Tillie Olsen: Online Interviews
The Progressive Interview: Tillie Olsen
by Anne-Marie Cusac
Tillie Olsen, the beloved fiction writer, is self-effacing in person. "I haven't published a lot of anything," she says. And she's partly right. Her output has been relatively small. But she makes up for that in quality. Most famous for the short-story collection Tell Me a Riddle (Dell, 1961), Olsen has the ability to imply whole lives in a few sentences.
Here the speaker of "I Stand Here Ironing" looks back on the difficulties of young, single motherhood: "She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily's father, who "could no longer endure" (he wrote in his good-bye note) "sharing want with us."
"I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet."
Olsen says she was born in 1912 or 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. Her parents were working class Russian Jewish immigrants and were deeply involved in the Socialist Party, which her father served as state secretary. Once, Eugene Victor Debs, head of the Socialist Party, came to Omaha in celebration of his release from prison (he was incarcerated for protesting World War I). Olsen and her sister presented him with red roses--an event she recalls fondly.
She showed early promise as a writer--part of what became her novel, Yonnondio (about a working class family in the 1930s), was published in 1934 in Partisan Review to high praise. But she spent much of her life working full-time jobs and raising four children. Among other things, she was a pork trimmer in meatpacking houses, a hotel maid, a laundry worker, a jar capper, a waitress, and a solderer.
In 1955, Olsen won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, which allowed her to do her first sustained writing in twenty years. She published Tell Me a Riddle when she was fifty. That book includes the much anthologized "I Stand Here Ironing" (a mother's reflection on her daughter, raised during years of poverty and anxiety), "Oh Yes" (the story of a threatened friendship between two young girls, one white and one black, who are entering the stratified world of junior high school), "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" (the tale of a seaman and unionist who returns to San Francisco on a drunken binge and finds only cautious acceptance from his former comrades), and "Tell Me a Riddle" (the story of the death of a Russian Jewish immigrant and revolutionary). In 1974, after setting aside Yonnondio for forty years, she finally revised and published it (Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence).
From personal experience, Olsen came to realize the obstacles in the way of many writers not born to luxury. "In the twenty years I bore and raised my children, usually had to work on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist," she writes in Silences (Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1978), her book on the economic and social reasons writers fail to produce, and why many do not come to writing at all. Here is her dedication to that book: "For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made--as their other contributions--anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost."
An activist most of her life, Olsen was jailed twice: "First in Kansas City, winter '32." She was distributing leaflets to the meatpackers. The charge was "making loud and unusual noises." There she "languished five or six weeks--no money for bail--and got pleurisy, then incipient TB," she writes in her essay "The '30s: A Vision of Fear and Hope" (Newsweek, 1994).
Her second arrest occurred just after the San Francisco General Strike in 1934. In response to the murders of several striking longshoremen, 100,000 marched down Market Street to protest. "No one spoke," wrote Olsen. "The only sound was the beat of our feet. Then came 'The Terror'--bloody crackdowns by vigilantes who, the police giving them the power to arrest, wrecked encampments and beat strikers and 'sympathizers.'"
At the time of the General Strike, Olsen was a single mother. She met Jack Olsen (a fellow Young Communist League member) that year and had three more children with him, marrying him in 1944 before he went off to war. They lived together until 1989, when he died.
Before our interview, Olsen and I ate lunch together at an Italian restaurant a few blocks from her home in Berkeley, California. After making sure the busboy got his own tip, she suggested we walk back the long way and took my arm firmly in hers.
Just before we reached her house, she pointed to a third-floor window. "That hat is always there," she said. I looked up. Visible in the window was the back side of a bureau mirror. A straw hat and a scarf were slung from the top. "Sometimes the scarf is gone," Olsen said. "And then it is back as though it never moved." We turned toward her house. "You have to ponder the little mysteries," she said.
Until about eight months ago, Olsen lived in St. Francis Square, a three-block, working class, multi-ethnic cooperative in San Francisco's Fillmore district. She now lives in a small house directly behind the home of her youngest daughter, Laurie. We sat on her sunny porch and--while hornets darted in and out of her open door--talked for several hours.
Q: Why do you write?
TILLIE OLSEN: Because I'm a human being and human beings have a need to express themselves. Also, I stuttered. So I listened a lot, and there was a lot to listen to in my neighborhood. And there was the wonder of the black church, right around the corner. I loved that music so much, sometimes I'd go sit on the stairs. Once one of the women said, "Why don't you come up and sit in a real chair?" So I went in and came every Sunday I could.
I also had luck because I was proud of my class--because of growing up with Socialist parents and having sat on Eugene V. Debs's lap and given him red roses. And hearing him. I remember how he said passionately, "You are not heads to them, brains that can think. You are not hearts to them, that can feel. You are hands." And he held up his hands. And he started, you know: "Cowhands, farmhands. . . ." I was impressed again by the power of language.
Q: How were you in school?
OLSEN: I had this real passion for books, although almost everything I read wasn't anything like the people I knew or the life around me. The marvel was, by imagining, I gained so much from [as Anna says in Yonnondio] "being in places you've never been, inside people's heads you wouldn't ever get to know." Without articulating it, I also learned I had something to add to literature. In study hall, instead of doing my work, I read because I didn't have much time otherwise. Ours was a large family [Olsen had five siblings, and she was the second oldest], and sometimes my mother worked outside. There was so much to be done.
We were poor. My mother used to buy chicken feet. And you'd have to chop off the nails. Then you'd scald them, then you'd peel them. Once, my daughter Julie was buying chicken feet for soup, so I told her about this. "You know, one doesn't always remember accurately. There's nothing to peel," she said. And I said: "Julie, when you buy them now, they're already peeled."
I remember when I first started high school and we were studying ancient history. My mother, who had never had formal education, was always curious about what we were learning. She said, "Tell me, what was good about slavery for humanity? I don't mean for the slaves themselves." I thought this was a crazy question. "What do you mean? Nothing is good about it." And she said, "No, think about it. What was good?"
Well, I really thought she'd lost it. I couldn't think of any answer. So she said, "Those who owned them had leisure." Not everybody used their leisure in the same way. People who were thinking were able to be philosophers, like Socrates, or playwrights, or sculptors. And she went on to the uses of literacy by a small number of humanity.
On some of the jobs my mother did she could bring along a couple kids. There were some where she couldn't, and then she worried. This was before child care.
It was the period before automatic dishwashers, and you washed clothes with the washboard. If you were lucky, you could get a wringer--what Walt Whitman called "the technological sublime." I really appreciated that phrase. I know there's a lot of scorn about these advances. But think of the enormous difference in time even having an electric dishwasher makes. I remember women in my generation saying, "It wasn't Lincoln who freed the slaves. It was the Bendix." The Bendix was the first automatic washing machine.
Q: What was your life like when you were trying to write?
OLSEN: I'd try to get to work as early as possible, which was very difficult to do with the kids, and very much the kind of morning I describe in "I Stand Here Ironing"--you know, lunches packed, the lost shoe or sock. I would try to get to work early enough--even five minutes--because there was this marvelous electric typewriter. I would just type as fast as I could whatever was in me to write--my "five to keep writing alive"--although I missed some of the wonderful gossip that took place in the restroom before it was eight o'clock and time to be sitting down.
I would have time on the streetcar in the morning going. I would also write sometimes on the streetcar coming home, usually having to stand up, rush hours, with one child picked up from child care.
It was really hard when I got into something and had to put it aside. And when I finally won my Stanford fellowship, it took me a long while to fully use the time. I had this fear of interruption, the cost of leaving writing again.
Q: Are writers still silenced by their economic circumstances as they were when you began your career?
OLSEN: Yes, of course, the silences go on. The first silencing is the inequality of the educational system. We still have a strong class system in this country. Look at what's happening with most public schools. Think of the future writers who are being lost all along. Future writers. In Yonnondio, the kids really hate school, and their mom wants them to get a good education, but instead they are turned against it. And as I write in there, "For was it not through books they had been taught that they were dumb, dumb, dumb?"
That process is exactly what is happening in the public schools now for many children--the doing in of bilingual programs, for instance. I'm enraged by charter schools. Every school should be a good school. We are just setting up more educational class systems.
The second silencing is the workload so many have to carry, the problem of time. You may use spoken speech marvelously, people love to listen to you. Or you are a great gossiper, or somebody who is empathetic to what others are thinking and feeling, but none of that gets written.
Q: A lot of your fiction uses language as it is spoken.
OLSEN: Think about all that we've lost that has been said orally because nobody was taking it down. I feel very fortunate to live in a time where we have so many different voices. We have a much richer literature than we've ever had, and we can know our country so much better.
Tolstoy was so excited, absolutely thrilled, when Maxim Gorky began to publish because he was writing working class. When he met Gorky, Tolstoy told him about the time he'd had this great night in Petersburg. It's winter, freezing, but he's had a night of gypsy music and women. He comes out, dressed warmly in his army great coat and fur hat, striding along, to use Thoreau's expression, "inhabiting his body with inexpressible satisfaction." He feels this tug at his coat. Here is this filthy little bare-legged kid trying to pull him back and pointing to this half-naked woman, vomit all over her, lying unconscious in the gutter. He brushes that kid aside. He has no intention of touching her, freezing to death though she may be. His beautiful mood is spoiled. Again the little boy, looking imploringly up at him, pulls at his coat. He pushes him away hard.
By this time, Tolstoy is crying, and he puts his arms on Gorky's shoulders, looks into his eyes. "And you," Tolstoy says, "you must keep writing what happens with the people who are not ever written about. Or else that little boy will follow you with his eyes all of your life as he does me."
Q: How did you come to write down your stories?
OLSEN: I didn't realize that I really had something to add until I crossed the tracks to Omaha Central High School, crowning its highest hill. It is still considered one of the most prestigious public schools in the country.
For the first time, I encountered class differences, clothes, attitudes, backgrounds. The dean called me down to give me cast-off clothes to wear, which were usually recognized by those who had donated them.
The really close friends I developed there were working class. Aggie Jensen--who was six feet tall, which was phenomenal for a female. Her father would never let her cut her hair--her braid, five feet of it, went down, I know you won't believe me, to her mid-calf. Beautiful. Sometimes we would get together enough money to rent a rowboat. And when we did, she would unbraid her hair, and there would be that wonderful blond wake behind us in the water.
We were all considered freaks in that school. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. We didn't have handkerchiefs. Sometimes my mother would come up with a rag for our runny noses in the winter, sometimes not. Sometimes I smelled of garlic. I was from over across the tracks, and what's more, Jewish. Most of the Jews who did go to Central High, with a few exceptions, were well off, some generations in this country.
There are "hidden injuries of class" whether you are conscious of it or not.
When I crossed the tracks to Central High, I left behind those eighth graders who went out into the world or were becoming mothers in a few years. Most of my eighth grade class never went on. You were out of school. Period.
Central High was my first college of contrast. Central High School was where I first learned about the power of circumstances, about economics. I learned about what people of color were like through my neighborhood relationships, and also that there was racist hatred because there was a lynching in our neighborhood.
Q: What happened?
OLSEN: I was very young. I knew something terrible was happening. Our next-door neighbors, who were black, came and stayed in our house. It had started in the city jail, and the whole thing was a plot by some politicians to remove the recently elected sheriff, part of a reform movement. Other reform candidates had also been elected. And so they trumped up this raping that was supposed to have taken place, got a crowd, broke into the jail, and lynched an innocent black man.
Q: How old were you?
OLSEN: I must have been about seven, maybe eight. Some years later I read about it at the Western Heritage Museum, where there was a whole section on that lynching. I still have a recurring nightmare--the smell of burning flesh and a boy about my age whose father is trying to put this open pocketknife in his hand, pushing him, and telling him to go up [to the hanged man] and bring back part of his ear.
Q: This must have made a big impact on your views of race.
OLSEN: I very much dislike the word "race," and I never use it. I use the word "racist." Race is not a fact. There is only one race: human. Skin color is less than 2 percent of the DNA.
Q: What were your parents' educational experiences as immigrants in this country?
OLSEN: My father learned English very quickly and spoke it without an accent. But he was out in the world a lot. The big thing for my mother was when we finally moved to Omaha, and she went to night school. Somewhere I have the original of what she wrote. It was so eloquent. Years later, after they'd moved to D.C.--it was the year that she died, actually--she said the happiest time in her life was when she went to night school. In that Czarist Russia, Jewish girls were not taught even to read and write. It took her becoming a revolutionary and joining the Bund, the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization, to learn to read and love books.
Q: How did you learn?
OLSEN: In the college of literature. What's in books--history, too. And the great college of motherhood. You learn so much about human development, human capacity. And it doesn't have to do with whether you have wealth and advantage or not. It has to do with the parenting those first few years before the world comes in with its enormous effect. The ecstasy of achievement when you first learn to walk, the passion for language. When children first learn to talk sentences, you usually can't shut them up. When they learn how to climb, for instance, again the ecstasy of achievement, that real hunger to learn, to have experiences, to be on top of something.
And the college of activism--that whole participation with others in trying to make change for the better. When I had only one child, I was already a labor activist. I did leaflets for unions in the old mimeograph days way back in 1932 and '33. And of course, '34 was the year when union organizations finally were really winning. The General Strike was my second-ever arrest. The city jail was just packed. We'd be serenaded every night from the men's section with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."
But I was separated from the common cells and put in with the widow of the superintendent of schools. She had murdered her lover because he'd been unfaithful. But she was upper class, so because I seemed to be a nice girl, they put me in the two-person cell with her. And she would sing to me, "Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved." So I missed the camaraderie of being with the other women.
And I was terribly worried about my daughter Karla, of course, and what was happening with her.
Q: Grace Paley writes about that--being in jail and worrying about the children.
OLSEN: But of course, Grace had a much more protected situation than I did because I was renting a room from a landlady who did not like kids anyway. And here was this little girl. It was a very strange period for me.
I was sprung, much to my surprise, very early. I'd published the first part of Yonnondio in Partisan Review--it was the second issue ever of Partisan Review. It had been reviewed in The New Republic by a man called Robert Cantwell, in which he wrote, "Of all the fiction published in a little magazine, this is unmistakably the work of early genius." He was exaggerating. But anyhow, they had this protest meeting in New York about my arrest, which I didn't know about until I got out. I was furious. The protest shouldn't have been about one person, who happened to be in that freaky situation. It should have been about the fact that the jails were jammed with strikers.
In San Francisco, I worked at the old Palace Hotel, first of all as a maid, changing beds and vacuuming up. All the lamp shades, damn them, were pleated. So you had to be sure to dust between every single pleat, and meanwhile you were on a time schedule. The head housekeeper would come and run her finger down the pleats to check.
Q: What would happen if she found dust?
OLSEN: You were told, "Once more and you're not going to have that job." And this was already the Depression.
Q: What was your political involvement at this time?
OLSEN: After I got together with Jack, there was another child. It was the period of the Spanish Civil War. We lefties said over and over and over again, "If Hitler and Mussolini and Franco win there, there's going to be World War II." If only we'd had enough power, millions of people would be alive and the Holocaust would never have happened.
A lot of San Francisco waterfront guys went to Spain. A proportion of them were members of the Young Communist League. It was a young group that went. I was nursing Julie, my second daughter, then. Julie is named after one of the seafarers who was killed in the retreat across the Ebro, Julius (Jack) Eggan.
Spain was where we felt it was really being decided whether or not the Western powers were going to act, and they didn't. They did not lift their embargo on arms, which meant Franco won. People see Picasso's Guernica. They don't know what that is really about. Guernica was the first bombing of an entire town. The United States backed the real bastards because they were all anti-Red.
It's hard for me to talk about the terrible things that have happened in my lifetime because they didn't need to be.
Q: What gives you hope?
OLSEN: History gives me hope.
Q: Even though this century's been so violent?
OLSEN: The century has also been full of resistance. Why is it that the resistance movements--often so heroic and so ingenious--get obliterated from consciousness?
There's always been resistance, and there comes a time when changes are made. The fact that human beings do not put up forever with misery, humiliation, degradation, actual physical deprivation but act is a fact which every human being should know about. We are a species that makes changes.
I have a lot of faith in the American people if they have access to truth. I buy 100 copies at a time of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was Eleanor Roosevelt's great work. And it happened in San Francisco, at the first meeting of the United Nations. I was there because I was head of CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] War Relief, and also I was president of the California CIO state auxiliary. So since labor was big and important because it was needed in the war, I was invited to U.N. gatherings.
It was such a time of hope.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes economic rights. It also has a clause that the son-in-law of Karl Marx would have loved. He wrote a book called The Right to Be Lazy, one of my favorite revolutionary pamphlets--the right to vacations with pay, what Walt Whitman called "loafing and inviting one's soul."
I sometimes, if it's an adult audience, ask how many of them are familiar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most highly educated people have never read it. It's a tragic erasure of our heritage.
Q: What was your experience as a woman in the Communist Party?
OLSEN: We could not change our society. It was a time of the six-day workweek, by and large--I'm speaking of the early thirties. It was the beginning of the period in which there were enough--thanks to the unions partly--good wages so mothers could stay home with their kids, though some of us were working everyday jobs, too.
In the warehouse union, we really taught about . . . we didn't call it sexism, we called it male chauvinism. There were trials. One party woman, Lil Carlson, brought her guy, who was one of the heads of the Young Communist League in California, up on charges for male chauvinism. And she was not the only one. There were also trials for white chauvinism, which meant racism.
The party certainly created feminists. I was very interested that just in the last month, Betty Friedan suddenly broke down and said she'd been a member of the Communist Party.
We also read Lenin on housework, which is a very, very interesting essay. He uses the word "degrading," which I never felt, because you really see the results of what you've done. But the enormous amount of time it took! That was a factor in our not being as active. Of course, the men came home, and if we were working, we did not sit down like they did. It took a women's movement to change that.
Q: Did you have trouble because of your party membership in the 1950s?
OLSEN: Yes. There was a guy who testified before the Un-American Activities Committee that it was at the house of Jack and Tillie Olsen that everybody was ordered to throw their party books into the fireplace. The only thing he goofed on was that we never had any fireplace, let alone the fact that it never happened.
I was president of the PTA. A neighbor called one morning and said, "Do you have your radio on?" I said, "No." And she said, "Well, you'd better put it on. It's about you." I said, "About me?" So I turned it on fast and heard I was "an agent of Stalin who'd been empowered to take over the San Francisco school system."
Fascinating to me, there were some who absolutely believed every word--that I was that. They should have known better because they knew and worked with me. Some went by their own reality knowledge and were angry about it. They called the station to protest.
The biggest surprise was our school principal. She was a graduate of Stanford. She never let you forget it, and she felt humiliated because she was the principal of this working class school. But she was very, very proud of my work. She called up all of her principal friends to assure them that it wasn't true. She told them what an absolutely wonderful person I was, and it was because of my stirring up other members of the PTA that we finally got a school library when we hadn't had a library and we got a playground when we hadn't had a playground before, and how well read I was, and how she couldn't believe I had not gone to college.
Q: How has the situation of women writers changed?
OLSEN: There's been some change, as is evident by the number of women writers who are read. And education itself has somewhat changed. There's a lot more encouragement, a lot more writing classes. It was the women's movement that gave women in academe a certain strength. If you'd look at the old reading lists, maybe George Eliot, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf might be taught. At Stanford, I think it was 1971, they needed somebody [to teach their first-ever course on women's literature], and my name was suggested. Well, I had no credentials. I had never gone to college. And there was quite a to-do about whether or not I had the qualifications. It was supposed to be a small class. I went into this auditorium. It was jammed. There were, I think, four guys, one of whom went out and then came back again and then went out and then came back again. There were over 100 women there, including faculty wives. By and large, none of this had ever been taught at Stanford before.
Q: What effect do you hope your writing will have?
OLSEN: What does hope have to do with it? It depends on time, circumstances, whether or not your writing lives the life of being read, taught. Certainly, for years, I wrote of women's lives, working class lives, when few others were. I do know that the two talks printed in Silences had real impact at the time, as did my reading lists--for academics, especially.
I haven't published a lot of fiction. I haven't published a lot of anything. But it does go on, it's taught, anthologized. That's very dear to me, and dearest of all are the people whom it has affected. I know that for some people, they feel that it's their life or the life of their mother, or alcoholic relative [that I'm writing about], or they suffer over a daughter and think, "my wisdom came too late" [as the speaker says in "I Stand Here Ironing"].
In the title piece of Tell Me a Riddle, I was writing about a revolutionary generation, immigrants in this country whose children grew up here. But I wanted to write about other aspects of their individual lives. Little is written about revolutionaries, let alone Jews who became atheists, "idealists," some people might term them, not "realists." I like to quote William James, who said, "The world can and has been changed by those to whom the ideal and the real are dynamically contiguous." It was their struggle to do this and make needed changes.
There was a period in my parents' lives--it was a period in our country's life--when the ideal and the real were dynamically contiguous. They really felt that the international movement was going to change the world and make it a more just, human place. They were young when they came here, but they'd lived so very, very much.
The world is so different from the world of their youth and the world of my youth. Still, power is primarily held by people of wealth and position. By and large, class interest still rules in our country.
Who are the people who make policy and how do they get there? You may get an elite education, but you don't learn labor history (which means the lives of most of humanity).
There aren't many of my generation left who did make history. I'm going to be eighty-eight.
There is entrenched power, and with few exceptions it has no feeling for the vulnerability and sacredness of human life. And they have the weapons and the power until there is a movement of people, as has happened over and over in the past.
And that's why "These Things Shall Be," that British labor song in "Tell Me a Riddle," is sung still:
These things shall be, a loftier race
than e'er the world hath known shall rise
with flame of freedom in their souls
and light of knowledge in their eyes
|They shall be gentle, brave and strong,
to spill no drop of blood, but dare
all . . .
On sea and fire and air.
And every life shall be a song.
I have a lot of hope from young people, too, with that flame of freedom and light of knowledge, as well as from some of the old people, whom I honor a lot. There's the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who fought in Spain, what's left of them, and there's no bitterness, there's no cynicism. They believe, too, as I do, that it's in human beings not to put up with what is harming and depriving. I am a believer, but the U.S. Řber alles psychology is very strong now and our bombings from the air. I don't want to die leaving the world as it is right now.
You know the old saying, "Whoever degrades another degrades me"? That's Walt Whitman--an American, I'm proud to say.
from Flipside | Page Source
An Interview with Mario Materassi
This interview took place in San Francisco on August 19, 1988. I had written to Tillie Olsen some weeks earlier, asking her for an interview. She graciously consented, although she did not know me, and invited me to her apartment on Laguna. There, at the top of the stairs, she greeted me with a bewildering bear-hug and thanked me for coming to see her. She literally swept me off my feet with her kindness and warmth. (A year later, I was to see Tillie sweep the entire assembly of A.I.S.N.A. members off their feet during four intense days at Capo Caccia.) We went out to lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant, chatted for a long time over cup after cup of green tea, and finally went back to her apartment for the interview proper. I took out my tape recorder-and immediately something went out of the warm, flowing, give-and-take conversation we had had over lunch. The previous feeling could not be recaptured. The long, involved discussion of Tillie's prose, of her sense of rhythm, of her ear for lyricism, could not be resumed. Very likely, the tape recorder all too sternly reminded us that we were now to sit down to business. The recorded interview suffers somewhat from the change in tone. Anyone who has had the privilege of listening to Tillie Olsen speak knows that ellipses and repetitions, logical leaps and subterranean associations are essential to the communication of her ideas. It was important, therefore, that Tillie's characteristic, almost hypnotic circular way of addressing a question be preserved, even at the cost of an occasional unfinished sentence or of an interrupted train of thought. Accordingly, the transcript of the interview has been subjected to a minimum of editing.
Earlier today you said that Henry Roth misconstrued-or distorted, I think you said-the reality of the Thirties as far as the "silencing" influence of the Communist Party on him was concerned. You said that you disagree with that.
Well, I did not express myself with clarity then, if I used only the word "distorted." Because I have no doubt that he speaks with absolute integrity: that's how he looks back on how he lived the time. I am being rather circular in speaking about this. I've only had a chance to skim quickly this piece in The New Yorker that appeared recently, in which he spoke with such vehement bitterness and sorrow about all those lost years that were lost, he felt, in which be attempted to please what he understood was the way he should be writing-a way that was not at all natural to him, or had to do with what he most needed to say, and credited his years of silence and the loss to us, to the treatment that he felt Call It Sleep bad received. Am I ... ?
This is only part of what he said. You probably read Bronsen's interview in Partisan Review.
I may have read that.
This is something that he touched upon in that interview in 1969. Nowadays, he tends to say that it was mainly a generational malaise that hit many people in the creative arts. But he does consider his having joined the Party at that particular time something that had a bad effect on his Writing.
Perhaps we shouldn't talk about this at all. But I told you, my very coming to him was out of I, myself, being in the Young Communist League. Call It Sleep was a book that was very much read and very much loved, and it seemed to me that there was very little attention being paid to it outside of the Left. And those kinds of criticisms -well, they certainly were not a dictum that said, This is a book that is outside the pale, this is the wrong direction, and so on and so forth. But because we have other things to talk about-as you know, I also have a book out called Silences, and it is a subject that has profoundly concerned me: silence, and all its variations. I called Roth's one of the great one-book silences, as I remember, in the very first talk I gave in prehistoric times, 1962. And the reasons why so many who are first generation fell silent after having begun to write-few, of course, who wrote in that extra-ordinary way-are, of course, like everything having to do with human beings, complex, hard to discern; all those strands having to do with it .... If we have time I'd like to go back to that. I too am a member of that generation-and by the way, there is an anthology that's just been published called Writing Red, which is about women in the Thirties. It's interesting to me, naturally, for a number of reasons-but the young editors who put this book together take the fact that there were women who wrote one letter, or wrote a poem, or published very very little, but the aggregate is, you have a lot of material, looking back and reading everything from that period. So they feel that women, for instance, were not silenced in that period. Yet the fact remains, even if you statistically take the same kind of material that appeared from men who wrote-you know, there was a lot of encouragement to write letters about your experiences, and they would publish them in the various publications of the Left at that time, there was this great explosion of little magazines and the various publications, official and unofficial-if you put them in proportion, you'd see that there was a much higher percentage of men who were writing than women. And of course, in my Silences, statistically I was referring only to those who were considered as having come to distinguished achievement. But the effect on me was, again, there are so many sources-the roots of Silences are in various directions. Part of them come from being of my generation, and knowing how much was buried, and was silenced, in my generation-both men and women, but far more women that men. And objectively too, even educationally, if you look at the writers who are read in that period you'll see such a difference.
Well, let's go on. But I would like to go back and talk, if we have time, about these other things that Roth said, and the experiences of the time that he felt were silencing one ....
You were saying that you read Call It Sleep as soon as it came out. You had already started writing, of course.
Oh yes. I began to write--I mean, write comparatively seriously--when I was twelve or thirteen years old. That was what I most wanted to do, to be: a writer. And I think part of my fortune in even, eventually, becoming a published writer, had to do with my coming to my youthhood in the Thirties, not only because there was what we've seen in our time in this country with the various freedom movements, the audience, the readers for- Black literature, for all the hyphenated literatures, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, Filipino-American, Native-American that kind of flowering that takes place; but also because it was an affirming time for the realities of my own fife which verified what I had come to believe that my parents believed. They were socialists; my father .... There have been two interviews-no, one was an interview, the other was an article-that were written around the Thirties on myself, in which I talked about some of these things. But I say in Silences-again, I'm being .... You're gonna have to get used to the way I speak, but I get around to the point, having filled it out before I come to the core-I say in Silences that whenever any of us of that class, meaning those of us who must put so much of their life into the getting of a living, and not in the professional satisfaction sense (I'm filling in what is only one sentence) -whenever any of us of that class and/or sex and/or color, generally denied enabling circumstances, come to what the world recognizes as achievement, it is not by virtue of our . . . I don't say "dazzling," but you know, very special qualities, qualities which are expressed and used in everyday life, unnoticed, unseen, I'm not quoting the sentence exactly right, but by virtue of our special luck, combined with whatever capacities we have. And I am one of those who I feel had a special luck. Objectively speaking, whatever may happen with the little writing I have published so far, but it is among the small group of ... what I've written has persisted, some of it, almost three decades now, and it is still there .... Talking about myself made me lose what I was most going to say-oh yes. And yet I am the first woman, who also was a mother, who also was of that class-color was not a factor with me who has come to some recognized achievement, of varying degrees depending upon who you speak with: I know it's very solid with readers, teachers, librarians [laughing]. Critics is another matter. There's been comparatively little attention paid, for various reasons. And I also say in Silences, at the end, the very important part should have been a long piece-again it was a question of time and money that I didn't do the piece on what is called rather loosely "creativity, potentiality, first generation" -but I say something like "born a generation before in their sex and/or class and/or color," and I start the list with Chekhov and Hardy and I have the Bronte sisters, and I come down to a Roth and a Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, etcetera etcetera. We simply would not have been writing books that anybody would read. My folks had, who themselves led fairly obscure lives, very useful ones; my father was the State Secretary of the Socialist Party for many many many many years .
In Nebraska, right?
In Nebraska, not in New York. You see, that was probably also part of my luck-perhaps not-that they moved to Nebraska, they didn't stay in New York. So that my youthhood, which was so much of it involved with the Young Communist League and with the organization and so forth and so on, it was a much more U. S. America and actually, therefore, much more of a larger sense of the world than I would have had, perhaps, had I been involved in these matters in New York City. And far less factional, far less intellectual .... But to go back to the time before the Thirties, the belief that the (it's beginning to come back, the expression "working class": it wasn't used for so long in our country) that working people were the basic creators of all culture, of all civilization, beginning with language, ritual, development of food, clothing, shelter-the greatest inventions we've had so far-through the centuries. But that was because of, primarily, class and caste circumstances, the genius that was inherent in them never had the opportunity to express itself .... It's in the dedication toSilences.
I have it here.
Oh, that's right. "For our silenced people"-I don't explain what I meant by "silences" because I just told you the ways we were so expressive, so creative-"century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which they still made-as their other contributions-anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost." Now, when you went through the Southwest, and saw those baskets that are now in museums and recognized as art and as a coarse part of that past in which human beings never made anything but they didn't use their art sense on, whether it was tools in the old hand days-of course the art varied from person to person, but basically the art sense is universal and is expressed there, genius for language is universal and is expressed, even now, when so much of it comes in our ears in a far more, in a way homogenized, in a way the opposite of homogenized way, than in the past. You see, that's the kind of phrase that I would really like to expand, because it's so likely to be misinterpreted. Anyway, then I went on to say, "For those of us (few yet in number, for the way is punishing), their kin and descendants, who begin to emerge into more flowered and rewarded use of our selves in ways denied to them;-and by our own achievement bearing witness to what was (and still is) being lost, silenced." They came with their experience there, seeing a kind of enormous flowering take place, individually. In my own family we had an aunt, I mean I have an aunt, she's dead now, she died in her nineties, illiterate. Her younger brother, my father, her younger sisters, limited by lack of formal education, by their being immigrants to this country, by the kind of life they led in their country-but they were really intellectuals, they were readers, they were thinkers. The women were especially interesting, even more so than my father and those like him, because they had never had book learning or background of book learning, and it came to them against a really heartbreaking (heartbreaking both for the parents and for the children) opposition to daughters learning to read. The story of Vilna, when somebody in my father's family was trying to get schools for girls-they were that far along in the Bund, it was a somewhat later period-and he would always go to the most influential people in the town if there weren't Bundist themselves, and so he was brought by this merchant to the most eminent rabbi, and he calls in his wife, she comes in-nine months pregnant-and he asks her, How many children do you have? And she says, You know how many children we have! He says, Go ahead, say it: how many children do you have? She says, I have nine. He says, How many did you have? She says, You know how many I had. Turns out she had thirteen. Then he says, But you have nine, living. Yes! And then he asks a few other questions, we don't have the time for the whole dialogue, then he turns and he says, So for what did she need to learn to read and write? That was the way it was for centuries, and there was nothing to change until the basic changes began to happen that enabled changes in people themselves changing things-and there was the whole philosophy. I'm talking about Yiddish background now, I'm taking a long time to answer that one question, but we are covering other things too . . Another one of the arguments of the time, of that particular time, was, you know, you must know, how profound the belief in the Messiah coming and the hopes for the Messiah were, and the false Messiahs-and these young people, they had these heretical ideas, they said,We must be the Messiahs, we have to make these changes and to make the kind of life on earth, the kind of deliverance from what we are having to come to be. Well, I'm just saying that attitudes having to do with terrible .... You've read in Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, remember? the father who couldn't understand this crazy daughter of his, she was literally breaking his heart, and in effect he was doing terrible things to her in that internecine struggle of hers to do this crazy thing of going to high school, getting an education. I mean, there wasn't a background for understanding us. I'm just saying that those changes came with enormous pain, but it was a remarkable generation, from illiteracy or near literacy. And it wasn't only in the way they educated themselves, it wasn't only with the passion that they developed for Shakespeare, for opera, for what was considered to be high culture-not in the Jewishlike sense, but in the sense that so much of the outer world had shared in the love of the various writers-this, along with the political development that took place and the actual organization and the attempt to understand what were the motive forces in a society, what were the most powerful forces, what were the things that made pogroms happen-the old questions, you know, what is really human nature; all of the thousand and one things that opened up for the first time there: well, they saw what I've seen in my way happen-they saw what is in human beings who otherwise would have lived the so-called rather everyday lives. These nothing lives-there is nothing there, in effect. I'm not saying any of that very well, I must say. Well, they had an inherent respect for what is in human beings to be, and for the way human beings are deformed, sometimes deformed, in the most virulent way. I remember my mother telling me (and I ran across it reading either Victor Hugo or the guy who wrote The Wandering Jew, years later) telling me about those traveling circuses that used to more or less breed kids within pottery that would deform them so they would have freaks ....
You said earlier that at twelve or thirteen you started doing some serious writing. You must have had literary models.
The need, the passion, the capacity to express ourselves in what we term creative form, is inherent in human beings, and it is a large part of what Silences is about. I was one of the fortunate ones, in that it wasn't stamped out in me. In the last part of Yonnondio there's a paragraph that is often quoted, it had Baby Bess, it's just a fruit jar lid that she picks up, she's six months old, the period before you realize you can & "I can do& I& I& .I". But the passion to do, to express oneself-and language is so inherent in the makeup of the human being too; so I feel this is creativity. The little ones, they love to play, to pretend, to pretend to be adults and other people. There are all kinds of evidences, you now-little ones love to fling their bodies about, they love to sing, however tunelessly. Before we are damaged, we are very, very creative, expressive human beings. Some of us start getting damaged even before birth. But I believe that this is inherent. That's the basic thesis of Silences. And lives have not permitted most human beings to express what's in them. We have seen, primarily in the last century, more and more what I call the flowering of human beings. If you would take a look, objectively, in the arts, in the sciences, in the various fields in which we consider creativity to express itself, you would find in each generation greater and greater percentage of human beings that-whatever creativity was there in the generations before, was expressed in ways we have never troubled to interpret, in the bringing of food, clothing, shelter, language, religion, ritual, art-we used our art sense in almost everything that we could. For centuries. It's universal.
You must ask me that question again, because I started to talk about something, and .
You talk about "inherent" creativity. I'm interested in your own.
I often talk about my luck that enabled me, probably, to be-at least in my country as far as we know, there may be others-the first woman from my class, which was really poor working class (we often had very hungry winters), from my sex, who was also a mother, to have come to a few things that are recognized by some people as being comparatively lasting literature. So I wasn't a freak is my point. I had luck. Whatever any of us who have the wrong color, or who are women, or who are all of this together: half of the working people are women; half of the Black people are women; most of humanity have been working people-their lives have gone primarily into survival, but along with survival they have created almost everything, including most inventions, if you take the long view over the centuries. So, then we come to this modern period, where we begin to emerge. Creativity. Potentiality. First generation. You begin to see a few individuals here and there. Then you begin to see them in increasing number. There's been an enormous increase in number-although it's going backwards in our country now, in the least twenty-five years: people who are never in the arts, people who are never in the intellectual fields, people who are never in the sciences. So of course we are the basic proof of what is in human beings to be, given the circumstances that are needed. That's the basic thesis of Silences. And as I say in that last part, all I was presumably authorized to speak for, had any little foothold in, even if I was not a college educated scholar, was my own field, presumably: literature. But I was speaking about the whole human race. This belief was inherent in my parents' socialism. You're more interested in me, personally, but I cannot separate whatever fed, created me as a writer, what I have written at all, from these factors.
Oh, I'm not asking you to separate ...
But you asked me at the age of twelve or thirteen, you asked about models and predecessors, and I have to tell you that there were even before I did any reading. They were there in the kind of language I heard around me. How fortunate I was! I grew up, after we left the farm-not so much on the farm, though even there I heard (I was too young to remember the brief period in the mines), but I remember things on the farm, and part of it I suppose is being children of immigrants. My mother remained imprisoned pretty much, because she was a woman and having children fast, and in the days when everything was by hand. My father was far more fortunate, as men tended to be: here's the world-he became part of the world. But growing up in Omaha at a time when a third of our country were either immigrants or children of immigrants, I heard many, many, many different kinds of languages, I heard many, many, many original uses of language as trying to speak what was the central language. And I heard Americans, U. S. A. America, in a different way than if you came out of books, out of a good family and a good education. The Nebraska pioneers, some of whom had Old Country dialects from their various countries, from Mexico, Central America, South America, the Chinese, the few Chinese who came-I was very, very rich-and all of Europe: all of Europe. Particularly central Europe, southern Europe, and east Europe. A wonderful tuning of languages. I was part of a movement. Among my early memories was the great packing house strike that got broken, and I had that lesson and potentiality. This was part of my life. People who know something to speak of, and they come to voice-it's happened in human history throughout. It registered with me. I stuttered, I had to do a lot of listening. I say, that's part of my great luck, to distinguish me from those who were lost in my generation. And you grow up in a generation, you are very conscious of it, particularly if you keep relationships over the years or if you look back at those with whom you were in that grade school at that time when only a small percentage went beyond the eighth grade, so you're in the everyday work world. That was part of why I said the Thirties verified so much of what my parents believed-of people who were "nothing people," just like you saw in, say, the Civil Rights Movement time in this country. People like Fanny Lou Hamer-I'm not talking about a third generation like Martin Luther King, as eloquent, as great. A sharecropper mother of so many, and all of a sudden here is this woman with this great organizational capacity, with this voice, with this capacity to say things like nobody else was saying them. You know, it's there all the time. But everything in your life, and ever more so in that America I grew up in, made you feel like dirt if you weren't somebody who was somebody. Well, you have a belief that is the exact opposite of what-that you are one of those ... I always think of Camus' . . . what Camus said about his illiterate mother: she was of that most ancient and honorable race who had created almost everything on this earth, etcetera. At times, he said in that journal entry how he could not look at his mother when he was a great man and he'd go back -how little they could talk about, in a way. All the things that were in his head, all the things he's lived, what were they to this woman? And yet he recognized she might have been he. You're very close, when you are first generation, to what might have been your life. If you have socialist parents who have certain beliefs, you're given that. You can't use it in our country-most children of socialist parents didn't-as a shield against all kinds of things to put you down, even if you don't understand that that was also part of my luck. And I had other such lucks. But that particular luck of being in Omaha at that particular time in an industrial city, a packing house city that was very tied in with agriculture and farming-and where there was a lot of migration, that ancient form of human beings trying to come to a better life that the one they had led ....
Am I making sense in talking about these things?
And then, when I finally did begin to read, I was a very passionate reader, and books of course brought me all the world that was not my immediate world. But I was fortunate, without articulating it, that I knew that there were other things to write about, and I felt I had something to give. Often you become silenced because, you know, they are so great, and they seem to dominate-what have you got? Especially when it's not something that there's respect for .... Well then you come into the Thirties. Things get turned around. All those writers who had loathed their country and become expatriates, suddenly come back because they have to, they are poor, and they discover a U.S.A. they never really .... Even if some of them came from that, like Katherine Anne Porter, in truth, just a generation back, which she always lied about who she came from, she was so ashamed!
Shame was what you felt, shame was a very important factor if you weren't born into all of that .... But the Thirties, you could not escape, you could not help but see that there was something to these "nothing people."
The Ashcan School ....
Well, it was very different from the Ashcan School because.....
I meant, the idea behind the Ashcan School.
... because this country was being changed by the actions of hundreds of thousands of human beings, the way human beings always have made changes. And also, along with that, there were suddenly these people, you know, in an area like San Francisco, who came out of seemingly nothing or nowhere, without the education, without the credential for leadership, and proved to have extra-ordinary capacity. I'm talking about what actually happened on job after job, on situation after situation, along with who was involved in the great anti-war, anti-Fascist-Nazi movement of the Thirties. I'm skipping a lot. But what I was trying to say is that it wasn't only my love for language, my love for literature, that moved me towards wanting to express myself. It wasn't only that I was a stutterer, and therefore had to listen. It was this extra-ordinary period to grow up in. I heard great orators like Gene Debbs, on whose lap I sat after I presented him red roses when he spoke. Language in the old oral sense, and use of language by people who didn't have written language, was very much part of my consciousness-which helped keep a respect for what is in people. And a lot of American slang-I suppose Italian, too, wasn't created from up there: it came from down below. I'm speaking about language, now, I'm speaking about organization where would the human race be without the capacity to organize? I don't mean organize in a labor sense, or in a movement sense, but to organize any human activity. And that, too, is what Yonnondio is about-to go back and trace that .... We had a neighbor who was always going to write the history of the lath, the whole history of humanity from the development of the lath, from the very dawning of the need for it through the modern day-a different sense of what goes on. Anyway, I had a lot, without knowing it, that I wanted put there in books I loved so much-because I loved: I mean, reading was the world for me besides the world in which I had to live. And yet my world, seldom, seldom, seldom was there any of that; and especially not in what I was given to read in the very superb high school I went to. Well, that was part of my luck, because I crossed the tracks and went to the academic high school, where the famous Fonda family of Henry went, where all wealthy Omahans, except the most Úlite-they would not dream of sending their kids (it was that period) back East to a prep school, they had to prove that the Middle West could educate as well as the prep schools-of course they didn't quite do that, but ....
Anyway, maybe you should ask me another question. But I was very lucky in my youthhood in spite of having many things that were terrible in it. And I credit that luck, that peculiar luck and including the luck of coming to my youthhood in the Thirties, which verified my own parents' belief in what is in human beings to be, both when they can somewhat shape circumstances, and when circumstances enable human beings to be the best that's in them to be. A lot more to be said, but I'm not going to say it-a few of these things I've said otherwise. But I did love reading and writing and poetry, and I went to a high school .... Well, I also had a few wonderful .... We read, in the beginning, the McGuffy Readers, which were based on the old idea that you fed kids the best, so that I encountered some great names as well as some not so great names-they were kind of done away with. And that's enough on the subject of my writing. I had a teacher, called Sarah Voltaire, I paid tribute to. I was in her English 9 class fairly early-this was for the little handpicked group in that high school; but I was a problem for her because I came from across the tracks, and I myself did not realize that there was a lot about me that was rather repulsive to that lady, but anyway .... That was where I first really experienced what somebody in a wonderful book called Hidden Injuries of Class-class, and somewhat being Jewish, though with a few exceptions (I can think of only one in my time there), the only Jews that went to Central High were the ones who already were the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and professionals, who would have nothing to do with me.
So you had two sets of cards staked against you. You were Jewish, and you came from across the tracks.
But that was also my enormous luck.
I mean, in their eyes. What created the hidden injuries.
Oh, yes. On the other hand, I wrote the school humor column. So I had a little bit of what is known as character. But I don't want to talk too much about high school days.
Mrs. Olsen, I think I took enough of your time ....
We probably never got around to anything, including Yiddishkeit. I feel that the generation of my mother and father-that socialist, Bundist, later many of them Communist generation-have been pretty much extinguished from visibility. And I feel that their legacy, which is the legacy in the title piece in Tell Me a Riddle, was at a profound cost, because they had to go against their blood, kin, their own fathers, often their own mothers. If I had time, I'd tell you some of my father's stories with his unlettered mother. When he left, fled, from czarist prison, he thought that he hated his father, and he had some reason to, but .... Anyway, I think that their vision actually has proved to be, in spite of the times we have lived and are still living through, the truest vision of human possibility and hope, and the only one that makes sense for our time now, before going through the final Holocaust. And it is that universal sense that we have to come back to, and some of what was in my mother's last dying vision. It's in there-but we didn't really begin, in a way we only began to begin. I had thought we would .... I am very U.S.A. American in many ways that most of what's termed Jewish-American writers are not, because of the kind of fife I've led. And it has also made me feel, live-has confirmed for me, intellectually as well as in other ways-that kind of heritage ....
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