American Literature Tillie Olsen
Panthea Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0037


The writing career of Tillie Lerner Olsen follows peculiar parabolic swings between celebrity and obscurity. Born on 14 January 1912 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Russian Jewish immigrants, both committed socialists, she wrote a high-school humor column that made her momentarily famous before she dropped out of school. She spent several years campaigning against rampant poverty and political oppression, writing anonymous skits and columns for the Young Communist League. In 1934, her story “The Iron Throat,” two poems, and accounts of her role in and arrest after the San Francisco Maritime and General Strikes made her a cause célèbre. With publishers vying to sign her, she chose Random House, but she reneged on her contract and passed into obscurity, working for the Communist Party, writing some often-anonymous journalism, volunteering for labor and women’s movements, raising four daughters, working at ordinary jobs, and chairing parent-teacher associations. A Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship (1955–1956) enabled Olsen to return to writing. In 1957 alone, she published three stories and then in 1960 the novella “Tell Me a Riddle.” Her four stories were published as Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection written in startlingly poetic prose that established domestic experiences as compelling subjects for fiction. Nevertheless, the collection went out of print. Olsen reemerged from obscurity with a new publisher who reissued Tell Me a Riddle. She wrote a 1965 essay protesting the poor representation of women in the literary marketplace, and a 1970 story, “Requa.” She worked with the Feminist Press to rescue near-forgotten women writers, including Rebecca Harding Davis, about whom Olsen wrote a lengthy 1972 essay. Her 1930s novel resurfaced and was published as Yonnondio in 1974. Olsen was again a cause célèbre. She promised a novel to granting agencies and her publisher. Instead, in 1978, she published Silences, a collection of her own essays and of commentary from herself and others, about unnatural silences forced on disadvantaged persons. Silences inspired women’s studies programs, and Olsen became a sought-after lecturer, teacher, and near celebrity. She won major grants and residencies and received nine honorary doctorate degrees. Six full-length studies were published (twice as many books than Tillie Olsen actually wrote). After enthusiastic studies between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, critical treatments of Olsen’s work almost ceased, though invitations to lecture continued. She promised to complete “Requa I” to write a novel, and to publish a collection of her many talks. None of these appeared before her death on 1 January 2007.

General Overviews

Much attention to Olsen’s work is comprehensive, focusing on certain themes throughout and expressing near-reverence for Olsen and her writing. Pratt 1997 offers a brief introduction both to Olsen’s work and the criticism of it. Nelson and Huse 1994 is a historical collection of reviews and critical essays, organized chronologically by Olsen’s writings, not by the dates of the articles. Coiner 1995 is a valuable resource connecting Olsen’s early work and its context with her later work. Pearlman and Werlock 1991, despite biographical inaccuracies, offers a comprehensive overview, while Frye 1995 covers the short fiction in great detail. Many treatments include warm personal accounts of the impact of the fiction or of the personality of Olsen herself. Roberts 1996 focuses on the sociological background of Olsen’s work and her socialist-feminist consciousness. Faulkner 1993, Orr 1987, and Roberts 1996 focus on the possibility of resilience, despite oppression, in Olsen’s characters. Frye 1995 and Pearlman and Werlock 1991 include extensive bibliographies of writings about Olsen. These works appeared in such rapid succession that there is little cross-referencing, except mostly in Pearlman and Werlock 1991.

  • Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel le Sueur. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Excellent entwining of history, close reading, and theory. Explores Olsen’s 1930s work, especially Yonnondio, in connection with the American Communist Party and 1930s feminism and working-class concerns. Defends Olsen’s inability to finish Yonnondio. Treats later works through the lens of a 1930s class consciousness.

  • Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

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    A thematically organized study of the social consciousness underlying Olsen’s work. Discusses both the oppression Olsen’s characters experience and their resilience. That motherhood can be both a “source and silencer” of creativity and that language offers both “peril and power” are among the conundrums that Faulkner sees as the “multiple vision” found in Olsen’s work.

  • Frye, Joanne S. Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1995.

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    Detailed and sometimes-wordy discussions of Olsen’s five stories; offers a useful discussion of the setting of “Requa I.” Shows Olsen’s ongoing struggle to find a form expressive of largely inarticulate “life comprehensions.” Includes Frye’s conversations with Olsen, a discussion of Olsen and the “Common Reader,” and a chronology Olsen approved.

  • Nelson, Kay Hoyle, and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

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    A collection of twenty-seven reviews and essays. Would have benefited from including two 1960s treatments: O’Connor 1963 (cited in Tell Me a Riddle) and Kostelanetz 1965 (cited under Olsen’s Impact). Lacks an introduction on the evolution of criticism on Olsen, which ranges from mostly appreciation to more-cultural analysis. Useful introduction and bibliography.

  • Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

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    The first full-length study of Olsen’s major work. Orr takes on the contradiction between Olsen’s own avowed atheism, articulated by Eva in “Tell Me a Riddle,” and the spiritual longing most of her characters feel. Orr skillfully relates these longings to women’s contradictory feelings about motherhood.

  • Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. R. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

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    Unreliable coverage of Olsen’s early life, but useful basic coverage of Olsen’s writings, in separate chapters on each major work. Good treatment of Olsen’s essay on Rebecca Harding Davis. Copious references to other critical treatments as of 1991.

  • Pratt, Linda Ray. “Mediating Experiences in the Scholarship of Tillie Olsen.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 18.3 (1997): 130–134.

    DOI: 10.2307/3347183Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Serves as a quick overview both of Olsen’s work and of the scholarship devoted to it. The other essays in this issue offer feminist and historical appreciations of the significance of Olsen’s writing and often of her personal impact upon the lives of the authors. Issue includes response by Olsen.

  • Roberts, Nora Ruth. “Tillie Olsen’s Riddle.” In Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst. By Nora Ruth Roberts, 99–118. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1452. New York: Garland, 1996.

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    An examination of the paradox between Olsen’s emphasis on society’s determinative influences and the resistance of some of her characters, who resist by acting like “loose cannons.” Sees Olsen’s idiosyncratic writing style as resistance. Uses history and sociology to explain Olsen’s treatments of society, the family, and motherhood.

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