Last reviewed: June 2017
American fiction writer and editor
January 14, 1912
January 1, 2007
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.
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.