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Tillie Olsen Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Tillie Lerner, Omaha, Nebraska, 1912 or 1913. Education: Some high school. Career: Has worked in the service, warehouse, and food processing industries, and as an office typist. Writer-in-residence, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1969-70; visiting professor, Stanford University, California, Spring 1971; writer-in-residence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1973; visiting professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1974; visiting lecturer, University of California, San Diego, 1978; International Visiting Scholar, Norway, 1980; Hill Professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1986; writer-in-residence, Amherst College; writer-in-residence, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1987; Regents' professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1988. Creative Writing fellow, Stanford University, 1956-57; fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962-64. Awards: Ford grant, 1959; O. Henry award, 1961; American Academy award, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; Unitarian Women's Federation award, 1980; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1966 and 1984; Bunting Institute fellowship, 1986; Nebraska Library Association Mari Sandoz award, 1991; Rea award, for distinguished contribution to the short story, 1994; Distinguished Achievement award, Western Literary Association, 1996. Doctor of Arts and Letters: University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1979; D. Litt.: Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, 1982; Hobart and William Smith College, Geneva, New York, 1984; Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1985; Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania, 1986; Wooster College, Ohio, 1991; Mills College, 1995; Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1998. "Tillie Olsen Day" observed in San Francisco, 1981.



Yonnondio: From the Thirties. New York, Delacorte Press, 1974;London, Faber, 1975.

Short Stories

Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1961;London, Faber, 1964.

Dream Vision. New York, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother, n.d.

Uncollected Short Story

"Requa-I," in The Best American Short Stories 1971, edited byMartha Foley and David Burnett. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1971.


Silences. New York, Delacorte Press, 1978; London, Virago Press, 1980.

Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality: An Exploration in Photographs, with Julie Olsen-Edwards and Estelle Jussim. New York, Aperture, 1987.

Afterword, Life in the Iron Mills. Old Westbury, New York, FeministPress, 1972.

The Word Made Flesh. Iowa City, Iowa Humanities Council, 1984.

Editor, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering. Old Westbury, New York, Feminist Press, 1984; London, Virago Press, 1985.


Manuscript Collection:

Berg Collection, New York Public Library; Stanford Library American Literature Archives, Stanford University, California.

Critical Studies:

Tillie Olsen by Abigail Martin, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1984; Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision by Elaine Neil Orr, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1987; Tillie Olsen by Abby Werlock and Mickey Pearlman, Boston, Twayne, 1991; Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen by Mara Faulkner, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 1993; The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen edited by Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse, Westport, Connecticut, and London, Greenwood Press, 1994; Listening to Silences edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994; Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur by Constance Coiner, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995; Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction by Joanne Frye, Boston, Twayne, 1995; Tell Me A Riddle by Deborah Rosenfelt, Rutgers, Rutgers University Press, 1995; Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst by Nora Ruth Roberts, New York, Garland, 1996; Women's Ethical Coming-of-Age: Adolescent Female Characters in the Prose Fiction of Tillie Olsen by Agnes Toloczko Cardoni, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1997.

* * *

Tillie Olsen repeatedly expresses her conviction that literature is impoverished to the degree that creativity is not nourished and sustained in women and in people of the working class. Her speeches and essays on the waste of talent and on periods of aridity in the lives of authors, her long treatise on Rebecca Harding Davis's thwarted career following marriage, and her notes and quotations of this theme—collected over a period of 15 years—constitute Silences. Her own artistic recognition was postponed by the exigencies of making a living for herself and her children. She "mislaid" a novel for 35 years and wrote no story she thought worthy of publication until she was 43.

Tell Me a Riddle includes the three stories and the novella published between 1956 and 1960. "Tell Me a Riddle" centers on the antagonism which arises between two Jewish immigrants after their 37 years of marriage. In this novella Olsen reflects also upon the embarrassment and bewilderment of their married children as the "gnarled roots" of this marriage split apart. The wife's slow death from cancer greatly intensifies the conflict, but also dramatizes the love that remains only because it has become a habit. The wife returns in her delirium to their 1905 revolutionary activism, as her husband sighs, "how we believed, how we belonged." Almost without plot, this novella demonstrates Olsen's artistry in characterization, dialogue, and sensory appeal, and it fully displays, as does all her fiction, her highly rhythmic and metaphorical use of language.

In the monologue "I Stand Here Ironing" a woman reviews the 19 years of her daughter's life and mourns those days which blighted the daughter's full "flowering." Most intense are the mother's memories of being torn away from her infant in order to support her after they were abandoned. In "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" Whitey, a sailor, is given to drink and to buying admiration from the children of Lennie and Helen by giving them expensive gifts. Here he endures his last visit with his adopted family, with whom he has spent San Francisco shore leaves for years. The oldest daughter, embarrassed before her friends, turns in judgment upon the man who has brought a sense of adventure and romance to the family, while they have provided him some understanding and security over the years. In the elegiac close, Whitey pauses at the top of the third of seven hills to look back through the fog to the house with "its eyes unshaded." In the story "O Yes" a 12-year-old black girl invites her white friend to her baptism. As the throb of voices and clapping and the swaying of bodies intensifies the congregation's religious fervor, the white child feels her senses assailed and faints. The next year in junior high, as rigid social patterns separate the two friends, she mourns the warmth and openness she felt momentarily at the baptism.

The novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, which Olsen began at the age of 19 (when she was already a mother), she abandoned five years later, a few pages short of its close. The manuscript was found 35 years later, and in 1973, in "arduous partnership" with her younger self, Olsen selected, edited, and organized the fragments, but she could not write the ending or rewrite sections. The novel significantly adds to American fiction of the Depression years, and it provides remarkable evidence of Olsen's artistry in her early youth. Greatly impressive are the imagery, the use of smells and sounds, the rhythms which shift notably between the first two sections written from the view of the child Mazie, and the third section which emerges from the narrative consciousness of the mother, Mary Holbrook, dying gradually of exhaustion, childbearing, and malnutrition. The title of this novel is taken from Walt Whitman's "Yonnondio" and in Iroquois means a lament for the aborigines—the authors mourn the common folk who suffered greatly but left "No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future." During the course of the novel, Jim Holbrook moves from a Wyoming mine to a North Dakota tenant farm and finally to a Chicago or Omaha meat-packing plant with his wife and family. The zestful and imaginative Mazie in the early months of their life on the farm becomes ecstatically pantheistic in the style of Whitman's nature poetry, but in the city, in section three, she has lost her aspiration and much of her sensitivity and moves into the background in her bewilderment at her mother's illness and her father's increasing bad temper and dependence on alcohol. Critics generally acclaimed the novel, but several complained that Olsen gives her readers no mercy and that her work may be too painful for sustained reading and too unrelenting in its despair to allow characters to triumph through suffering.

Margaret B. McDowell

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