Tillie Olsen's Life


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 deformation.

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 instructor:

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.

IDA LERNER

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 opportunity.

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 212-213).

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 18-19)

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 attended.

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 funding.

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 Beijing.

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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