Tilted on her Pedestal

Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

By Panthea Reid

New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010, 464 pp., $34.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Carol Hurd Green

In the mid-1990s, Panthea Reid, then a professor at Louisiana State University and teaching the story “Tell Me a Riddle,” found Tillie Olsen’s name listed among the members of the Virginia Woolf Society (Reid had recently completed Art & Affection: a Life of Virginia Woolf [1996]). She decided that writing about a living writer—especially a “great writer” who was “adored by many”—would be “fun.” More than ten years later—after scores of interviews, untold hours in libraries and archives, and laboriously reading papers, often scraps, covered with Olsen’s tiny, defiantly unreadable writing—Reid sensed that her own “life story might forever be entangled with [Olsen’s].”

One Woman, Many Riddles dares readers to reevaluate its subject. Reid sets out to interrogate the heroic feminist image that adorned Olsen in her last decades, to fill in the neglected, blurred, or falsified facts of her long life, and to answer riddles—most notably, “Why didn’t Tillie write?” She did, of course: stories and beautiful fragments that, though few, call us back to reread them, and an abundance of articles and speeches (most unpublished and many identified by Reid) that engaged her deepest passion for justice, for workers, and for women. But the great working-class novel that Olsen began in the 1930s and repeatedly promised to believing and supportive publishers and foundations remained incomplete; it appeared, finally, as an unfinished work—Yonnondio: from the Thirties—in 1974. Occasionally, Olsen declared the novel “dead,” superseded by more significant political and family obligations. But she couldn’t let go of it. Though noting that Olsen had a “magical view of writing,” Reid can’t forgive her this failure.

Reid promised Olsen when they first met, in 1997, that her biography would not appear while Olsen was alive. They last saw each other in summer 2006; Alzheimer’s prevented Olsen from recognizing her biographer. Olsen died on New Year’s Day 2007. The deathbed scene, Reid was told, was warm and loving: “Her family was there, singing the old songs she loved”—a poignant reminder of the deathbed longing of Olsen’s mother, Ida Lerner, for Russian lullabies and the rejected rituals of Judaism. That scene, which had been described to Olsen by her sister Lillian, haunted her: “My mother—her death bed—singing herself lullabies,” she mourned. (By the time Olsen had arrived, Ida Lerner was incapable of speech.) She had written to her mother, and wrote warmly to Lillian afterward—rare occurrences: though Olsen often protested her love for her parents and siblings, the book shows that she paid them only sporadic attention.

Reid had wept at the family service; she listened more skeptically as scholars and feminists praised Olsen at a September gathering organized by Olsen’s longtime admirer and colleague Florence Howe, the founder of the Feminist Press. In December, speaking on a Modern Language Association conference panel, Reid listed “falsities” rampant in biographical accounts by Olsen and others and argued for the “real facts.” The panel moderator cut her paper short, citing time: it was “an attempt to censor me by those who wished to canonize Tillie,” Reid says.

These stories appear in the epilogue to Reid’s ambitious and obsessively well-researched biography. They underscore tensions recurrent throughout. As she pursued the truth about Olsen, the two played what seemed to Reid to be a “game of hide and seek.” “What a sleuth you are!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Olsen wrote to Reid in 1999, perhaps admiringly, although her tone is unclear. Tracking down the facts, from Tillie Lerner’s birth in Omaha in 1912 to her death, Reid is both an investigator and a moralist, who insists the reader know that even as a child, “Tillie was a problem. Tillie was a liar,” in the words of her brother Gene. Hardly the “adorable” Tillie whom admirers pursued, says Reid, Olsen’s habits of self-glorification and self-preservation often gained her credit she did not deserve.

The psychic relation between biographer and subject is always a fascinating arena for speculation. Reid offers an overwhelming abundance of detail (we find out how many times Olsen sent back a restaurant lunch—twice), from which Olsen emerges as a strong and willful woman who fully—if sometimes less than truthfully—inhabited her times. Always passionate, often generous and charming, a deeply ideological activist on behalf of workers and women, Olsen was convinced of her own importance and genius, and she tried the patience of many who met her; yet she retained the love of her daughters and grandchildren and the admiration of many younger feminists and scholars whose work she encouraged. Reid (who becomes almost as much protagonist as biographer) recounts her efforts to preserve Olsen’s papers and her exhaustive search for witnesses: admirers, detractors, and those in between—like Alice Walker, who is sharply critical of Olsen’s self-absorption and her exploitive attitude toward writers of color, yet who acknowledges that she had “a good heart.”  Shaped by her times, Olsen tried also to shape them; the book acknowledges her power, however flawed.

Reid corrects and supplements the details of Tillie Lerner Olsen’s life, beginning with an account of the Russian heritage of her parents, Sam and Ida Lerner, and their move to America, which she sets within the context of American radical history. Tillie was the family rebel: an aspiring writer, beauty (as she remained), sexual adventurer (she had her first abortion at age sixteen)—and terrible role model for other girls. She was twice expelled from school and finally dropped out to pursue politics and passion. She joined the Young Communist League in 1930.

Reid has discovered the details of Olsen’s first marriage, which are absent from other biographical accounts: Olsen often implied she was a single mother. The radical Abe Jevons Goldfarb, a “handsome, mysterious, great soul,” was 35 and Tillie Lerner eighteen when they married in 1931. Their daughter Karla was born in 1932. As the child of an enthusiastically preoccupied political activist, Karla had an erratic childhood. Alternately deposited with her patient maternal grandparents and with members of Goldfarb’s family, her health neglected, she would be snatched back suddenly and emotionally by her mother, only to be left again as Olsen followed Party directives. (It is important to note that, unlike her siblings, Karla did not participate in Reid’s research.) Goldfarb, involved in labor disputes, died in a mysterious car accident in 1937; Tillie returned obsessively to the question, “Why was Abe hit so hard?”

The chapters on the early and mid-1930s, with their titles “Revolutionary and Mother,” “Early Genius,” and “Great Feminist Hope,” tell tales of triumph and discovery. Though whirlwind activities for the Party competed with her writing, 1934 brought three publications, including a moving poem in The Partisan (a publication of the California John Reed Club), “I Want You Women Up North to Know,” drawn from an oppressed working woman’s letter in New Masses. The April/May issue of the newly founded Partisan Review published “The Iron Throat” [their title], part of the first chapter of Olsen’s planned working-class novel. In July, Robert Cantwell, in a broad survey of little magazines in The New Republic, singled out the story as “so fresh and imaginative” that it could be called a “work of early genius.” Olsen was in jail for strike activities when Cantwell’s article appeared.

Between 1940 and 1945 Olsen was a “war-relief heroine.” With the the left supporting US entry into World War II, she took on a new public role, writing and speaking to large crowds on behalf of the war effort for the CIO’s national War Relief Committee. In 1944 she married her longtime lover, longshoreman and union activist (and father of her other three daughters), Jack Olsen, as he prepared to ship out for war. Both would become lifelong targets for the FBI.

Chapters detailing Olsen’s juggling of motherhood and politics, her economic and health struggles, her exhilaration in her public role, and her growing passion for women’s causes, provide an alternative to the narrative that focuses on Olsen primarily as a frustrated writer. She was also the determined and eloquent champion of causes that both energized her and brought her the public acclaim she craved.

As the family continued to struggle financially, Olsen had an opportunity to study writing at Stanford. Slowly, the memorable stories, deeply rooted in the poignant complexities of American working-class family life—and of her own family—came: “I Stand Here Ironing” appeared in Best American Short Stories in 1951, and O’Henry Awards named “Tell Me a Riddle” the best story of 1961. Opportunities expanded: grants, fellowships, and professorships ensued. She first poured out her story of the “silences” imposed by domesticity on women writers’ lives in 1963 at the Bunting (now Radcliffe) Institute—and although some found it self-serving, her message reverberated as she retold it, and her recognition grew.

The titles of later chapters—“Tillie Appleseed:1970-1974” (about Olsen’s dissemination of feminist ideas); “Queen Bee:1975-1980”; and “Image Control: 1982-1996”—show Reid’s skepticism about Olsen as feminist icon. Olsen, Reid believes, came along at the right time, when the need for a feminist heroine was great; in a moment of self-knowledge Olsen even admitted as much to Reid, saying that she knew how to fulfill the need.

One Women, Many Riddles too often reads like an exposé, and it leaves Olsen tilted on her feminist pedestal. Her major stories, however (about which Reid has little to say), retain their place as masterpieces.

Carol Hurd Green teaches in the Capstone program at Boston College. Her obituary article on Tillie Olsen appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of WRB.

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