Tillie Olsen

Powerful writer celebrated for the slenderness of her output

Tillie Lerner, writer: born Wahoo, Nebraska 14 January 1912; married 1944 Jack Olsen (three daughters; and one previous daughter); died Oakland, California 1 January 2007.

Tillie Olsen was an iconic American writer whose reputation rests on a slender published output of just five stories, collected in Tell Me a Riddle, and a novel, Yonnondio. Readers who value quality over quantity admire her capacity to pack short forms with intense meaning. Readers who understand the constraints on the creative ambitions of working-class women struggling to combine earning a living with raising children salute her courage in speaking out about those obstacles.

In Silences, published in 1978, a collaged text assembled from a lecture given at Radcliffe College (now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard), Olsen noted that the women writers who had got into the male-dominated canon were middle-class and usually childless. Olsen's work is characterised by its passionate depiction of women's lives, hardships and conflicts, its forging of a narrative voice speaking in a poetic and often angry vernacular, its head-on confrontation with the bruising effects of poverty on the psyche.

She eventually became famous as much for the biographical facts of her life as for her books. Her personal story turned into the over-arching story of female oppression. Olsen, having felt silenced as a writer for much of her life, paradoxically ended up being turned into a sort of saint of silence, revered for embodying exactly the condition she deprecated. She is sometimes criticised, and even derided, by scholars who think she made an entire career out of writer's block, fooling the academics who pitied her, invited her to teach, and got her grants and prizes. Others simply suggest that her perfectionism, and her political activism, as much as her work as a mother of four children, got in the way of her writing.

She sprang from a highly political background. Born in 1912 (or perhaps 1913 - her birth certificate got lost) on a tenant farm in Nebraska, Tillie was the second of six children produced by Samuel and Ida Lerner, Jewish immigrants who had fled Russia after participating in the abortive 1905 revolution. Her father, who worked as a painter and decorator, became the state secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party.

Revolutionary and socialist journals, rather than novels, were the family's chosen reading matter, but Tillie Lerner was fed literature by one of her teachers. She stood out because of her poverty and her Jewishness: she smelled of the garlic in her mother's chicken-feet soup, wore hand-me-down clothes and wiped her nose on her sleeve because she had no handkerchief.

After high school, Lerner worked at a variety of jobs, variously housemaid, waitress, hotel maid, packing-house worker, secretary, tie-presser and factory worker. Aged 18, she joined the Young Communist League and was sent to the Communist Party school in Kansas City. Caught distributing leaflets to packing-house workers, she was put in jail for a month. This experience, which included being beaten up by another inmate, and contracting pleurisy, further radicalised her.

Aged 19, Lerner gave birth to her first daughter, Karla, and began to write her novel Yonnondio. The Partisan Review published the opening part of this in 1934, as a short story called "The Iron Throat", which received instant acclaim. One reviewer, Robert Cantwell, called it "a work of early genius" and it was named the best of 200 stories published in 50 literary magazines that year.

In 1936, having moved to San Francisco with Karla, Tillie Lerner met Jack Olsen, a longshoreman and union organiser. They married in 1944 and had three daughters, Julie, Katherine Jo and Laurie. Tillie Olsen ceased writing, all her time taken up by motherhood, earning a living, trade-union organising, and the sheer struggle to survive the Depression. She snatched moments for writing while on the bus going to work, or at night while the children slept. Much of her writing had to happen in her head rather than getting put down on paper. The oral working-class tradition that let people generously give their tales to each other obviously nourished her as a storyteller but material circumstances did not allow her to translate these on to the page.

In 1953, when her youngest child began going to school, Olsen enrolled in a writing course at San Francisco University. This allowed her to take her writing seriously. In 1955 she was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University, which gave her eight months of paid writing time. She wrote two stories: "Hey Sailor, What Ship?", about a seaman going ashore for riotous times; and "Oh Yes", about a black girl and a white girl trying to make friends as they enter junior high school.

Both these stories were included in the collection Tell Me a Riddle, published in 1961. The eponymous story is perhaps Olsen's finest piece of work. A 50-page novella, of novel-like depth and reach, it is both love-song and lament, both cry of pain and rage and haunting evocation of lifelong struggle. Eva, married for 47 years to David, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. David takes her to visit their children for one last time. Eva refuses to hold her new grandchild. To another, who asks her for riddles, she says she knows none. She retreats into herself, refusing to comfort her grieving family by being sweet and kind. At the end, her husband holds her as she dies.

Olsen's narratives burst out, words that have been dammed up for years. Charged with intensity and reproach, they speak to a single person, to an uncaring world. In the fourth short story in the collection, "I Stand Here Ironing", the speaker's memories and thoughts race hotly and heavily back and forth just as her iron does.

In 1974, Olsen finally finished and published her novel Yonnondio, about a family oppressed by Depression-era poverty. If Silences speaks to her sense of weakness, her fiction attests to her great creative power.

Michèle Roberts

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