Emerging from Silence
Tillie Lerner Olsen—January 14, 1912—January 1, 2007
By Carol Hurd Green
In 1972, the Feminist Press republished Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis, which had originally appeared in the April 1861 Atlantic Monthly. The 1972 volume carries a wise and empathic biographical interpretation by Tillie Olsen, which evokes Davis’s struggle to write under the pressures of motherhood and economic necessity. Olsen praises Davis for writing “that fiction which incorporates social and economic problems directly, and in terms of their effects on human beings [Olsen’s italics]….On her pages are people and situations that are discovery, not only of the past, but of ourselves.”
Olsen’s praise of Davis speaks to her own passion. The work that Olsen fiercely embraced as her own was to give voice to women (most often mothers), men, and children who were oppressed and silenced by ceaseless, unrewarding toil and unconquerable poverty and rejected because of their gender, race, or class. She quotes from Walt Whitman’s poem “Yonnondio”: “No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future/…unlimn’d they disappear.” The lines became the epigraph to Olsen’s novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, and they express the theme and purpose of her fiction. She draws unforgettable figures: the haunted mother of “I Stand Here Ironing”; the dying old woman of “Tell Me a Riddle,” raging against her husband and (assimilated) family as they try to define her; Anna Holbrook of Yonnondio, immured with her children in rural, then urban poverty; and Anna’s daughter Mazie, who would dream if she could. The intensity and insistence of Olsen’s language guarantees that others will know these Americans as she—born of immigrants, coming of age in the Depression, working at menial jobs, protesting injustice, struggling to raise four daughters—had known them.
Writing about Olsen’s fiction for The Nation soon after her death, John Leonard remembers her unique presence and voice. He see[s] how it’s done. First what Cynthia Ozick calls “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note….Memory, history, poetry, and prophecy converge.
The grace notes, the moments of light, are the more painful for the reader’s knowledge that they cannot last. Often they are brief glimpses of realized love between mother and child. Eloquent about the pressures of motherhood, Olsen was also committed to the maternal. At a time when many young feminists were ambivalent about motherhood, Olsen asserted its importance, as experience and subject. In addition to depicting significant mother figures in her fiction, Olsen edited a daybook, Mother to Daughter: Daughter to Mother (1984), that contains excerpts from women’s writing. With her daughter, Julie Olsen Edwards, and Estelle Jussim she edited Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photography (1987); the lyrical introduction is by Olsen and Edwards. The historian Joyce Antler, whose book on Jewish mothers You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother has just appeared, places Olsen at the pinnacle of American Jewish women writers, particularly for the transparency and power of her emotion.
Rebecca Harding Davis was a prolific writer of fiction, turning out stories to help support her family. Tillie Olsen—as is central to most accounts of her life and perhaps responsible for the perfection of her fictional style—was not. There are only five stories (six if one includes a separately published, early chapter of Yonnondio) and an incomplete novel. However, these short works make the same demands on readers that major fictions do. Together with Olsen’s account of the relationship between creativity and circumstance, they constitute a central document of twentieth-century American literature and American women’s lives.
The daughter of Jewish immigrants who left Russia in 1905 and settled in the Midwest, Tillie Lerner was born in Nebraska (her birth date in 1912 or 1913 was not recorded). She grew up in poverty, working from childhood on, but also in the influential environment of her parents’ commitment to socialism and among political believers. (See Constance Coiner, “Tillie Olsen’s Life” reprinted from “Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur”  on www.english.uiuc.edu/naps/poets/m_r/olsen/life/htm.) After three years in high school in Omaha, where a good teacher fed her love of reading, she left home and began a long period of discouraging jobs and ardent political activity. A member of the Young Communist League, she was jailed for organizing activity in 1931. In prison she became ill with lung disease. When she was released, she moved to Minnesota. There, at 19, she gave birth to a daughter, and—determined to be a writer—began work on a novel. (For a detailed chronology, see Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse, eds., The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen .)
In 1933 she moved to California; which would remain her lifetime home. Her first publications came early: in 1934, she published two poems in Partisan One of them, “I Want You Women in the North to Know,” is poignantly current in its portrait of poor Latin American women workers stitching fine clothes for rich Northern children. In the same year, she was also jailed for a time on political charges and published an excerpt from a planned novel in Partisan Review. Hailed as “a work of early genius,” the excerpt led to a book contract; however, the novel would be long in coming. She met union activist Jack Olsen in 1933; they were together in political and family life from 1936 until his death in 1989. They had three daughters and married in 1944.
As the children grew, she continued to work, to be involved in progressive politics, and to identify with her community. She was a PTA president in 1941 until she was driven out by accusations of communism; both she and Jack Olsen were targeted during the McCarthy era. Throughout, the hope of writing “was the air I breathed, so long as I shall breathe at all.” But, she said, during “the twenty years I bore and reared my children, [and] usually had to work at a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist.” She did what she could:
A full extended family life; the world of my job [transcriber in a dairy equipment company], and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around within me through work, through home. Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough, 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 was “no accident,” she notes, that the first work she “considered publishable began, ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’ Like the Whitmanesque catalogs of images and sentences that flow into each other in her prose, Olsen’s multiplicity of roles defines her.
In 1954, she enrolled in a fiction writing course at San Francisco State and published “Help Her to Believe” (later, “I Stand Here Ironing”). She received a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford in 1956 – 1957, which gave her, for the first time, space and time set aside for writing. Two more stories, “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” and “Baptism” (later “O Yes”), appeared in 1957. A Ford Foundation writing grant followed in 1959. The wonderful and much anthologized “Tell Me a Riddle” appeared in 1960. It won the O. Henry Award for the best short story of the year and became the title work of her first book, a collection of the four recent stories, published in 1961 when she was almost fifty. Gradually Olsen came to the place in American letters that she would occupy for many years to come, one that brought awards, teaching and speaking opportunities, and continuing acclaim. (Olsen’s honors include six honorary degrees; Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities and other fellowships; an award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters; the Mari Sandoz award from the Nebraska Library Association; a residency at the MacDowell Colony; and several distinguished visiting professorships. In 1981, San Francisco declared Tillie Olsen Day.)
From 1962 through 1964, Olsen was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (later the Bunting Institute, currently the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies), founded by Radcliffe President Mary Ingraham Bunting to provide a place for creative and scholarly work by women whose lives had not allowed them that freedom. At institute seminars, Olsen explored what she called “silences”—the absence from literature of artists, especially but not exclusively, women, because of deadening work and economic necessity, domestic pressures, capitalist society, race, and gender. Only “one—out of twelve” published American writers, she noted, were women. This idea of “silences” became her theme and her gift to the women’s movement, whose coming she hailed. Olsen’s book Silences, published in 1978, is a compendium of her classic essays, followed by an idiosyncratic collection of “Acerbs, Asides, Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions.” Shelley Fisher Fishkin notes in her introduction to the book that Olsen taught not only new ways of reading and writing, but also a “new arithmetic that made explicit conditions of exclusion, imbalance, and neglect.” Silences includes pages eloquent with Olsen’s knowledge and lessons and reading and sudden empty spaces of absence. Twice republished, it completed the transformation of Olsen’s life experience into mythic form and offered its readers ways to understand their lives.
From early on, said Olsen, she was a “passionate reader.” In fact, her reading changed American literary history. Not only did she bring Life in the Iron Mills, which she had found decades earlier in a secondhand bookstore in Omaha, to the attention of Feminist Press founders Florence Howe and Paul Lauter, but she also published four reading lists, between 1972 and 1974, in Feminist Press’s Women’s Studies Newsletter. These lists of writers—whose names are now familiar but were then obscure—transformed criticism, scholarship, and high school and college curricula. The poet Adrienne Rich says, “Women’s studies in literature began with Tillie’s list of books by women writers. All over the country there were women whose work was prodded and enlightened by her.”
For Olsen herself the 1970s brought another important discovery: she found the long-missing chapters of the novel she had begun in the early 1930s. Lawyer-novelist Scott Turow, an undergraduate at Amherst College when Olsen taught there from 1969 through 1970, saw the manuscript in 1971: “typed and handwritten on greenish sheets, the paper so brittle with age that the edges flaked….[P]ages were discontinuous, passages were incomplete, the many marginal notations seemed often indecipherable.” To Turow, who greatly admired Olsen’s fiction, it seemed “inconceivable” that the novel could be made whole—yet Olsen returned to the work. She never completed Yonnondio: From the Thirties, but with the original chapters unchanged and the story continued, it was published in 1974. The desperate, Sisyphean, struggles of the Holbrook family powerfully evoke the tragedies of the Depression and condemn its causes. Olsen’s final published fiction, “Requa,” appeared in the summer 1970 issue of the Iowa Review and was included (as “Requa I”) in Best American Short Stories (1971). Meant to be the beginning of a novel, it combines the darkness of those forced to live in sadness and disorder (it is set in a junkyard) with the possibility of love.
As women sought to find themselves in history and to imagine work that would nourish them, Tillie Olsen came to them as an interpreter; she was “Tillie,” storyteller, wise woman, and mentor. She brought them her past as a living thing, rich in story and implication, and she named women’s experience of silence—the interrupted page, put aside. Her strength appears in memories of those who knew her. For Adrienne Rich, “She lived life to the hilt as long as she could and then, in much physical pain, and with Alzheimer’s, she stayed on to the age of 94.” Her daughters’ announcement of her passing celebrates her many lives:
Tillie Lerner Olsen, internationally honored writer, human rights and anti-war activist, a formative voice of the women’s movement, and a cherished friend, deeply loved Mother, Grandmother, and Great-Grandmother, died January 1, 2007, two weeks shy of her 95th birthday.
Carol Hurd Green teaches in the Capstone Program and the English department at Boston College. She is coeditor of Notable American Women: the Modern Period and coauthor of American Women in the 1960s: Changing the Future