The Legacy of Tillie Olsen
Examining the feminist icon's writing & life
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture.
Tillie Olsen was an American writer and social activist, whose writing reflected the inner lives of the working poor, women, and minorities. Her interest in the lives and work of neglected women’s writing was to go on to inspire the introduction of academic programmes into women’s studies in the US.
She was lauded during her lifetime by scholars, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, who commended her in 1975 for creating a freshly poetic form of fiction.
Yet, this modest writer never even finished high school.
The second child of Jewish, socialist parents, who had played a part in the 1905 Russian Revolution, Tillie Olsen’s father, facing death or exile in Siberia, had escaped to England before emigrating to New York City in 1906, shortly followed by her mother in 1907. The family initially settled in Nebraska but, following their failure to make it as farmers, moved to North Omaha to live amongst a community of Jewish immigrants. The couple never married, but raised six children together remaining active in their political beliefs.
Tillie Olsen was said to be a brilliant child in school, though somewhat wild, and moved rapidly through grade school, graduating in 1924. In high school, she wrote a popular humour column, and her wild and spirited nature led her to sexual experimentation at an early age. This led to a pregnancy at the age of 16, leading to her leaving school, citing ill health and undergoing an abortion. Whilst she later returned, she left again without graduating, though there is uncertainty as to whether she chose to do so or was expelled.
Clearly influenced by her parents’ political activism, Olsen joined the Young Community League, marrying a fellow member in 1931. Attending a communist training school, she was arrested later that year for fomenting worker protests. She contracted what was thought to be pleurisy or incipient tuberculosis during this incarceration, leading to her release in 1932. Her husband took her to stay with his sister in Minnesota to convalesce and this is where she began to write.
Olsen’s first novel, begun in 1932, exposed the indignities of the poor workers during the Great Depression. She was inspired by proletarian novels and the women’s writing which exposed their own experiences, as well as that of the lower classes. Her novel sat unfinished however as she became more involved with the Communist Party and gave birth to a daughter, Karla, after Karl Marx.
She returned to work on the novel in 1933, leaving Karla in the care of a sister-in-law and assisting her husband as a part-time secretary. She also wrote skits and political poems during this time, getting published in various newspapers and journals. The Partisan Review also published the start of her novel, re-titled as a short story entitled ‘The Iron Throat’. During this time, she was occupied producing flyers for the strike on San Francisco’s waterfront after relocating there with her husband to support the workers. She was then incarcerated again under an alias, so that nobody realised the author of her story was the same person. Nationwide publicity circulated, however, revealing her true identity and leading to her release, where she continued to support the strikers by writing powerful articles. This helped to secure a publishing deal for her first novel, as competition between publishing houses ensued, although Olsen failed to submit a completed manuscript at this time, despite receiving a generous advance.
Olsen left her husband and moved in with Jack Olsen, one of the waterfront strikers, during the mid-1930s, sending her daughter Karla to live between her sister-in-laws. She gave birth to two daughters to Jack Olsen, and married him after his deployment in WW2 in 1944, when she became a powerful voice within women’s war work, writing a popular column entitled ‘Tillie Olsen Says’. Following the war, the couple’s final daughter was born, and both Jack and Tillie lost their jobs as the Cold War intensified.
Olsen declared feeling that domestic duties led to an erosion of a woman’s selfhood, and turned herself towards literature, vowing to reflect the topics around women’s lives and the effects of poverty on mixed-race communities, which she saw as absent within contemporary fiction. She published three largely autobiographical stories and a novella in which she attempted to distil large issues into seemingly domestic stories. The first of these, ‘I stand here ironing’, examines a mother’s guilt, and was reprinted in Best American Short Stories in 1957.
‘You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key?’1
This very short story, which is written as a mother speaking to an unseen person, is one of the simplest yet most visceral pieces of writing I have come across on what it means to carry the guilt and shame imposed by society on the working mother.
‘I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were other children pushing up, demanding.’
The ‘mother’ in the monologue refers back to feeding her tiny daughter as a baby, and those long and punishing times which she had to endure for the good of her newborn, and how she felt at leaving the child with a sitter whilst she worked. She references the unbearable weeping she still hears, despite the child now being grown.
‘When she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet’.
The story explores the limited childcare options for a working class woman who needs to work, something which is still discussed as an issue today. The story featured in Olsen’s collection Tell me a Riddle in 1961 and became one of the foremost pieces of work for which Olsen was remembered.
‘The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love’.
In 1963, Olsen gave a seminar talk to Radcliffe College, discussing how women’s talents can become thwarted by circumstances. This coincided with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and helped to inform the women’s movement of the 1960s. The speech, which was revised for Harpers Magazine in 1965, was renamed ‘Silences: When Writers Don’t Write’ and it was this publication to the mainstream which catapulted Olsen into a feminist icon.
Her devotion to forgotten women writers led to the development of the Feminist Press in 1970, and her discovery of such women writers were gathered into ‘Tillie Olsen’s Reading Lists’ in Women’s Studies Newsletter in 1972-73, directly influencing the Feminist Press’ reprint series. She also finally published her novel as Yonnondio: From the Thirties and wrote several essays about the forces that interfere with the formation and expression of literary talents. These were collected in Silences in 1978. This book is often held up as one of the foremost essay collections for understanding the forces affecting the creative output of writing women, and became hugely influential.
Throughout the final decades of her life, Olsen continued to receive grants and fellowships from prestigious universities and made a career out of giving lectures all over the US. Unfortunately however, she failed to produce much of the work she promised to publishers and grant organisations. She continued to present herself as a disadvantaged woman writer affected by poverty, discrimination and motherhood, and spent much of the 1970s and '80s living alone to write.
Olsen continued to remain vital and energetic until her final three years, despite a lifetime of illness, when she sadly succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 94.
Tillie Olsen’s legacy, however, leaves behind confusion and controversy. Though a lively and humorous speaker, she appears to have fabricated some of the issues she writes about in her essays.
She often blamed circumstances which had led to her setbacks as a writer, whilst appearing to fabricate these circumstances, for example citing that she was kept out of school until the age of nine due to a perceived disability, which is shown to be incorrect on education records. She also stated that her father worked in a meat-processing plant in Omaha, which again was proven to be incorrect. She was even reportedly known to completely deny the existence of her first husband!
Many of the books she professed to be writing also likely did not exist, however, it has been suggested that some of this was down to the projection of her adoring fans, who looked to her as a feminist hero who had overcome adversity. Critics have suggested that the collusion amongst the public led to Olsen’s acceptance as a heroic figure, and that she in turn readily accepted this part.
Whatever the truth about Tillie Olsen, it cannot be argued that she made an impact on the discussion around literature and the domestic within 20th century America, and arguably, that the representation of women within the publishing world and academia is in part down to her influence and that of her readers and supporters.