Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tillie Olsen, RIP

Tillie Olsen died earlier this week (via RSB). The pioneering leftist feminist writer was just weeks shy of her 95th birthday.

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.


Ms. Strega (Joan) said...

A wonderful tribute to one of our finest writers. Thank you!

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

This is a wonderful piece, a very feeling tribute.

thanks so much

CateLo said...

It has been many years since I read Tillie Olsen. Thanks for writing this tribute to her. Your recounting of the literary reader throwing into the trash "I Stand Here Ironing" captures perfectly the tenor of those times and women's experiences in expressing themselves in literature (and everywhere else). Getting recognized was such a struggle! And add on top of that the class issues that Tille lived and recounted! The fact that the story was rescued from the trash and recognized for the jewel it --and Tillie was-- is perfect--gives hope.
After reading your remembrance, I am inspired to go back and re-read all things Tillie--especially now that I am older and a mother. New layers await! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I have just reread Silences after many years, for my PhD about the lack of feature film scripts by women. Tillie Olsen and Joanna Russ' theories have illuminated my activism for over thirty years and it has been such a pleasure to reread them and realise that their work is as relevant today as it ever was. I feel such gratitude to them both for their careful work around silences.

Rebekah Edwards said...

Thank you for this tribute. Tillie would have so loved it.
Tillie's daughters have put up a wonderful website at: -- it has a family authored obit and some great photos.
Tillie's birthday is Jan 14th. To celebrate her life her family and friends all over the world are doing informal readings of her work on that day (in homes, libraries, radio shows, street corners -- where ever people are moved to gather)and they invite people to join them. Thanks for honoring Tillie with this piece,
Rebekah (Tillie's grand-daughter.)

Anne said...

Thank you all. Thank you Rebekah so much. It means a lot to think that my tribute is reaching the ears of her family. But it means so much to me to hear from others who hold her dear.

Blogaulaire said...

Very good. Excellent.

I wonder if on 14 January folks will be taking time to commemorate her life and contribution to all of us in a few of those 'little corners' in Iowa or Nebraska?

Ridiculous as it sounds (out of proportion with ironing for the kids - imagine), all this makes me want to fly back there and organise a few circles of friends for a casual reunion.

Some of us should make of Tillie's writings a stimulus to encourage as well as discover (even seek out) people who write while they struggle with daily life and family issues on little income.

Cedar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cedar said...

didn't know Ms Olsen had passed away until I did a search and found this blog entry.

Thank you for posting such a beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman.

(I misspelled her last name in my previous comment, so I deleted it, sorry about that)

Ericka said...

I second my cousin Rebekah's applause for your wonderful blog tribute to our grandmother Tillie. Tillie Olsen's family would like to let people in the San Francisco Bay Area know about her memorial celebration.

Please circulate this information widely -- the family is trying to get this information out to all those who might be interested.

Tillie Lerner Olsen
Author, Feminist, Activist
January 14, 1912 - January 1, 2007

Join family, friends, and readers for a Memorial Celebration of Tillie Olsen's Life

Saturday, February 17, 2007

First Congregational Church of Oakland

2501 Harrison Street (corner of 25th and Harrison)
Oakland, CA

1:00 celebration followed by reception.

Parking on site. The church is 8 blocks from the 19th Street BART Station.


Please share this information with others you know who cared about and
were affected by Tillie's writing, teaching, speaking, or friendship.

Also, you can visit for more information about her life and work.

Many thanks,

Ericka Lutz
(Tillie's granddaughter -- yep, another one...)

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