Tillie Olsen

Panthea Reid

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Tillie Olsen

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The writing career of Tillie Lerner Olsen follows peculiar parabolic swings between celebrity and obscurity. Born on 14 January 1912 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Russian Jewish immigrants, both committed socialists, she wrote a high-school humor column that made her momentarily famous before she dropped out of school. She spent several years campaigning against rampant poverty and political oppression, writing anonymous skits and columns for the Young Communist League. In 1934, her story “The Iron Throat,” two poems, and accounts of her role in and arrest after the San Francisco Maritime and General Strikes made her a cause célèbre. With publishers vying to sign her, she chose Random House, but she reneged on her contract and passed into obscurity, working for the Communist Party, writing some often-anonymous journalism, volunteering for labor and women’s movements, raising four daughters, working at ordinary jobs, and chairing parent-teacher associations. A Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship (1955–1956) enabled Olsen to return to writing. In 1957 alone, she published three stories and then in 1960 the novella “Tell Me a Riddle.” Her four stories were published as Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection written in startlingly poetic prose that established domestic experiences as compelling subjects for fiction. Nevertheless, the collection went out of print. Olsen reemerged from obscurity with a new publisher who reissued Tell Me a Riddle. She wrote a 1965 essay protesting the poor representation of women in the literary marketplace, and a 1970 story, “Requa.” She worked with the Feminist Press to rescue near-forgotten women writers, including Rebecca Harding Davis, about whom Olsen wrote a lengthy 1972 essay. Her 1930s novel resurfaced and was published as Yonnondio in 1974. Olsen was again a cause célèbre. She promised a novel to granting agencies and her publisher. Instead, in 1978, she published Silences, a collection of her own essays and of commentary from herself and others, about unnatural silences forced on disadvantaged persons. Silences inspired women’s studies programs, and Olsen became a sought-after lecturer, teacher, and near celebrity. She won major grants and residencies and received nine honorary doctorate degrees. Six full-length studies were published (twice as many books than Tillie Olsen actually wrote). After enthusiastic studies between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, critical treatments of Olsen’s work almost ceased, though invitations to lecture continued. She promised to complete “Requa I” to write a novel, and to publish a collection of her many talks. None of these appeared before her death on 1 January 2007.

Article.  9897 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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