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 Russian political refugees who had 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, which was well-known for academic rigor. She left school without completing her studies, however, in order to work various low-wage jobs. This decision was partially based on her family's need during the Great Depression, and partially on her own academic failure. Throughout the Great Depression she worked as a tie presser, a meat trimmer, a domestic worker and a waitress.
Despite leaving school, Lerner remained an avid reader thanks to public libraries. 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." The work bears a 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, entitled "Life in the Iron Mills." It was one of the few pieces of literature she had read that focused on the lives of the proletariat and the struggles of labor. It was not until the 1950s that she would discover it was written by a woman, Rebecca Harding Davis.
She finished its first four chapters over the next several years, but she lacked the time to ever complete it. Instead, in 1934, she published an excerpt from its first chapter in The Partisan Review, as a short story called "The Iron Throat." Random House tracked her down, and she signed a contract with them, to produce a chapter a month in exchange for a stipend. Leaving her newborn daughter with relatives, she then moved to Los Angeles so she could write full-time. Unfortunately, she was troubled by living without her infant daughter, and she abandoned the project in 1937.
In 1936, Tillie Lerner became Tillie Olsen when she married Jack Olsen. Over time, they had three more daughters together, and Olsen spent her next twenty years raising the girls, working low-wage jobs and participating in political activities in the meanwhile.
As young as seventeen, Olsen had been involved in left-wing politics, as an active member of the Young Communists' League. Those interests only grew throughout her life. In 1934, she was jailed for attempting 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 respectively.) Her husband Jack was also politically active, and the couple spent a great deal of time both supporting local left-wing politics and participating in unionization movements.
Olsen did not return to writing until 1953, when she followed her eldest daughter's suggestion to enroll in a writing class at San Francisco State. The instructor quickly recognized her talent, and encouraged her to take higher-level courses.
Soon enough, 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, which was first 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 her popularity to ensure that "Life in the Iron Mills" was republished, and she wrote its afterword when it was finally put back in print in 1972. During the early 1970s, Jack Olsen discovered Yonnondio among Olsen's old papers and manuscripts. Though it had been composed on scrawled pages, envelopes, and discarded trash, Olsen pieced it novel together to select its most appropriate fragments for publication in 1974. In 1978, she published Silences, a collection of essays examining the circumstances that block people, especially women, from literary creation.
Although Olsen produced 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 write about the labor and the hardships of everyday people as high tragedy. She was also one of the first American writers to understand the particular ways in which a woman's voice can be oppressed by conditions of time, space, and resources. Margaret Atwood has claimed that other women writers must regard her not simply with "respect" but with "reverence."
Olsen died on January 1, 2007, in Oakland, California.