“I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” Thus begins the story collection Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen’s first book, published in 1962. Olsen was born in 1912. Why, we might ask, why did it take her so long to begin publishing? The sentence itself does the unsentimental math: 50 years of housework, of childcare, of standing still. “I raised children without household help,” Olsen wrote in an essay some years later, “or the help of the ‘technological sublime’ (the atom bomb was in manufacture before the first automatic washing machine) … as distant from the world of literature … as literature is distant from my world.”
Olsen, who died on Jan. 1, lived an astonishingly long life. She was born the daughter of a Russian Jewish paperhanger in Omaha, Neb., and in her 20s participated in the Young Communist League and in the strikes of the Great Depression; shortly before she died, she had been struggling to persuade the San Francisco Public Library to acquire more books and fewer computers. Her output, from any perspective, was small: one collection of stories, one novel, one work of nonfiction, and the text of a book of photographs. She wrote very little after the publication of her novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, in 1974. In some ways, even after her work received great acclaim, she kept the literary world at arm’s length, and it returned the favor; her name rarely appears on lists of great fiction writers of the 20th century, and only one of her books is currently in print. Yet she deserves to be remembered—as a writer of lacerating, heartbreaking fiction, and as one of the most insightful, and incisive, critics ever to write about the circumstances under which literature is produced.
One of Olsen’s literary heroes was Thomas Hardy, and even, to some extent, Jude of Jude the Obscure; and indeed, her early life had a Jude-like quality of impoverished origins and thwarted ambition. A high-school dropout, she educated herself in public libraries while working a series of menial jobs. As a union organizer and socialist, she began reporting for The Nation in the 1930s. In 1934 she published the first chapter of Yonnondio in the Partisan Review and received a book contract from Random House. Then—married to Jack Olsen, a fellow activist, with a family to support and little income—she had to abandon the novel and return to work and child-rearing full time. Only when the youngest of her four children was in school did she begin to try to write again, with great difficulty. “The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken,” she wrote many years later. “Habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you. … The cost of ‘discontinuity’ is such a weight of things unsaid … that what should take weeks, takes me months to write; what should take months, takes years.”
The result—Tell Me A Riddle—is some of the most powerfully compressed story writing of our time, written, it seems, without a minute or a word to spare. Speaking of the return of her daughter, whom she had sent to her husband’s family during the Depression, the narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing” says,
When she came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father … thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks. All the baby loveliness gone. She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now—the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children.
In the story “O Yes,” a white mother, Helen, listens to her daughter Carol describing her first day of junior high and realizes just how the black children will be socially isolated and encouraged to drop out of school: “The models showing How to Dress and How Not to Dress—their straight skirt, their sweater, their earrings, lipstick, hairdo. … It was nowhere in Carol’s description, yet picturing it now, it seemed to Helen that a mute cry of violated dignity hung in the air.” Olsen’s descriptions are fleeting, her stories crowded with competing voices and sensations, and yet her authorial presence is one of absolute and unsentimental moral clarity. “Tell Me a Riddle,” an account of a Russian Jewish grandmother’s bitter, agonizing death, becomes a piercing lament for a generation of immigrant women who sacrificed so their offspring could live “unravaged by disease, in warm houses of many rooms.” Yet Olsen excuses neither the grandmother’s self-pitying inertia nor her childrens’ oblivious resentment; the story ends not with reconciliation, but with the old woman slipping back into memories of her idealistic youth, when she was truly happy.
Once Tell Me a Riddle was published, Olsen turned her attention to an enormously ambitious critical project: She wanted to answer, once and for all, the question of why writers—not only women writers—so often fall silent at the height of their powers. Silences, published in 1978, is a thick compilation of quotations, autobiographical reflections, and critical pieces on Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and Rebecca Harding Davis, a 19th-century American writer Olsen almost single-handedly wrested from total obscurity. “What are creation’s needs for full functioning?” Olsen asks, and answers: “Wholly surrendered and dedicated lives; time as needed for the work; totality of self.” That is, a lack of psychic burdens, a feeling of freedom from life’s endless responsibilities—for women in particular, the freedom to place their own “infinite capacity” first, ahead of husbands and children. It is no accident, she points out, that the few women writers there were before 1950 were nearly all childless or had servants; male writers, on the other hand, if not independently wealthy, had to rely on fickle patrons (Rilke), support themselves with unwelcome jobs (Melville), or live in abject poverty (ditto). Olsen herself was able to write Tell Me a Riddle thanks to a Ford grant, which “came almost too late.” Throughout her later life she was an enthusiastic supporter of public support for the arts; along with other writer-activists of the same generation, she helped ensure that most American writers now receive at least some support from foundations, state and federal organizations, or universities.
Olsen withdrew from writing near the end of her life, and it’s difficult to know what she thought of the literary world she helped create. Was she pleased, one wonders, that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was recently named “the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years” by the New York Times, or chagrined that only one other woman—Marilynne Robinson—was in the running? Happy at the proliferation of MFA programs, or dismayed by the rise of “chick lit”? Most likely she would focus unswervingly on the one issue that animated everything she wrote: the exclusion from literary life of the underclass, of those too busy working or worrying about their next rent payment or medical bill to have the time or resources for reading or writing. In this way, American culture has changed relatively little since the 1950s—or the 1850s. “We cannot speak of women writers in our century,” she wrote, “without also speaking of the invisible, the as-innately-capable: [those] born to the wrong circumstances—diminished, excluded, foundered.” Look around you on your way to work, she might say to us, or the next time you eat at a restaurant or visit a nail salon, and listen: That deafening silence is the sound of literature not being written.