Authors: Tillie Olsen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American fiction writer and editor

January 14, 1912

Omaha, Nebraska

January 1, 2007

Oakland, California

Biography

Tillie Olsen is regarded as one of the more important American women writers of fiction in the twentieth century. She was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on January 14, 1912, the daughter of Samuel and Ida (Beber) Lerner. Because of humble circumstances, the future writer had but a limited education. In 1936, she married Jack Olsen, and they had four daughters: Karla, Julie, Katherine Jo, and Laurie. Olsen spent most of her life in San Francisco, California. For twenty years, she worked there in industry and as a typist-transcriber. She used her lunch hours to read in public libraries, thus securing her higher education.

In 1955, she was awarded the Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship and in 1959 a Ford grant in literature. In 1961, she published a collection of stories, Tell Me a Riddle, whose title story won first prize in the 1961 O. Henry Awards as the best story of that year. From 1962 to 1964, Olsen held a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. In 1967, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Award. She served as writer-in-residence or visiting professor in English at Amherst College, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts, and Kenyon College.

Tillie Olsen.

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By Julieoe, CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Olsen’s work can be roughly divided into three phases: the activist political phase of the 1930s, the short fiction phase of the 1950s and 196’s, and the feminist nonfiction phase beginning in the 1970s. In the 1930s, Olsen published several polemics. By the mid-1950s, she was writing her best fiction, including the stories collected in Tell Me a Riddle. Beginning in the 1970s, Olsen published several works in which she theorizes about the feminist literary artist.

Olsen published a substantial biographical study for a 1972 reprint of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman, originally published in 1861 in The Atlantic Monthly. Davis’s work details the stunted, destroyed life of a young, impoverished miner, gifted as a sculptor, who had carved a powerful statue from refuse ore, the korl. Olsen’s work is a commentary on the hardships and limitations of Davis’s life and how they affected her literary potential and output. Olsen praises Davis for her literary realism dealing with then-despised classes but notes Davis’s inability to see the injustice in her life that resulted from being a woman.

In 1974, Olsen published Yonnondio. The title derives from Walt Whitman’s poem of that name which deals with the lost people of the lower classes who leave no permanent mark. Olsen’s novel was begun in 1932 at the age of nineteen and worked on intermittently into 1936. Decades later, some of the pages were found accidentally. The first four chapters were in almost final form; the last four required considerable editing, but no new writing was added. The novel was published unfinished. Yonnondio begins with the life of a family in a Wyoming mining town who escape to become tenant farmers in South Dakota but find the endeavor a losing proposition. They then move to Denver for work in the slaughterhouses. Eventually, the father gets a raise in pay to forty-five cents an hour: prosperity. The book ends abruptly after a long siege of high temperatures as the weather is changing for the better.

Silences was published in 1978. It deals with writers’ silences occasioned by circumstances that inhibit creativity. Olsen is especially concerned with the descendants of the working class, now emerging into more prosperous lives. The first part of the book is a reprint of three of Olsen’s earlier works dealing with the theme of silences. Parts 2 and 3 are a compendium of excerpts from numerous writers with commentary by Olsen. She observes that most of the distinguished achievements by women have been by women who are childless. Silences is Olsen’s cry for rights long denied women, and the book had a profound impact on women’s studies and views of women writers. Later books include Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother, a book of daily readings. Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality appeared in 1987; it is a collection of photographs accompanied by relevant excerpts by various writers. Olsen’s short fiction has been published in more than ninety anthologies, and her books have been translated into eleven languages. Olsen lived in Oakland, California until her death on January 1, 2007.

Awards given to Olsen include an award for distinguished contribution to American letters by the American Academy and National Institute of Letters in 1975; an award for ministry to women, by the Unitarian-Universalist Federation, in 1980; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975–76; and being named Fellow of the Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, in 1985.

Olsen’s work is oriented toward the subject of the underprivileged (the proletariat and women) and crusades for expansion of their opportunities. It features a grim realism enlightened by a ray of hope. Her work is especially vivid in its presentation of character and dialogue, and her significance in twentieth century literature has been increasingly recognized.

Author Works Long Fiction: Yonnondio: From the Thirties, 1974 Short Fiction: Tell Me a Riddle, 1961 Nonfiction: “A Biographical Interpretation,” in Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, 1972 Silences, 1978 Edited Texts: Life in the Iron Mills, 1972, revised 1984 Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering—A Daybook and Reader, 1984 Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality—An Exploration in Photographs, 1987 (with others) Bibliography Aiken, Susan Hardy, Adele Marie Barker, Maya Koreneva, and Ekaterina Stetsenko. Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. In this series of essays/dialogues, Susan Aiken’s feminist reading of Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” focuses on home as a site of repression that relegates women to domestic work and child care. Argues that Olsen creates for her protagonist a free discursive space in which preestablished categories are redefined; by so doing, she contests the larger political forces of repression that divide people from themselves. Bauer, Helen Pike. “‘A Child of Anxious, Not Proud, Love’: Mother and Daughter in Tillie Olsen’s ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1989. Analyzes the story as a dialogue between a number of opposites in which the basic issues are how much of the past determines the daughter’s future, how much of the mother is in the daughter, and how much responsibility the mother has for her daughter’s passivity and repression. Cardoni, Agnes Toloczko. Women’s Ethical Coming-of-Age: Adolescent Female Characters in the Prose Fiction of Tillie Olsen. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998. A survey of Olsen’s adolescent female characters, comparing and contrasting their milieux. Includes a bibliography and an index. Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Compares these two authors’ activism and writing styles. Includes a bibliography and an index. Craft, Brigette Wilds. “Tillie Olsen: A Bibliography of Review and Criticism, 1934–1991.” Bulletin of Bibliography 50, no. 3 (1993). A useful reference guide to other materials about Olsen. Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Examines the themes of motherhood, relationships between men and women, community, and language in Olsen’s fiction. Frye, Joanne S. Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1995. One of the most extensive discussions of the four stories in Tell Me a Riddle and “Requa.” Frye contends that Olsen’s readings are embedded in history—both cultural and personal. The book also contains a long conversation Frye had with Olsen about her five short stories. Jacobs, Naomi. “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in Tell Me a Riddle.Studies in Short Fiction 23 (Fall, 1986): 401–406. Jacobs analyzes the plot of Olsen’s story by showing the development of a series of images derived from the four basic elements. Jacobs then relates this interpretation to Olsen’s theme of spiritual rebirth. Martin, Abigail. Tillie Olsen. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1984. Martin sees Olsen as a writer in the Western tradition because, by advocating a change in how men and women are perceived, Olsen placed herself on a frontier in thinking. Martin interprets Olsen’s work in terms of the obstacles she overcame to become a writer and compares her with Virginia Woolf. A part of the Western Writer series, this book contains a select bibliography and a list of Olsen’s poems. Nelson, Kay Hoyle, and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A collection of the most important articles, reviews, and parts of books about Olsen, arranged in chronological order; includes essays from a variety of approaches on the stories “I Stand Here Ironing,” “Tell Me a Riddle,” and “O Yes.” Niehus, Edward L., and Teresa Jackson. “Polar Stars, Pyramids, and Tell Me a Riddle.American Notes and Queries 24 (January/February, 1986): 77–83. Niehus and Jackson analyze one incident recalled by Eva, the dying woman, by relating it to a pole or center of life, an idea that derives from basic astronomy and late nineteenth century pyramidology. The authors explore how Olsen handles this theme when circumstances change so that the pole does not remain stable. Olsen, Tillie. Interview by Lisa See. Publishers Weekly 226 (November 23, 1984): 76. Interviewed when she was almost seventy-two, Olsen focuses on her two haunting concerns, motherhood and writing, and how society continues to misunderstand these topics. Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A general introduction to Olsen’s life and work that tries to redress previous critical neglect and to suggest new directions for further study of her work. Includes an interview and extensive discussions of the four stories in Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle, especially “I Stand Here Ironing” and the title story. Staub, Michael. “The Struggle for ‘Selfness’ Through Speech in Olsen’s Yonnondio.Studies in American Fiction 16 (Autumn, 1988): 131–139. Staub sees Yonnondio, like James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), as part of the 1930s literature that attempts to raise society’s consciousness about the working classes. Staub examines Olsen’s focus on the right of women to develop selfness so they can speak freely. He explores how Olsen develops this theme by revealing character strength through dramatic speech and silences, rather than through action.

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