirties" 384). "There came a

time," Olsen tells us in Silences, when the "fifteen hours of daily

realities became too much distraction for the writing" (20). But Olsen never entirely

gave the struggle to save her writing self.

Her determination to return to writing only deepened after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Olsen vividly remembers one article, in what had been a series of horrific ones in the San

Francisco Chronicle, that described "the ninth night," the first night

without moonlight after the holocaust. Even without moonlight, the newspaper reported, the

sky above Hiroshima had been eerily illuminated by bodies still burning from radiation. At

that moment Olsen pledged "to write on the side of life," although it would be

eight years before she could act on that resolve (interview).

Olsen remained politically active in the ’40s and ’50s, serving as head of the CIO’s

Allied War Relief program and as president of organizations as diverse as the California

CIO’s Women’s Auxiliary and the Parent-Teachers Association. In 1946 she authored a

women’s column in People’s World, "writing articles like ‘Wartime Gains

of Women in Industry’ and ‘Politically Active Mothers–One View,’ which argued like

[Mary] Inman that motherhood should be considered political work" (Rosenfelt,

"Thirties" 406, n44). In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Olsen was active in the

international peace movement that petitioned against governmental testing of nuclear

weapons. During the same period, she also worked within the PTA to oppose civilian defense

maneuvers, which sent school children scurrying under desks in the absurd "duck and

cover" exercises so effectively satirized in the film Atomic Cafe. Both

"I Stand Here Ironing" and "Tell Me a Riddle" include disturbing

references to a child’s innocent acceptance of this Cold War hysteria.

During the late ’40s and ’50s, like Le Sueur and her family, the Olsens were victims of

the harassment typical of the McCarthy Period. In June 1950, the night before Olsen was

going to attend a human relations workshop with a stipend she had been given as president

of the Kate Kennedy Elementary School PTA, she happened to turn on the radio during the

broadcast of a San Francisco Bay Area "I was standing here ironing …

literally," she smiles, when she heard the following: "Tillie Olsen, alias

Tillie Lerner, alias Teresa Lansdale [a name she had used when arrested during the '30s]

… is a paid agent of Moscow [trying] to take over the San Francisco Public School System

by tunneling in the PTA." Tillie and Jack believe that teamsters who were trying to

take over the Warehousemen’s Union paid the gossip-program host to "get at

Jack," the Union’s Educational Director, "through" Tillie (interview).

As a result of the broadcast, some of Olsen’s closest friends shunned her. Even a

"beloved" next-door neighbor to whom the Olsens had been especially close for

years, declared: "’I know about double agents . . . that . . . in these days . .

. they’re just everywhere’"(interview). Four people named Tillie to the House

Un-American Activities Committee (Jack was subpoenaed by the Committee, but neither he nor

Tillie testified). One of the four was Al Addy, a Warehousemen’s Union member whom Jack,

as the Educational Director, had schooled in writing and editing. Another of the four, Lou

Rosser, was a special friend of the Olsens, who had recruited him to the YCL. Tillie

compassionately explained that Rosser’s drug problem made him especially vulnerable to the

FBI, which financed his addiction in return for his information and would have prosecuted

him if he had refused to supply it. "We’re haunted by what happened with Lou, the

destruction of that human being," Olsen said sadly. During this period the FBI

systematically contacted Jack and Tillie’s employers, and they each lost a series of jobs.

One manager cautioned Tillie when he fired her that "one had to be like the grass and

be as inconspicuous as possible and bow with the wind" (interview).

When her youngest child entered school in 1953, Olsen was at last free of some of the

responsibilities of child care, and she enrolled at 41 in a creative writing course at San

Francisco State. Lois Kramer, a neighbor with whom Olsen could confidently exchange child

care, was also instrumental in her beginning to write again. "That tumult I had in my

head about what was going on with my kids subsided" because they felt as much at home

in the Kramer household as they did in their own (interview). An unfinished manuscript of

"I Stand Here Ironing" (at that point titled "Help Her to Believe")

won Olsen a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship in 1955-56, even though the

lack of a college degree had made her technically ineligible for admission, let alone


A favorite Olsen anecdote reveals how that important fellowship nearly eluded her. At

an initial screening intended to eliminate most of the applicants, one of the reviewers

for the competition, after reading a few pages of "I Stand Here Ironing," tossed

it in the wastebasket in disgust, muttering, "’Can you imagine? That woman went on

for pages just about ironing. Standing there ironing!’" Procedurally, at that

point the story would have been eliminated from the competition. However, Dick Krause, the

one person on the screening committee with a working-class background, happened to

overhear the remark and asked to see the piece; he was so moved by it that he delivered it

personally to Wallace Stegner, the director of the program. After reading the manuscript,

Stegner declared: "’Well, we have to have her"’ (interview). Although housework

and a full family life still required attention, for eight months Olsen did not have to

hold a wage-earning job: "I had continuity, three full days [per week], sometimes

more–and it was in those months I made the mysterious turn and became a writing

writer" (Silences 20).

Another silence closed in, however, when she had to return to a nine-hour work day. Two

years later, in 1959, a Ford Foundation grant "came almost too late":

Time granted does not necessarily coincide with time that can be

most fully used, as the congested time of fullness would have been….

Drowning is not so pitiful as the attempt to rise, says Emily

Dickinson. I do not agree, but I know whereof she speaks…. (Silences 21)

Even so, the grant allowed Olsen to finish and publish "Tell Me a Riddle,"

which won the prestigious O. Henry Award for Best Short Story of the Year (1961).

"Tell Me a Riddle" became the title story of a volume of Olsen’s short stories

that also includes "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?,"

and "O Yes"; Time included Tell Me a Riddle on its

"best-ten-books" list in 1962. Tell Me a Riddle "went out of print

in 1963 or 1964 until 1971" but, as its devotees reported to Olsen, it "was kept

alive by being passed hand to hand and photocopied by teachers" (interview).

Since 1962 Olsen has worked at intervals within the academy, earning an impressive

number of appointments and awards. Her work has been anthologized more than 85 times and

published in 12 languages. But Olsen has remained politically active. In the spring of

1985, for example, along with writers Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Lawrence Ferlinghetti,

and Susan Griffin, she was cited at Berkeley’s Sproul Hall for protesting the

University of California’s investments in South Africa. And when I arrived at Olsen’s

apartment to interview her in July, 1989, I found her living room cluttered with the

placards she and others had recently carried while demonstrating against repression in


Olsen has also worked to restore eclipsed, out-of-print women’s writing. She

influenced several Feminist Press reprintings, including Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life

in The Iron Mills (1972), for which she wrote an extensive afterword, Agnes

Smedley’s Daughter of the Earth (1973); Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The

Yellow Wallpaper (1973); and Moa Martinson’s Women and Apple Trees (1985).

Olsen also reclaimed Yonnondio (1974)–the novel she had begun, as noted above, in

1932 and abandoned in 1937–by the arduous process described in Chapter 6.

And yet Yonnondio’s reclamation and "Requa I," a story included

in The Best American Short Stories, 1971, edited by Martha Foley, compose

the sum total of Olsen’s published fiction since Tell Me a Riddle appeared in 1961.

Silences (1978), a nonfictional testimonial to the factors–including gender,

class, and race–that obstruct literary productivity, derived partly from Olsen’s struggle

with her own silence. Informal literary criticism and literary history, Silences draws

on writers’ letters and diaries "to expand the too sparse evidence [about] the

relationship between circumstances and creation" (262 ). Olsen contributed the

foreword to Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate (1983) and edited Mother

to Daughter Daughter to Mother (1984), published by the Feminist Press as the first in

a series of books commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the Press in

1970. The book is an unusual collection of 120 writers’ work, including diary entries,

letters, poetry, fiction, autobiography, memoirs, songs, and even gravestone epitaphs.

With Julie Olsen Edwards, Olsen published an introductory essay in Mothers and

Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photographs (1989), and she

contributed "The ’30s: A Vision of Fear and Hope," a retrospective on the

decade, to a special anniversary issue of Newsweek, January 3, 1994.

From Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur.

New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Copyright ? 1995 by Oxford UP.


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