American Literature Tillie Olsen
Panthea Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0037


The writing career of Tillie Lerner Olsen (b. 1912–d. 2007) 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. Tillie Lerner (later Olsen) began writing protest literature in the 1930s. She also began a novel called Yonnondio, which remained unpublished for decades. 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 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 in 1960 the novella “Tell Me a Riddle.” Those four stories were published as Tell Me a Riddle (1961), an arresting 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: From the Thirties in 1974. Olsen was again a cause célèbre. She promised a novel to several granting agencies and to 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 as Tillie Olsen herself 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 renamed “Requa” as “Requa I” and promised to complete it to write a novel about San Francisco, and to publish a collection of her many talks. None of these appeared before her death on 1 January 2007. Since 2007, four full-length studies of Olsen have appeared: Panthea Reid’s biography in 2010: an edition of important short works by Olsen in 2013; a 2018 study of her work through the lens of dialectical materialism by Anthony Dawahare; and a 2021 New York Times overview of her work by A. O. Scott.

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 to 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. Frye 1995 covers the short fiction in 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 includes bibliographies of extant writings about Olsen, with little cross-referencing. Reid 2010 (cited under Biography) researches allusions in Olsen’s canon. A reissue of important short works, Olsen 2013 (cited under Biography) includes a significant overview by Olsen’s granddaughter Rebekah Edwards in the form of Edwards 2013; Dawahare 2018 maintains that Olsen criticism fails to examine dialectical materialism, the fundamental theory informing Olsen’s work; Scott 2021 offers a useful summary of Olsen’s fiction.

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

    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.

  • Dawahare, Anthony. Tillie Olsen and the Dialectical Philosophy of Proletarian Literature. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2018.

    Argues that extant criticism of Olsen is limited by its failure to emphasize dialectical materialism’s importance to her writing. Compensates by over-emphasizing it. His best insights, however, are not philosophical but rather humane, even Christian, as revealed in the close of Requa I. Relates Olsen’s talk in 1984 “The Word Made Flesh” to the Gospel of John. The “most poetic and philosophical” of the four Gospels and also, he says, the most dialectical.

  • Edwards, Rebekah. “Introduction.” In Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works. By Tillie Olsen, xix–xiii. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

    Offers a perceptive overview of Olsen’s poetic prose, its cadences taken from everyday speech, its use of word positioning on the page, its rhythmic allusions, and the ways in which Olsen’s inclusive prose expresses her belief in human resilience.

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

    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.

    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.

    A collection of twenty-seven reviews and essays. Would have benefited from including two early treatments: O’Connor 1963 (cited under 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.

    The first full-length study of Olsen’s major work. 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. Skillfully relates these longings to women’s contradictory feelings about motherhood.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/3347183

    Serves as a quick overview both of Olsen’s work and of scholarship devoted to it. 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 Olsen’s response.

  • 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.

    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.

  • Scott, A. O. “Tillie Olsen Captured the Toll of Women’s Labor—on Their Lives and Art.” New York Times Book Review. 25 March 2021.

    Scott treats Olsen’s canon with empathy for the obligations that wearied her and limited or prevented her writing. He offers a useful overview of her canon, praising her insights into the lives of working-class people and their accomplishments, despite limits on time and energy. His emphasis on the theme of weariness throughout her life is a nuanced shift in attention to Olsen. His article received forty-seven responses from NYT readers, most from readers fatigued and distracted by life’s burdens. He introduces the question of “if there is a place in literature—in our canons and course listing, in our criticism and theory—for unwritten work.” Here he joins critics who deplore inhibitions on Olsen’s creativity but do not notice that she still mounted those complaints when she had privileges (and funding) envied by other deserving writers.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.