Biography of Tillie Olsen (1912-2007)
Tillie Lerner was born in either 1912 or 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Her exact birthdate and year remain unknown, as her birth certificate was lost.) Her parents were political refugees from Russia. They fled from Czarist oppression after the 1905 revolution, and were forced to settle for low-wage jobs and a modest life in America.
A bright child, Lerner attended Omaha Central High School, a school well-known for academic rigor. She left school without completing her studies, in order to work various low-wage jobs. This decision was partially based on her family's need and her own failure in a class. She would continue to read avidly in public libraries wherever she moved. Throughout the Great Depression she worked as a tie presser, a meat trimmer, a domestic worker and a waitress.
At the age of nineteen, Lerner began her only novel, Yonnondio. The title is taken from a Walt Whitman poem and means, "a lament for the lost." It bears resemblance to the another novel about poverty-stricken workers in the 1930s, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Lerner also claims that the book was heavily influenced by an unsigned novella published in an 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, titled "Life in the Iron Mills." It was one of the few pieces of literature, she claimed, that focused on the lives of the proletariat and the struggles of labor as a subject for literature. It was not until the 1950s that she would discover it was written by a woman, Rebecca Harding Davis.
She finished the first four chapters over the next several years. The novel remains unfinished, as she intended to continue the story but was unable to find the time to complete it. In 1934 she published part of the first chapter in The Partisan Review as a short story called "The Iron Throat." Publishers attempted to track her down in order to publish more work, and one of them?Random House?succeeded. She signed a contract to produce a chapter a month in return for a stipend, left her newborn daughter with relatives and moved to Los Angeles to complete the work. Unfortunately, she was unable to take the stresses of life alone without her newborn, and she abandoned the project in 1937.
In 1936, Tillie Lerner became Tillie Olsen, with her marriage to Jack Olsen. The couple would have three more daughters. Olsen would devote the majority of the next twenty years to raising her four daughters, working low-wage jobs and participating in political activities. As young as seventeen, Olsen was involved in left-wing politics. She was an active member of the Young Communists' League. In 1934 she was jailed for her efforts to unionize packinghouse workers. (That same year she wrote two essays about this experience, "Thousand-Dollar Vagrant," and "The Strike," for The Nation and Partisan Review.) Jack was also active politically and the couple spent a great deal of time supporting local left-wing politics and participating in unionization movements.
Olsen did not return to writing until 1953. At this time, she followed the suggestion of her eldest daughter and enrolled in a writing class at San Francisco State. The instructor quickly decided that he had nothing to teach her and recommended that she try for another course. She won a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University for 1955 and 1956. During these years, she began work on the four short stories collected in
Tell Me a Riddle, published in 1961. Riddle contains the much-anthologized stories "Tell Me a Riddle," and "I Stand Here Ironing." It remains her most famous work.
Riddle established Olsen's reputation and led to many other fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees. She used some of her popularity to urge the republication of "Life in the Iron Mills," and wrote an afterword to the novella. It was republished in 1972. During the early 1970s, Jack Olsen discovered Yonnondio among Olsen's old papers and manuscripts. The novel was written on continuous sheets of paper as well as scrawled pages, envelopes, and discarded trash. Olsen pieced the novel together and selected the most appropriate fragments, then published it in 1974. In 1978 she published Silences, a collection of essays examining the circumstances that block people?especially women?from literary creation.
Although Olsen has a slim collection of literary output, her influence on other writers, especially women, cannot be over-emphasized. She was one of the first American writers to make labor and the hardships of everyday people a subject for high tragedy. She was also one of the first American writers to understand the particular ways in which women's voices are oppressed by conditions of time, space, and resources. Margaret Atwood has claimed that other women writers must regard her not simply with "respect" but "reverence."
Olsen died on January 1, 2007, in Oakland, California.