Remembering Tillie Olsen


illie Lerner was never supposed
to be a writer. She grew up poor. She dropped out of high school.
She was a teenage mother. She worked long hours to support her kids.
She got fired. Too often, she recalled, “the simplest circumstances
for creation did not exist.” Yet, she wrote. 

On January 1, 2007, Tillie Olsen, writer, teacher, and icon of literary
feminism, died in Oakland, California. Olsen, safely bound between
the covers of high school English textbooks, will never be forgotten.
But she would be disappointed if readers didn’t remember also
Tillie Lerner, the dreamer and fighter, inseparable from the writer
she became. 

Tillie Lerner’s world was one of broken dreams and lost fights.
Her parents, radical socialists, fled Russia’s failed 1905
revolution and ended up on a Nebraska farm where Tillie was born
in either 1912 or 1913 (“no birth certificate seems to exist,”
she once reflected). By 1917, Sam, Ida, and the six Lerner children
had moved to Omaha, a meatpacking metropolis home to working immigrants
and open-shop factory floors. A failed strike in the packinghouses
in 1922 had broken the city’s unions. 

Her father brought home socialist pamphlets and a modest income
from a confectionery, but Tillie said it was her mother who “made
me a revolutionary writer.” As an adult, she saw her mother
only three times; distance, money, and mothering demands made cross-country
trips impossible. But the absent Ida Lerner haunts her daughter’s
writings for reasons that emerge from a letter Ida wrote to her
teacher at an English-language night school in 1924: “I am
glad to study with ardor but the children wont let me, they go to
bed late so it makes me tired, and I cant do my lesson. It is after
ten o’clock my head dont work it likes to have rest.” 

By all accounts Tillie grew into a funny, lively teenager and a
voracious reader, but in 1931 she walked away from her senior year
at Omaha Central High School as the gray pallor of the Depression
began to settle over the Midwest. Rejecting her parents’ moderate
socialism, Tillie joined the Young Communist League and after Party
school (and her first arrest) in Kansas City, she returned to Omaha.
Within a year, she found herself in Faribault, Minnesota, pregnant,
mostly alone, stricken with incipient tuberculosis, and starting
a novel. She was 19. 

Somehow she made her way to California and it must have seemed a
sunny place indeed. Not only for the weather, but for the radical
community she found soon after moving there in 1933, including a
young communist organizer named Jack Olsen, who became her partner
(and later, her husband) after they met during San Francisco’s
83-day waterfront strike in 1934. She also discovered a place for
herself as a woman radical, energetically teaching a class on the
“Woman Question” at the Young Communist League’s
headquarters on Haight Street. 

The 1930s were “a time of women acting, women working, organizing,
effecting changes. It was a different left from that of the 1960s,
one imbued with different attitudes and consciousness about women,”
she told



in 1974. To be sure, the Communist
Party viewed women’s oppression through the lens of class
and Olsen remembered being censured for ironing during CP Women’s
Commission meetings. But the Party opened a space for the Woman
Question. More importantly for Olsen, it urged working-class men
and women to create a new socialist art. 

Tillie heard that message loud and clear and in 1934 her first poems
and a short story appeared in local party publications and then
in the inaugural issue of

Partisan Review.

Her authentic
worker’s credentials and vivid style captured the imagination
of the New York literary world at a time when radical writing was
not only politically important, but commercially viable. Publishers
tried to track her down, but initially they had no luck as Lerner
had been jailed on vagrancy charges after San Francisco police raided
a communist office. 

Her arrest made her a cause célèbre. New York radicals
chaired a protest meeting after her arrest, literary agents scoured
Haight Street, and Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist,
urged her to write of her jailhouse experiences. Published in the

New Republic

in August 1934, “Thousand-Dollar Vagrant”
brandished the radical tough talk that filled the air that summer
and caught the ear of Bennett Cerf, editor at Random House. He offered
Lerner the monthly stipend she needed to finish her novel and she
gave it a shot, shipping her young daughter off to relatives and
moving away from San Francisco’s political maelstrom to write
in rented rooms in Los Angeles. But she hated being alone and she
never fit in with the Hollywood radicals she met there. Within months,
she mailed her checks back to Cerf, set the novel aside, and headed
to Stockton to organize asparagus pickers. 

In 1972 Jack Olsen found the first chapters of Tillie’s novel
in an attic  and Tillie Olsen finally published


in 1974, largely unfinished. “The book,” she wrote, “ceased
to be solely the work of that long ago young writer and, in arduous
partnership, became this older one’s as well.” The novel
takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem about Native Americans
and the poet’s urgent call, “unlimn’d they disappear,”
sprawls across the book’s first page. The unlimned, in


case, are the Holbrooks, a family of farmers who abandoned their
Wyoming coal mining town for a South Dakota farm, and, eventually,
the shabby corner of a meatpacking city that looked (and smelled)
much like Omaha. 


must have been heartbreaking to write—the
passages on pregnancy, abuse, and poverty have an urgency that hints
at Lerner’s own dark times in Minnesota—but had it been
published in 1936, it’s unclear how it would have been received.
The proletarian fiction of Lerner’s day demanded brave workers,
trusty wives, and the unfailing promise of revolution;


though, is a story of half-broken dreams, partly believed in. Lerner
wasn’t much for the radical literary politics practiced on
New York’s lower east side. “I was not part of any of
those literary wars,” she recalled. But to suggest that no
new day was coming would have been a betrayal of the communist world
in which she lived and worked. 

Those early years rarely appear in the standard biography of Tillie
Olsen, a narrative of redemption that starts with a woman much like
the narrator of her signature story, “I Stand Here Ironing,”
whose creative soul—suppressed by 20 years of housework—is
barely sustained by fragments of literature found in library books,
read on city buses or in noisy kitchens. 

Indeed that’s pretty much how it went as financial necessity
turned Olsen into a secretary, a transcriber, a waitress, and even
a mayonnaise-jar capper. And still there were dishes to do. Organizing
took time, too. When the complacent 1950s retreated from politics,
Olsen brought politics to her times, mounting protests against civil
defense training at her children’s school. Four times Olsen’s
name came up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)
and a subpoena arrived for Jack. Both she and Jack lost jobs because
of their radical pasts. Through it all, Tillie kept her family together,
ironing away as she heard herself denounced on a local radio station
as “a paid agent of Moscow” bent on undermining America’s
youth through her plot to take over the Kate Kennedy Elementary
School PTA. 

In 1953, with her youngest child in school, she walked into a creative
writing class at San Francisco State College. Soon one fellowship
followed another (“We have to have her” at Stanford,”
said novelist Wallace Stegner) and in 1961 she published

Me a Riddle,

a slim volume of just four stories. The book captures
the ambivalent wishes of people whose lives have not turned out
as they expected: a mother, at work at her ironing imagines something
better for her daughter; an alcoholic sailor seeks a safe haven
with old friends; a white girl slowly grows apart from her black
friend; and an aging couple’s golden years leave time to scratch
at the sores of a less-than-perfect marriage. 

On its publication,

Tell Me a Riddle

met with mixed, but
mostly positive reviews. But over time, as U.S. women of the 1960s
checked it out of public libraries and read it on city buses and
in their own noisy kitchens, they found something precious there.
Readers’ devotion to the book is deeply felt, a response not
only to its heartbreaking prose, but to the very fact of its having
been written at all. As Margaret Atwood put it in 1978, “The
applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic
performance, but, as at a grueling obstacle race, for the near miracle
of her survival.” 

By the 1970s, with second-wave feminism at its crest, Olsen’s
literary recuperation was complete. Larger audiences crowded her
readings and lectures than had ever come to the YCL’s Woman
Question classes on Haight Street in the 1930s. That iconic status
owes much to the story of her own coming to write, the greatest
story Olsen ever told. 


her 1978 essay collection, reveals how inseparable
the young Tillie Lerner is from the mature Tillie Olsen. The book
is an extended meditation on writing or, more accurately, not writing.
Olsen intersperses her lectures and essays with quotations from
and aphorisms about other writers, mostly women, who struggled to
get ink to paper. Critics disliked the book’s “undigested”
style. Joyce Carol Oates found it “scattered, uneven…glib
and superficial,” while the the


reviewer crabbed
that “as an argument it is weak.” But reading


is like peeking into Olsen’s private notebooks as she reveals
her “undigested” soul. It shows that collage, which allows
one to make something radically new and possibly beautiful out of
whatever is at hand, is truly the most democratic of art forms.


has the shape of a book that might capture the lives
of the Holbrooks in


or the dreams of Olsen’s
own mother. 

Olsen’s urge to write aimed at something more transformative
than Virginia’s Woolf’s wish for “a room of one’s
own.” In Olsen’s vision, sustaining creativity is not
an escape or an avenue to personal contentment, but the fundamental
precondition for social transformation. As


if the creative arts are fundamentally about work, progressives
must attend to the working conditions of the artist. “Substantial
creative work demands time and with rare exceptions only full-time
workers have achieved it.” So, too, it is no surprise that
the writers who mattered most to Olsen were women for whom work
was the central theme of their fiction—Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
the early 20th century feminist economist, and Rebecca Harding Davis,
author of the sympathetic 1861 novella

Life in the Iron Mills,

a book that 15-year-old Tillie Lerner found in an Omaha junkshop,
which taught her that “literature can be made out of the lives
of despised people.” 

lesson stayed with her all her life. “I want to write what
will help change that which is harmful for human beings in our time,”
she once explained. In fact, Olsen only stopped writing in her final
years as her health declined. In the 1970s, when admiring younger
women wrote about her, they referred to


as Olsen’s
“first novel,” a slip that revealed more about their own
hopes than the author’s accomplishments. With her death this
year at the age of 94, we now know that there will never be a second.
A collection of short stories, a half-finished novel, and some essays.
Yet, as Olsen once wrote, “There is still enough to live by.”


Capozzola teaches American history at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology.