English 6923: Working-Class Literature
Tillie Lerner Olsen's life could be comparable to the lives that she portrays in her fictional stories. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants who fled from political persecution in their homeland to Nebraska - the place where Tillie Lerner was presumed to be born. Her father worked in a paper mill, a packinghouse, and as a farmer as well as held many other working-class jobs. He also was interested in politics and became an active member of the Nebraska Socialist Party. This is probably where Tillie got her political ambition. As a teenager she joined the Young Socialists League and then later the Young Communist League. She became highly active in demanding fairness in the work place. It was during one such demand for fairness that she was jailed for handing out pamplets to packinghouse workers. Tillie Lerner married Jack Olsen and had a total of four daughters (the oldest of which was the product of a previous relationship). She took on various working-class jobs in order to help out her family. However, she continued to be a devoted parent as well as active in the PTA, the CIO's Allied War Relief, and the California CIO's Women's Auxillary. She also continued to write politically charged and feminist pieces despite harassment. Olsen first gained recognition for the first chapter of Yonnondio entitled "The Iron Throat." Olsen has since won the O. Henry Award for "Tell Me a Riddle" in 1961, the Outstanding Woman author Award at the Nebraska State Convention of Business and Professional Women in 1980, and the Unitarian-Universalist Women's Federation Ministry to Women Award in 1980 as well as acquired many different fellowships and honorary degrees over the years.
Tillie Olsen could undoubtedly be called a working-class author. Besides having a working-class background, Olsen devotes much of her work to the plight of the working-class individual and all who depend on that individual. Her works such as Yonnondio, the short stories "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "I Stand Here Ironing" found in her anthology Tell Me a Riddle as well as poems such as "I Want You Women Up North to Know" powerfully depict the needs, struggles and the unfairness of being a member of the working class. Through the use of a powerful language that enables the reader to visualize the pain, frustration and despair of being working class, Olsen's works never seem to lack the message that things need to be changed even when it appears that the protagonists have given up or simply accepted their situation. In her short story "I Stand Here Ironing", for example, a mother is thinking about all that her daughter has had to endure while growing up and is trying to figure out why a counselor at her daughter's school wants to meet with her. At the end, however, she simply states, "Let her be." This may be an indication to the reader that the mother has given up trying to figure things out and therefore has given up trying to change how things are in their lives, but the feeling remains with the readers that they themselves can't give up. They see and feel the unfairness and this feeling remains with them long after they put the book down.
Olsen's work is not just limited to dealing with working-class issues. Olsen herself has often been called a feminist critic, and much of her work deals with feminist issues. Her book, Silences, which has acquired much criticism, examines how a woman's creative voice is often 'silenced' by having children or even by the dominance of men in the creative art world. She mentions authors such as Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alphra Behn, and Rebecca Harding Davis among others and examines how their lives and the lives they portray are often influenced and affected by the male dominated society and the male dominace within the creative literature art itself. Other fictional works such as "Tell Me a Riddle" in the anthology of the same name as well as the aforementioned "I Stand Here Ironing" also have feminist undertones which bring to light the injustices some women have had to face. But, again, Olsen doesn't preach this unfairness to her audience, but instead she allows the readers to get so involved with the female protagonists that they see and feel exactly how the protagonists feel. And this causes the readers to furnish their own ideas of right and wrong and how change must take place within society.
In comparison to some other authors, Tillie Olsen has not written a great number of novels or other shorter pieces, but her work nonetheless remains powerful and influential even today. Olsen's voice reaches far through the pages of her works and speaks to her readers' sense of decency and righteousness. And, hopefully through this, her voice will reach enough people so that change can occur to eliminate the harsh realities of the world for those who are working class and those who are female.
Coiner, Constance. "Tillie Olsen." Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. 2000. U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This site consists of an in depth look by Constance Coiner at Tillie Olsen's life as well as a historical look at Olsen's "I Want You Women Up North to Know." Another section of this site offers the original letter written by Felipe Ibarro which inspired Olsen's "I Want You Women..." poem. Also included in this site is an excerpt of Silences and the poem "There is a Lesson." This site is great for anyone who wants to take a deep look at Olsen's life and the works that resulted from her experience.
Offering a little longer bibliography, this site is great for anyone interested in Olsen's life and accomplishments as well as an in depth look into her first novel, Yonnondio. A list of characters, themes, and a short summary of Yonnondio are offered. For those who want to take a closer look at this novel, a summary and analysis of chapters as well as essays and other related links are offered. This site would be great for anyone particularly interested in Yonnondio itself.
Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Virginia: U of Virginia Press, 1994.
This very pro-Olsen work focuses on the themes Olsen addresses in her works and discusses how Olsen's writing style is intricately and ingeniously structured to make very valid points in attempt to call for change. This book is a good resource for anyone who wants to take an in depth look at the themes portrayed in Olsen's work. However, in order for this book to be a true asset, a reader may also want to examine other more critical resources as well.
Huse, Nancy and Kay Hoyle Nelson, Eds. The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc, 1994.
This book discusses Olsen's life as well as offers criticism of the underlying themes dealing with class, feminism, and race issues that are central to Olsen's works. This book proves to be an asset to anyone who wants to gain insight on various criticism of Tillie Olsen's work in one convenient resource.
Martin, Abigail. Tillie Olsen. Boise State University Western Writers Ser. 65. Idaho: Boise State University Printing and Graphics Services, 1984.
This small book takes a look at Tillie Olsen's life and her works. It gives summaries of Yonnondio, Tell Me a Riddle, Silences, Requa I as well as discusses Olsen's life in relation to these works. The final quarter of this book takes an unbiased look at some cricism of Olsen's work including those who enjoy her work to those that don't. This book is a must have for anyone interested in a crash course about Tillie Olsen, her life, her works, and some criticismof both in about forty-eight pages.
This small article takes a look at how one reads one of Olsen's works and how it would have been read at the time they were written. It also brings up the feminist perspectives of Silences and Tillie Olsen's reclamation of her own voice in the art that mainly consists of men. This site is interesting in that it attempts to look deeper at Olsen and her work but may be too short to really address any complex issues.
"Tillie Olsen." Nebraska Center for Writers. Creighton University.
This site offers a brief bibliography of Tillie Olsen as well as a sample from her short story "Tell Me a Riddle" found within the anthology of the same name. Also included are summaries of Mothers and Daughters, Silences, Tell Me a Riddle, and Yonnondio. These summaries also include tiny snippets of 'book jacket' criticism as well. Overall, this site offers a tiny piece of information about Olsen and her works in relation to other resources.
Tillie Olsen - A Heart in Action. A film by Ann Hershey, 2007, 66 minutes, Color, DVD
This revelatory documentary is an inspiring homage to Tillie Lerner Olsen - a renegade, revolutionary, distinguished fiction and non-fiction writer, feminist, humanist, labor organizer and social activist. Politically active, class conscious, deeply joined to the world, Tillie countered the very core of American writing by immortalizing the lives of working class women and single mothers. Her short stories "Tell Me a Riddle," and "I Stand Here Ironing," galvanized the literary world and set in motion an essential new perspective on the lives of ordinary women.
Filmmaker Ann Hershey tells not only the story of Olsen as a writer, but also documents her life as an activist. Extended interviews with Olsen during the last years of her life are deftly interspersed with footage from her readings, lectures and book signings as well as with archive materials and comments from notable feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker. A perfect companion film in courses covering Olsen's literature, this documentary is also recommended for women's studies, labor studies, political studies and American history courses.