Books

Tillie Olsen Captured the Toll of Women’s Labor — on Their Lives and Art

Tillie Olsen’s reputation rests principally on “Tell Me a Riddle,” a collection of three short stories and a novella published in 1961. It was her first book, but Olsen, who was born in 1912, had started writing many years before, and seems to belong, with respect to style and subject matter, as much to the Great Depression as to the Eisenhower Era or the ’60s. The four pieces in “Tell Me a Riddle” are lyrical bulletins of working-class family life, charged with emotional detail and delivered with an attention to the rhythms of consciousness more rigorous and powerful than most of what is called realism.

In the first story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” a classic almost from the moment it appeared in “Best American Short Stories of 1957,” we don’t just inhabit the mind of the narrator, a woman reflecting, in the midst of housework, on her daughter’s childhood and her own experience as a mother. Her words, addressed directly to someone — a social worker, a teacher or another well-meaning stranger — land with an almost physical weight. “All that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me that I cannot endure it tonight,” she says. You can feel the gravity of the words, and the presence of the body that utters them.

The woman isn’t named, and her situation is shorn of the kind of references that might situate her in a particular place or time. You could say that she speaks for generations of women who have faced poverty and disappointment. But there is nothing abstract or general about the story she tells — which is mostly the story of how, in a period of hardship and domestic instability, she temporarily gave up custody of her firstborn child — because the difficulty of telling it registers in every sentence. Whenever I reread this story, I’m startled by how little space it takes up: less than 10 pages in the most recent paperback edition, from the University of Nebraska Press. And yet it’s somehow as dense, as rich, as packed with life and feeling and “all that compounds a human being” as something 10 or 100 times as long.

Is there a place in literature — in our canons and course listings, in our criticism and theory — for unwritten work?

The other parts of “Tell Me a Riddle” — “Hey Sailor, What Ship?,” “O Yes” and the long title story — are a bit looser and more discursive, with expansive dialogue and a wider range of characters, but they all share this sense of compression, of experience distilled to a piercing, concentrated essence.

A mother contemplates her own past and the future facing a child “of anxious, not proud, love.” A couple with young children make room for a beloved, difficult family friend who tests their patience and the limits of his charm. Two little girls, one Black and one white, find their friendship undermined as they move toward adolescence by the subtle pressures of social conformity as racial “sorting.” An elderly couple, their seven children grown and scattered, quarrel bitterly about how to spend the years that remain. The husband is full of plans and projects: He wants to sell their house and move to the “happy communal life” of a cooperative senior citizen residence, to join a reading circle, to visit children and grandchildren. His wife, who “would not exchange her solitude for anything,” experiences the need for peace and quiet as a kind of rage. “Always a ravening inside, a pull to the bed, to lie down, to succumb.”

After a life of hard work, of maternal and conjugal love, she is tired, but the fatigue is felt as hunger, as “tumult,” as a state of restlessness. This weariness links the mothers in the four stories, some of whom may be the same woman encountered at different moments, though it’s also possible that the matriarch in “Tell Me a Riddle” is the mother of the other three. They are all, in any case, always in motion and on their feet, busy with jobs, housework and emotional labor, their overtaxed attention parceled out among babies, toddlers, schoolchildren, teenagers and husbands. Their testimonies are not complaints. Olsen isn’t rubbing the reader’s face in misery, but rather giving an honest assessment of the psychological and physical costs of living. “Oh why is it like it is and why do I have to care?” a girl in “O Yes” asks her mother. The answer is unspoken: “Thinking: caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched. … Yet how will you sustain?”

In other words: How will you not be worn out? How will you not succumb? The moral and existential danger of tiredness is a widespread modern malady, but an unusual literary subject. The 20th-century novel is enchanted by ennui and seduced by alienation, perpetually fascinated by the stultifying, dehumanizing effects of modern life. But exhaustion of the kind that these women contend with — the everyday burden of their unending busyness — is rarely represented in fiction. The reason is suggested on the first page of “I Stand Here Ironing”: “And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total?”

It goes without saying that there is no time to write, and Olsen’s career is built on sifting and weighing the forces that conspire to prevent writing from happening. Even though she was almost 50 when “Tell Me a Riddle” appeared, she wasn’t exactly a late bloomer. Olsen came to her vocation early, embarking on a novel — published in 1974 as “Yonnondio: From the Thirties” with a title borrowed from Walt Whitman — when she was barely in her 20s. The themes and moods of “Tell Me a Riddle” are prefigured in “Yonnondio,” an episodic chronicle of a family chasing work and security in the mining camps and factory towns of the Great Plains.

The raw material was Olsen’s own childhood. She was born Tybile Lerner in Omaha, one of six children of Jewish immigrant parents who had fled Russia after the failed revolution of 1905. Like many Americans of her generation and background, she spent the 1930s balancing — or rather juggling, while riding a unicycle on a high wire — radical politics, artistic ambition, wage labor and domestic life. With Jack Olsen, a printer and labor organizer, she raised four children while working various office and factory jobs. She was also a journalist and an activist, publishing (in an early issue of Partisan Review) a vivid account of the San Francisco general strike of 1934, during which she was briefly jailed. “Listen, it is late,” she wrote at the end of that dispatch. “I am feverish and tired. Forgive me that the words are feverish and blurred. You see, If I had time, If I could go away. But I write this on a battlefield.”

The battle continued, even if the terrain shifted. Olsen was a writer her whole life — she died in 2007 — but she didn’t write much. Not because she was blocked or lacked material. The blockage — the obligation of earning a living and tending children, the “immersion” in caring that was a source of fulfillment as well as frustration — was the subject matter. The silence that surrounds those stories is its own kind of statement.

Olsen’s strongest belief was the idea that people should have the power to represent themselves.

Is there a place in literature — in our canons and course listings, in our criticism and theory — for unwritten work? The idea seems almost preposterous; it’s hard enough to keep up with the books that have been written without worrying over the ones that haven’t. But every writer knows the weight, the power, the literal, palpable reality of silence. It isn’t just that negative space gives shape to words; it’s an active presence, an animating ghost in the machine.

Literary ethics prompts us to attend to the unheard and the marginal; curiosity or impatience with the same old stuff sends us in search of the forgotten and the neglected. But what kind of attention do we owe — what kind of attention is it even possible to pay — to the unvoiced?

This isn’t an epistemological question: It’s a political question, having to do with privilege and visibility, with how the resources that make writing possible — the time, the space, the confidence — are distributed. The best-known articulation of the problem of unequal access to the tools of writing is surely “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf’s clearsighted feminist polemic from 1929.

In “Silences,” an essay that appeared in Harper’s in 1965, Olsen broadened the terms of Woolf’s argument, surveying the gaps and lost years in various careers and the different reasons (censorship, illness, temperamental reticence) that even outwardly successful writers didn’t write. But she homed in on a vaster silence of “those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”

She included herself. “Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity,” she continued, “it is because of circumstances, inner and outer, which oppose the needs of creation.” And she concluded with a brief survey of the circumstances that accounted for her own silence and its occasional breaking: “This was the time of festering and congestion. For a few months I was able to shield the writing with which I was so full, against the demands of jobs on which I had to be competent, through the joys and responsibilities of family. For a few months. Always roused by the writing, always denied. ‘I could not go to write it down. It convulsed and died in me. I will pay.’ My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping. I worked now full time on temporary jobs, a Kelly, a Western Agency girl (girl!), wandering from office to office, always hoping we could manage two, three writing months ahead. Eventually there was time.”

In her 40s, Olsen, who had never gone to college, was admitted to Stanford’s creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner fellow. It was there that she found the physical and psychic room, and the material support, to finish three of the stories that would appear in “Tell Me a Riddle.” In the wake of that book’s success, she was awarded one of the early fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute, which had been established to provide money, office space, collegiality and institutional backing for women scholars and artists. According to “The Equivalents,” Maggie Doherty’s history of the institute’s early years, Olsen arrived in Cambridge with the intention of producing “the great proletarian novel,” an epic of toil, oppression and resistance in the tradition of Tolstoy and James T. Farrell.

What she produced instead was “Silences,” which originated as a seminar presentation at Radcliffe. Doherty’s account of it is one of the most exhilarating passages in her book, dramatizing how a rambling, two-hour talk coalesced around a radical idea, the vision of “a world in which all people could explore their creative capacities and fulfill their ambitions without fear of going broke.”

The thesis of “Silences” had been implicit at least since “Yonnondio.” While the narrative dwells on the physical hardships endured by Jim and Anna Holbrook — in particular “the weariness” and brutality that nearly destroy Anna — the reader’s attention gravitates toward Mazie, their older daughter, who is graced with the gifts of imagination and perception. A relatively prosperous neighbor recognizes her potential, giving her books (“Those fairy tales. Wilde’s, And the Dickens and Blake, and that book of Greek myths”) and advice: “Mazie. Live, don’t exist. Learn from your mother, who has had everything to grind out life and yet has kept life.”

Mazie’s father sells the books before she has a chance to read them, but it’s still tempting to see her as a portrait of the artist as a young woman. A different kind of novel might have charted her awakening, her determination (to continue the Joycean paraphrase) to forge in the smithy of her soul the uncreated conscience of her class. But to hitch Mazie’s aspirations to a fable of self-making would also be to sell her out, to risk betraying the numberless girls like her — “most of humanity,” by Olsen’s later estimate — whose minds were just as quick and sensitive but who lacked the luck or the entitlement to be heard.

“Silences” acknowledges many reasons that writers can’t or don’t write, so it’s impossible to say for sure why Olsen’s great proletarian novel never came into being. But her own work, and Doherty’s shrewd rendering of her circumstances in the 1960s, offer some clues. At Radcliffe, she was both a cherished colleague — especially close to the poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, the other principal characters in “The Equivalents” — and an outlier. The other fellows were mostly younger, Eastern, middle-class, academically credentialed women. The standard account of American social mobility would herald the entrance into such company as an overcoming of obstacles, a personal transformation tinged with loss but nonetheless sealed in triumph.

That story, after all — a story of self-making that is also assimilation — is one of the dominant American narratives. It forms the template for countless coming-of-age stories, memoirs and novels, linking such ideologically disparate works as “Black Boy,” “The Adventures of Augie March” and “Hillbilly Elegy.” But that isn’t the kind of story Olsen wanted to tell, even as it mirrored to some extent the arc of her own biography. (After Radcliffe, she went on to teach literature at other institutions, including Amherst College.)

Nor did she entirely trust the idea that a writer could give voice to the voiceless. The voices in her fiction feel very close to her own. To go further beyond the boundaries of self would involve an imaginative leap — and an ethical risk — that she was reluctant to take. Her strongest belief was the idea that people should have the power to represent themselves.

Doherty cites Marx’s famous description of how communism “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.” Olsen, adding “child-rearing to the mix,” imagines a world in which writing (or other artistic creation) would be available to everyone because it would be an aspect of ordinary experience, as valuable and common as any other kind of work, care or play.

This utopian longing is perhaps most powerfully realized in a book that Olsen didn’t write. In the early 1970s, she came across an old copy of “Life in the Iron Mills,” an 1861 novella by Rebecca Harding Davis (who is also mentioned in “Silences”). Olsen persuaded the Feminist Press to publish a new edition, to which she contributed “a biographical interpretation” that is longer than Davis’s original text. It’s a tour de force of sympathetic scholarship, in which Olsen finds uncanny echoes of her own fiction in Davis’s life and work.

Through Olsen’s eyes, Davis becomes both an exemplary woman writer and a cautionary figure, continually wresting time and space for writing from the demands of marriage and motherhood, and trying to protect her intellectual integrity from the pressures of a fickle, commercially compromised and often hypocritical literary establishment. A prolific and popular author in the 1860s and ’70s, Davis (who died in 1910) was hardly silent herself, but in “Life in the Iron Mills” she created an avatar of silence that could have sprung from Olsen’s own notebooks.

Hugh Wolfe, Davis’s protagonist, is a worker, first seen as part of an undifferentiated mass of men with “brains full of unawakened power” making their way through the smoke and noise of a factory town in western Virginia before the Civil War. He is also an artist. While his fellow workers spend their time off in the saloons and brothels, he makes sculptures out of korl, the waste product left behind by the smelting process. He is looked at with benevolent interest by some of the local elite, but his talent leads to ruin rather than triumph.

“Life in the Iron Mills,” sold to The Atlantic Monthly as an exposé of working conditions in early industrial America, turns out to be a parable about art. And those subjects aren’t as far apart as they might appear, at least if you read Rebecca Harding Davis through the lens of Tillie Olsen.

As a teacher, Olsen developed pioneering courses in feminist and working-class literature. She helped change the study of American literature, opening its canon to neglected voices and traditions. This project continues, not without controversy, and is sometimes faulted for politicizing art, for putting matters of gender, class and race in the way of supposedly more universal concerns.

Olsen’s slender oeuvre delivers a mighty rebuke to that objection, since there is no experience more common — and also, paradoxically, none more unique — than dwelling in a body that desires, all at once, to work, to love, to create and to rest. This is the essence of both her weary, patient maternal wisdom and her radical criticism of the way things are. How to sustain?

Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom — in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know — help make it so there is cause for her to know — that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

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