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Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

Panthea Reid
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 484
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    Tillie Olsen
    Book Description:

    InTillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles, Panthea Reid examines the complex life of this iconic feminist hero and twentieth-century literary giant.

    Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Tillie Olsen spent her young adulthood there, in Kansas City, and in Faribault, Minnesota. She relocated to California in 1933 and lived most of her life in San Francisco. From 1962 on, she sojourned frequently in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Santa Cruz, and Soquel, California. She was a 1920s "hell-cat"; a 1930s revolutionary; an early 1940s crusader for equal pay for equal work and a war-relief patriot; an ex-GI's ideal wife in the later 1940s; a victim of FBI surveillance in the 1950s;a civil rights and antiwar advocate during the 1960s and 1970s; and a life-long orator for universal human rights.

    The enigma of Tillie Olsen is intertwined with that of the twentieth century. From the rebellions in Czarist Russia, through the terrors of the Depression and the hopes of the New Deal, to World War II, the Nuremberg Trials, and the United Nations' founding, to the cold war and House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, to later progressive and repressive movements, the story of Olsen's life brings remote events into focus.

    In her classic short story "I Stand Here Ironing" and her groundbreakingTell Me a Riddle, Yonnondido, and Silences,Olsen scripted powerful, moving prose about ordinary people's lives, exposing the pervasive effects of sexism, racism, and classism and elevating motherhood and women's creativity into topics of study. Popularly referred to as "Saint Tillie," Olsen was hailed by many as the mother of modern feminism.

    Based on diaries, letters, manuscripts, private documents, resurrected public records, and countless interviews, Reid's artfully crafted biography untangles some of the puzzling knots of the last century's triumphs and failures and speaks truth to legend, correcting fabrications and myths about and also byTillie Olsen.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4813-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-2)
    (pp. 3-5)

    The enigma of Tillie Lerner Olsen is intertwined with the enigmas of the twentieth century. Neither can be labeled cavalierly. Neither can be explained succinctly. In answering here, as best I can, the riddle of Tillie Olsen, I hope I have also helped to untangle some puzzling knots of the last century’s triumphs and failures.

    She was named Tybele, became Tillie, and claimed that her real name was Matilda. She had three different last names: Lerner, Goldfarb, and Olsen, though she admitted to only two of them. She adopted aliases: Theresa Landale, Theta Larimore, and Amy. As a teenager, she...

  7. CHAPTER 1 ESCAPES: 1880s–1916
    (pp. 6-20)

    On 14 January 1912 in Omaha, Nebraska, a baby named “Tybile,” Yiddish for little dove, was born to Ida Goldberg and Sam Lerner. The name echoed the universal symbol of the peace that Ida and Sam expected America to provide. The two of them seemed indistinguishable from other Russian Jewish immigrants in North Omaha: Yiddish-speaking at home, hard-working yet poor, sacrificing for their children. These parents, though, were unique, themselves the stuff of legends.

    Baby Tybile grew up as Tillie Lerner, coveting stories about her parents’ impoverished origins and their defiance of the czar’s Cossacks in the failed 1905 Russian...

  8. CHAPTER 2 REALITY RAISED: 1917–1924
    (pp. 21-33)

    At the beginning of 1917, the Lerners were lodged in a tenement house on North Twentieth Street, cramped quarters that frustrated the wind child in Tillie, which “struggled, choked and twisted to leap out and run with the wind whenever it heard the wind’s voice.”¹ With four little children, the eldest under seven and another on the way, Ida was harried and worn. Though the air was not so clean nor the produce so fresh, Omaha offered excellent schools, good teachers, free kindergartens, and free evening classes for adults. It also offered water, sewer, and electrical services, a fast trolley...

    (pp. 34-54)

    The Tillie Lerner who dumbfounded officials by rebelliously reciting Spartacus’s speech was intimidated at first when, just thirteen, she entered Omaha’s Central High in January 1925. This giant edifice was built around the old high school, which was then demolished, leaving a central courtyard, where students gathered between classes, unobserved by townspeople on the streets below.¹ Although Tillie said that only she and a black minister’s son transferred to Central from Long, about 5 percent of its graduates regularly did so; certainly all the Lerner children attended Central. Fannie was enrolled in commercial courses, and Tillie in a college preparatory...

    (pp. 55-77)

    Though Goldfarb did not appear on New Year’s Eve, he did so soon afterward and established a “deep flow of understanding” with Tillie. By 4 January 1930, she felt “all new—high tide. Hope. Ghosts laid,” the ghosts of her entanglements with Konecky. Like another Shelley, Goldfarb opened a path to revolutionary action. On a train with him to Lincoln, she showed off her talent for political writing by aping a child’s voice naming things she wanted, illustrating how capitalist advertising manipulates human desire. Tillie joined the Young Communist League (YCL) and, on 11 January, wrote, “Goodbye, my girlhood. Tears...

    (pp. 78-99)

    By the beginning of 1934, federal agencies were getting people back to work (the Civil Works Administration alone employed four million workers), but the depression was too broad for a quick fix. However impoverished, half of all American families owned radios, and most gathered by them on Sunday evenings to hear President Roosevelt’s reassuring “Fireside Chats.” Almost everyone could sing along with Bing Crosby’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Many took the song “Remember My Forgotten Man” as a sermon.¹

    With large-circulation magazines likeVanity Fairand theSaturday Evening Poststill publishing fiction mostly about an untroubled middleclass,...

    (pp. 100-121)

    By 1935, folk songs, plays, movies, and “Popular Front” culture had heightened the country’s social awareness.¹ Led by FDR, many Americans now blamed greedy rich tycoons for the Great Depression. In New York City on 6 January, an audience of 1400 people at the opening of Clifford Odets’sWaiting for Leftyshouted “STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!!” Performed around the country, the play, like San Francisco’s general strike, encouraged the working classes to demand better working conditions. Like Clifford Odets, Robert Cantwell, and other proletarian writers, Tillie planned a strike to provoke a crackdown, which would ruin the Holbrooks and inspire Mazie...

    (pp. 122-141)

    For New Year’s 1937, from a Los Angeles address on Whiteside Avenue,¹ Tillie sent Cerf and Klopfer a postcard picturing a man passed out on a bench. A woman in a frilly dress is asking “Are you a Dead One?” Tillie scribbled, “I guess the dead one is me,” at least to Random House. Her sense of extinction echoed the country’s fears. New Deal reforms had reached a dead end, the country was slipping back into recession, the world into fascism. Supposedly demilitarized after World War I, Germany’s mighty army occupied the Rhineland. Italian bombers attacked Catalonia, Spain. Tillie and...

    (pp. 142-167)

    To Tillie, former president Herbert Hoover’s 1938 Berlin meeting with Hitler had proved that capitalism was in cahoots with fascism. Hitler’s 1939 awards to Henry Ford and Charles A. Lindbergh confirmed her theory.¹ Stalin’s 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler, however, shook her either-or assumptions by putting communism in cahoots with fascism. As 1940 began, Germany occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia, and most of Poland, Italy occupied Ethiopia and Albania, and Spain was a military dictatorship; only Britain and France were left to fight the Nazis. The United States seemed disinterested, Tillie despondent.

    With the outside world at risk, she settled with Jack,...

  15. CHAPTER 9 EX-GI’S IDEAL WIFE: 1946–1950
    (pp. 168-183)

    Traveling about like a tumbleweed, Tillie had almost lost touch with the Dinkin family, but she wrote a poem when she heard of Harry Dinkin’s death, which she read at the funeral on New Year’s Day 1946 in Petaluma. She drove home to find her girls ecstatic because they’d heard from Jack; he had a weekend off. Tillie piled her sexy new nighties in a suitcase, drove the older girls to the Olshanskys, and left Kathie with a housekeeper. On Friday, 3 January, she picked up Jack. Hardly able to keep their hands off each other, they rushed to a...

  16. CHAPTER 10 VICTIM AND REMAKER: 1951–1955
    (pp. 184-203)

    Tillie faced the New Year in a state of dread. Gleeful reports of U.S. successful testing of a massively destructive hydrogen bomb appalled her, as did flagwaving over “police action” in North Korea, which bombed villages, refineries, ports, and infrastructure. After an FBI agent confessed, in theSaturday Evening Post, that he had worked undercover in the “dirty” Communist Party, Hollywood validated its anticommunism withI Was a Communist for the FBI. Mickey Spillane wrote pulp fiction about a tough guy ridding America of “red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago.” Malcolm Cowley called such writing paranoid and sadistic,...

    (pp. 204-223)

    After a tearful leave-taking, Tillie remained haunted by images of Ida’s shrunken frame propped up on pillows, her blue eyes still steely but her voice almost silenced. Harry wrote that Ida had revived only enough to ask “very pointedly” if Tillie had written. Otherwise, “mother has visibly weakened since you left, and seems resigning herself.” Vicki visited, as did Lillian, who wrote Tillie that Ida was “too tired to talk to me, only once she said my name.”

    Tillie returned to Stanford to greet Malcolm Cowley, now teaching her writing seminar. He had published her “Thousand Dollar Vagrant” in the...

  18. CHAPTER 12 EGO STRENGTH: 1962–1969
    (pp. 224-247)

    As 1962 began, Tillie was torn between triumph and despair. She had written one of the best books of 1961, but now she was writing only patients’ case histories as she trod the corridors of San Francisco General Hospital. Radcliffe forms, sent by Anne Sexton, included the promising news that fellowships would be awarded to non-Bostonians. Tillie called upon her “Old Reliable, Fall Back Upon” recommenders and a new one, Annie Wilder, a psychiatrist. In her application, Tillie promised to finish a “social novel” and lamented having onlyTell Me a Riddle“to really plead for me.” Actually, she had...

  19. CHAPTER 13 TILLIE APPLESEED: 1970–1974
    (pp. 248-267)

    On the calendar, the 1960s were over. In American hearts and minds, though, they seemed endless. Nightly news shows still broadcasted Vietnam body counts. Disaffected citizens still held vigils and teach-ins. President Nixon and Vice President Agnew smeared protesters as effete snobs, pseudo-intellectuals, and cowards. Cities braced for more riots. Tillie stayed at Mac-Dowell until her cobbled together early part ofRequacould be sent to theIowa Review, which quickly accepted it. By her fifty-eighth birthday, she was back at Amherst, where, as she wrote Miller, “I learn I love teaching—but cant write as I need.”

    On 9...

  20. CHAPTER 14 QUEEN BEE: 1975–1980
    (pp. 268-289)

    As 1975 began, Tillie invited Candace Falk to walk with her. Falk expected to meander along picking up shells or admiring the sunset, but Tillie would don her grand cape and march, undaunted by wind or spray. Trooping toward the Natural Bridges State Beach, Falk once remarked on some tacky little houses they passed. Tillie halted, looked Falk in the eyes, and pronounced that these houses were owned by working-class people without time or money for good taste. She would marvel at the Monarch butterflies, almost covering the park’s eucalyptus trees, and then set off again. Because Falk was writing...

  21. CHAPTER 15 IMAGE CONTROL: 1981–1996
    (pp. 290-313)

    At the beginning of 1981, images of Tillie Olsen formed an odd palimpsest of positive and negative impressions. The day after Lee Grant appeared on the Merv Griffin talk show promoting the movieTell Me a Riddle, a blur of calls and visits celebrated Tillie’s fame and her sixty-ninth birthday. Fame brought a request from Leonda Finke, who had sculpted busts of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, to do Tillie Olsen’s portrait. It also brought some local kids, thinking her rich, to break into the Olsens’ San Francisco apartment. Finding little valuable among a clutter of books, papers, photos, clothes,...

  22. CHAPTER 16 ENTER BIOGRAPHER: 1997–2007
    (pp. 314-336)

    When I finished writingArt and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf, it occurred to me that a biography of a living author would be fun to write. When I happened on Tillie Olsen’s name and address in the roster of the Virginia Woolf Society, it seemed serendipity. I knew nothing about her except that she was the author of “I Stand Here Ironing,” which I had taught decades before, and “Tell Me a Riddle,” which I was then teaching. She was a great writer, shared my appreciation of Woolf, had led a long, no doubt fascinating life, and was...

    (pp. 337-338)

    On 17 February 2007, at the First Congregational Church of Oakland, family and friends held a memorial service called a “Celebration of the Life of Tillie Olsen.” Mike Margolis called the community together by blowing on a conch shell; Karla Lutz and Tillie’s caregivers danced and sang an Amharic welcome chant in honor of Tillie. Annie Hershey showed clips from her retitled filmTillie Olsen: A Heart in Motion. Julie, Kathie, and Laurie gave moving tributes to their mother. Ronnie Gilbert, a member of the Weavers, sang “Bread & Roses,” Melanie de More sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” grandson Jesse...

    (pp. 339-342)
    (pp. 343-346)
    (pp. 347-350)
  27. NOTES
    (pp. 351-420)
    (pp. 421-428)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 429-450)
  30. Back Matter
    (pp. 451-451)