Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Making an Example of Ehren â€¦
Anti-War Photo Essay
Z Papers on Vision & Strategy
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
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.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.