Tillie Olsen, 1912-2007
January 10, 2007 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Tillie Olsen, 1912-2007. "She had forced open the language of the short story, insisting that it include the domestic life of women, the passions and anguishes of maternity, the deep, gnarled roots of a long marriage, the hopes and frustrations of immigration, the shining charge of political commitment. Her voice has both challenged and cleared the way for all those who come after her."
posted by amro (15 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
posted by cows of industry at 11:22 AM on January 10, 2007

I read the Tell Me a Riddle collection of short stories in my early teens. Back in those days I could read anything, even a Harlequin, and hadn't developed anything that could possibly be described as a literary taste, but even then I knew that Oleson's work was something apart from almost everything I had read up to that point. I must read the rest of Oleson's small oeuvre.
posted by orange swan at 11:33 AM on January 10, 2007

Tillie Olsen's granddaughter writes about growing up with Silences and about saying goodbye to Tillie at LiteraryMama.com. (Full disclosure: I'm one of the founding editors of the site but do not currently work there.)
posted by mothershock at 11:49 AM on January 10, 2007

Thanks, mothershock, those were really moving.
posted by amro at 12:05 PM on January 10, 2007

posted by amberglow at 12:08 PM on January 10, 2007

posted by languagehat at 12:37 PM on January 10, 2007

Back around 1984 or 85, I had the unbelievable good fortune to be (not quite randomly) hired by Ms. Olsen to pack and move her library, which she had brought to Cambridge for a year while she was on a visiting fellowship at Radcliffe (which is oddly not mentioned in the NYT obituary). A friend of mine was the daughter of a close friend of Ms. Olsen's, knew I was looking for work, and was in the right place at the right time to make the recomendation.) My friend and I spent an afternoon with Ms. Olsen, who had thousands of books to pack. She was unbelievably gracious to a couple of college kids hired to do physical work, offering us tea and regaling us with stories during the breaks she frequently insisted we take. I was already a fan of her fiction, which helped shape my lifelong interest in working-class American culture. 20 years later, I remember her vividly.

posted by fourcheesemac at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2007

"And when is there to time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total?"
posted by xod at 12:45 PM on January 10, 2007

posted by ottereroticist at 1:03 PM on January 10, 2007


posted by John of Michigan at 2:27 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by dontoine at 2:46 PM on January 10, 2007

Thank you, amro, for this post. "As I Stand Here Ironing" had a tremendous impact when I first read it in college, and this eulogizing post does a good job of explaining why, along with a few details about what made her writing and her life so remarkable. For me, the story was such an original mix of toughness and tenderness, and I found that true of all her work. Yonnondio: From The Thirties is still the most relentlessly grim and heartbreaking Depression novel that I have ever read and absolutely indispensable to anyone interested in the period. She was just so goddamn good at something so goddamn hard -- conveying pathos without ever once being mawkish, without ever even getting near it. Unflinching is a terribly overused word in reviews of literature, but she's in the very select group that's earned it.

All this makes me think of the first time I read Lindsay's "The Leaden-Eyed" and was caught up so short, because it distilled what I already knew from watching my grandfather grow more stooped and silent each year from the pain that an underfed Depression youth and a life of lifting garbage cans on winter mornings left in his bones. A lot of people have written about poverty's grind on the body and soul, but the majority of those who have experienced it directly go leaden-eyed before they ever find their own words. It took a far older and less hungry Olsen than the one who started it to finish Yonnonido and it's a testament to her tenacity and brilliance that it ever happened at all.

She worked so hard to give her great gift to the world. If you haven't, please read and remember her.
posted by melissa may at 4:38 PM on January 10, 2007

"As I Stand Here Ironing" had a tremendous impact when I first read it in college

Me too. I still get a little teary when I read it, which is at least a couple of times a year.
posted by amro at 4:55 PM on January 10, 2007

very cool post. thanks.
posted by ms.jones at 7:47 PM on January 10, 2007

posted by roll truck roll at 7:59 PM on January 10, 2007

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