I wanted to commemorate her death by re-reading her great short story “I Stand Here Ironing,” but it’s in the office and all I can find on-line are dozens of disheartening links to term papers for purchase. More interestingly, there’s a teaching wiki up that may be of interest to some.
My mother devoured Tell Me a Riddle when I was a girl and I remember her raving about it. I liked the title, but when she told me that one of the great stories was called “I Stand Here Ironing,” and consisted of a woman ironing and talking and thinking about her daughter, I resisted. The very idea felt claustrophobic to me. My mother ironed. She talked about me. Tillie Olsen, from Nebraska with a Scandinavian name (a married name—she was the daughter of Russian Jews), was too close to home. What could I learn from her?
I went on to teach the story several times. It's terrific and devastating. The writing is deceptive: spare and realistic as a great poem by Frost or William Carlos Williams with uncanny moments of mother-speak that bring you right into the intense world of love and worry that is motherhood.
I’m willing, in retrospect, to forgive my snobbishness as a teenager: after all, my mother was educating me to think beyond ironing. Interesting, though, that being unable to see what could possibly be interesting about a woman ironing almost cost Olsen the Stanford Creative Writing Fellowship. (This is from Constance Coiner’s great biographical essay on Cary Nelson’s excellent website.)
At an initial screening intended to eliminate most of the applicants, one of the reviewers for the competition, after reading a few pages of "I Stand Here Ironing," tossed it in the wastebasket in disgust, muttering, "'Can you imagine? That woman went on for pages just about ironing. Standing there ironing!’" Procedurally, at that point the story would have been eliminated from the competition. However, Dick Krause, the one person on the screening committee with a working-class background, happened to overhear the remark and asked to see the piece; he was so moved by it that he delivered it personally to Wallace Stegner, the director of the program. After reading the manuscript, Stegner declared: "'Well, we have to have her"' (interview).Stegner was right, of course. He and my mom hail from the same corner of Iowa and they understand what us snobs often fail to: that everyone’s life is interesting and that it’s worth working hard to listen to the lives of working class people.
Tillie Olsen became a writer against the odds. In Silences she offers an account of how the life of a working class mother mitigates against writing. She’s the writer the Virginia Woolf dreamed about, hoped for, and longed to find when she spoke to Working Women in the Cooperative Guild. Unlike Woolf or American leftists (such as Meridel Le Sueur with whom Olsen is often paired), Olsen was working class: she never had to agonize over the ethics of her identification with the cause. The huge gap between her acclaimed first short story in 1934 and “I Stand Here Ironing” in 1955 stands for the years spent working and raising four daughters.
But she was clearly no ordinary mom. She spent time in jail; she was smeared by McCarthy-era anti-communists, she worked throughout her life for working people, for social revolution, for women’s rights. When the Feminist Press was founded, she worked for them as an advisor, recommending many of the titles that only they have brought back into print.
Trying to write, she sent her daughter to live with her parents. Later, “examining Yonnondio's 11 rough drafts and trying to figure out where she was when she wrote them," Olsen "realized that most of her best writing was done" after her reunion with her daughter (Duncan 212-213)” (Coiner again).
Hungry to read, “She copied passages from books she could not afford to buy and tacked them on the wall by the kitchen sink for inspiration.”
Now that is worthy of a place above all our kitchen sinks. Bless Tillie Olsen! May she rest in peace.
Blue Collar Holler offers this information, should you wish to offer a gift in her name: The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush St., No. 500, San Francisco, CA 94104. The date and time of a public memorial will be announced.