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Remembering Tillie Olsen
T illie Lerner was never supposed to be a writer. She grew up poor. She dropped out of high school. She was a teenage mother. She worked long hours to support her kids. She got fired. Too often, she recalled, “the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist.” Yet, she wrote.
On January 1, 2007, Tillie Olsen, writer, teacher, and icon of literary feminism, died in Oakland, California. Olsen, safely bound between the covers of high school English textbooks, will never be forgotten. But she would be disappointed if readers didn’t remember also Tillie Lerner, the dreamer and fighter, inseparable from the writer she became.
Tillie Lerner’s world was one of broken dreams and lost fights. Her parents, radical socialists, fled Russia’s failed 1905 revolution and ended up on a Nebraska farm where Tillie was born in either 1912 or 1913 (“no birth certificate seems to exist,” she once reflected). By 1917, Sam, Ida, and the six Lerner children had moved to Omaha, a meatpacking metropolis home to working immigrants and open-shop factory floors. A failed strike in the packinghouses in 1922 had broken the city’s unions.
Her father brought home socialist pamphlets and a modest income from a confectionery, but Tillie said it was her mother who “made me a revolutionary writer.” As an adult, she saw her mother only three times; distance, money, and mothering demands made cross-country trips impossible. But the absent Ida Lerner haunts her daughter’s writings for reasons that emerge from a letter Ida wrote to her teacher at an English-language night school in 1924: “I am glad to study with ardor but the children wont let me, they go to bed late so it makes me tired, and I cant do my lesson. It is after ten o’clock my head dont work it likes to have rest.”
By all accounts Tillie grew into a funny, lively teenager and a voracious reader, but in 1931 she walked away from her senior year at Omaha Central High School as the gray pallor of the Depression began to settle over the Midwest. Rejecting her parents’ moderate socialism, Tillie joined the Young Communist League and after Party school (and her first arrest) in Kansas City, she returned to Omaha. Within a year, she found herself in Faribault, Minnesota, pregnant, mostly alone, stricken with incipient tuberculosis, and starting a novel. She was 19.
Somehow she made her way to California and it must have seemed a sunny place indeed. Not only for the weather, but for the radical community she found soon after moving there in 1933, including a young communist organizer named Jack Olsen, who became her partner (and later, her husband) after they met during San Francisco’s 83-day waterfront strike in 1934. She also discovered a place for herself as a woman radical, energetically teaching a class on the “Woman Question” at the Young Communist League’s headquarters on Haight Street.
The 1930s were “a time of women acting, women working, organizing, effecting changes. It was a different left from that of the 1960s, one imbued with different attitudes and consciousness about women,” she told Ms. magazine in 1974. To be sure, the Communist Party viewed women’s oppression through the lens of class and Olsen remembered being censured for ironing during CP Women’s Commission meetings. But the Party opened a space for the Woman Question. More importantly for Olsen, it urged working-class men and women to create a new socialist art.
Tillie heard that message loud and clear and in 1934 her first poems and a short story appeared in local party publications and then in the inaugural issue of Partisan Review. Her authentic worker’s credentials and vivid style captured the imagination of the New York literary world at a time when radical writing was not only politically important, but commercially viable. Publishers tried to track her down, but initially they had no luck as Lerner had been jailed on vagrancy charges after San Francisco police raided a communist office.
Her arrest made her a cause célèbre. New York radicals chaired a protest meeting after her arrest, literary agents scoured Haight Street, and Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, urged her to write of her jailhouse experiences. Published in the New Republic in August 1934, “Thousand-Dollar Vagrant” brandished the radical tough talk that filled the air that summer and caught the ear of Bennett Cerf, editor at Random House. He offered Lerner the monthly stipend she needed to finish her novel and she gave it a shot, shipping her young daughter off to relatives and moving away from San Francisco’s political maelstrom to write in rented rooms in Los Angeles. But she hated being alone and she never fit in with the Hollywood radicals she met there. Within months, she mailed her checks back to Cerf, set the novel aside, and headed to Stockton to organize asparagus pickers.
In 1972 Jack Olsen found the first chapters of Tillie’s novel
in an attic and Tillie Olsen finally published
in 1974, largely unfinished. “The book,” she wrote, “ceased
to be solely the work of that long ago young writer and, in arduous
partnership, became this older one’s as well.” The novel
takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem about Native Americans
and the poet’s urgent call, “unlimn’d they disappear,”
sprawls across the book’s first page. The unlimned, in
case, are the Holbrooks, a family of farmers who abandoned their
Wyoming coal mining town for a South Dakota farm, and, eventually,
the shabby corner of a meatpacking city that looked (and smelled)
much like Omaha.
Yonnondio must have been heartbreaking to write—the passages on pregnancy, abuse, and poverty have an urgency that hints at Lerner’s own dark times in Minnesota—but had it been published in 1936, it’s unclear how it would have been received. The proletarian fiction of Lerner’s day demanded brave workers, trusty wives, and the unfailing promise of revolution; Yonnondio, though, is a story of half-broken dreams, partly believed in. Lerner wasn’t much for the radical literary politics practiced on New York’s lower east side. “I was not part of any of those literary wars,” she recalled. But to suggest that no new day was coming would have been a betrayal of the communist world in which she lived and worked.
Those early years rarely appear in the standard biography of Tillie Olsen, a narrative of redemption that starts with a woman much like the narrator of her signature story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” whose creative soul—suppressed by 20 years of housework—is barely sustained by fragments of literature found in library books, read on city buses or in noisy kitchens.
Indeed that’s pretty much how it went as financial necessity turned Olsen into a secretary, a transcriber, a waitress, and even a mayonnaise-jar capper. And still there were dishes to do. Organizing took time, too. When the complacent 1950s retreated from politics, Olsen brought politics to her times, mounting protests against civil defense training at her children’s school. Four times Olsen’s name came up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and a subpoena arrived for Jack. Both she and Jack lost jobs because of their radical pasts. Through it all, Tillie kept her family together, ironing away as she heard herself denounced on a local radio station as “a paid agent of Moscow” bent on undermining America’s youth through her plot to take over the Kate Kennedy Elementary School PTA.
In 1953, with her youngest child in school, she walked into a creative writing class at San Francisco State College. Soon one fellowship followed another (“We have to have her” at Stanford,” said novelist Wallace Stegner) and in 1961 she published Tell Me a Riddle, a slim volume of just four stories. The book captures the ambivalent wishes of people whose lives have not turned out as they expected: a mother, at work at her ironing imagines something better for her daughter; an alcoholic sailor seeks a safe haven with old friends; a white girl slowly grows apart from her black friend; and an aging couple’s golden years leave time to scratch at the sores of a less-than-perfect marriage.
On its publication, Tell Me a Riddle met with mixed, but mostly positive reviews. But over time, as U.S. women of the 1960s checked it out of public libraries and read it on city buses and in their own noisy kitchens, they found something precious there. Readers’ devotion to the book is deeply felt, a response not only to its heartbreaking prose, but to the very fact of its having been written at all. As Margaret Atwood put it in 1978, “The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance, but, as at a grueling obstacle race, for the near miracle of her survival.”
By the 1970s, with second-wave feminism at its crest, Olsen’s literary recuperation was complete. Larger audiences crowded her readings and lectures than had ever come to the YCL’s Woman Question classes on Haight Street in the 1930s. That iconic status owes much to the story of her own coming to write, the greatest story Olsen ever told.
Silences, her 1978 essay collection, reveals how inseparable the young Tillie Lerner is from the mature Tillie Olsen. The book is an extended meditation on writing or, more accurately, not writing. Olsen intersperses her lectures and essays with quotations from and aphorisms about other writers, mostly women, who struggled to get ink to paper. Critics disliked the book’s “undigested” style. Joyce Carol Oates found it “scattered, uneven…glib and superficial,” while the the Nation reviewer crabbed that “as an argument it is weak.” But reading Silences is like peeking into Olsen’s private notebooks as she reveals her “undigested” soul. It shows that collage, which allows one to make something radically new and possibly beautiful out of whatever is at hand, is truly the most democratic of art forms. Silences has the shape of a book that might capture the lives of the Holbrooks in Yonnondio or the dreams of Olsen’s own mother.
Olsen’s urge to write aimed at something more transformative than Virginia’s Woolf’s wish for “a room of one’s own.” In Olsen’s vision, sustaining creativity is not an escape or an avenue to personal contentment, but the fundamental precondition for social transformation. As Silences argues, if the creative arts are fundamentally about work, progressives must attend to the working conditions of the artist. “Substantial creative work demands time and with rare exceptions only full-time workers have achieved it.” So, too, it is no surprise that the writers who mattered most to Olsen were women for whom work was the central theme of their fiction—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the early 20th century feminist economist, and Rebecca Harding Davis, author of the sympathetic 1861 novella Life in the Iron Mills, a book that 15-year-old Tillie Lerner found in an Omaha junkshop, which taught her that “literature can be made out of the lives of despised people.”
Christopher Capozzola teaches American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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