Tillie Olsen (January 14, 1912 – January 1, 2007) was an American author of fiction and nonfiction whose body of work was small but nonetheless left an impact. Born in Nebraska, Olsen did not do well in school and left to work so she could support her parents and six siblings. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants and their socialist views and activism added much to Olsen’s childhood and influenced her later life.
She started writing her first novel, Yonnondio, at the age of 19 while sick with tuberculosis; she found out she was also pregnant. She published the first three chapters as a short story called The Iron Throat in The Partisan Review, which lead to Olsen signing with Random House and she went to work in Los Angeles. She could not stand being away from her daughter and in 1937 with her novel unfinished, she went back home.
Tillie Olsen was married in 1944 and had two more daughters. Olsen worked at various jobs to support her husband and children. She found it challenging to juggle the raising of children, working to earn a living, and to live a creative life. She wrote about her own challenges and applied it to the broader community of well-known women authors in her nonfiction book Silences (1978).
Writing very little in her downtime but in the 1950’s, with her daughters now older, she went back to school for writing. With great encouragement she produced work that showcased lower class, hard working people, especially mothers.
Olsen is also recognized for her activism. Like her parents, she fought for women’s and human rights, against the war and overall justice and equality for the world. She won countless awards for both her writing and activism.
- Tillie Olsen on Wikipedia
- A Tribute to Tillie Olsen
- The Tillie Olsen Film Project
- Tillie Olsen Interview – The Progressive
- Tillie Olsen page on Amazon
- Reader discussion of Tillie Olsen’s books on Goodreads
- Tillie Olsen Papers – Department of Special Collections,
Green Library, Stanford, CA
Tillie Olsen Quotes
“Be critical. Women have the right to say: This is surface, this falsifies reality, this degrades.”
“The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked.”
“Time granted does not necessarily coincide with time that can be most fully used.”
“Because I’m a human being and human beings have a need to express themselves. Also, I stuttered. So I listened a lot, and there was a lot to listen to in my neighborhood. And there was the wonder of the black church, right around the corner. I loved that music so much, sometimes I’d go sit on the stairs. Once one of the women said, “Why don’t you come up and sit in a real chair?” So I went in and came every Sunday I could.” (Olsen’s answer to the question: ‘Why do you write?’, in an interview for The Progressive, 1999)
” I very much dislike the word “race,” and I never use it. I use the word “racist.” Race is not a fact. There is only one race: human. Skin color is less than 2 percent of the DNA.” (From an interview for The Progressive, 1999)
“History gives me hope.” (From an interview for The Progressive, 1999)
“I could not live by literature if only to begin with, because of the slow maturing of my work and its special character.”
“There are worse words than cuss words, there are words that can hurt.” (Tell Me a Riddle, 1961)
“More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible.”
“And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total?”
“Be critical: Women have the right to say: this is surface, this falsifies reality, this is degrades.”
“For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made–as their other contributions–anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost.” (Dedication to the book Silences, 1962)
“Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me.–what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)–that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.” (Silences, 1962)
“The truly memorable poem, story, or book, then the writer ceasing to be published (As Jean Toomer,Cane; Henry Roth, Call It Sleep; Edith Summers Kelley, Weeds). Was one work all the writers had in them (life too thin for pressure of material, renewal) and the respect for literature too great to repeat themselves? Was it “the knife of the perfectionist attitude in art and life” at their throat? Were the conditions not present for establishing the habits of creativity (a young Colette who lacked a Willy to lock her in her room each day)? Or–as instanced over and over–other claims, other
responsibilities so writing could not be first? (The writer of a class, sex, color still marginal in literature, and whose coming to written voice at all against complex odds is exhausting achievement.) It is an eloquent commentary that this one-book silence has been true of most black writers, only eleven in the hundred years since 1850 have published novels more than twice. There is a prevalent silence I pass by quickly, the absence of creativity where it once had been; the ceasing to create literature, though the books may keep coming out year after year.” (Silences, 1962)
“There’s been some change, as is evident by the number of women writers who are read. And education itself has somewhat changed. There’s a lot more encouragement, a lot more writing classes. It was the women’s movement that gave women in academe a certain strength. If you’d look at the old reading lists, maybe George Eliot, the Bront‘s, Virginia Woolf might be taught. At Stanford, I think it was 1971, they needed somebody [to teach their first-ever course on women’s literature], and my name was suggested. Well, I had no credentials. I had never gone to college. And there was quite a to-do about whether or not I had the qualifications. It was supposed to be a small class. I went into this auditorium. It was jammed. There were, I think, four guys, one of whom went out and then came back again and then went out and then came back again. There were over 100 women there, including faculty wives. By and large, none of this had ever been taught at Stanford before.” (Olsen’s answer to the question: ‘How has the situation of women writers changed?’, in an interview for The Progressive, 1999)
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