tillie olsen

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction (Twayne Publishers, 1995).

The subjects of Tillie Olsen’s fiction are ordinary: an overworked mother, a disillusioned alcoholic, childhood friends about to go their separate ways, an estranged elderly couple, an orphaned boy and his uncle. What is extraordinary is the depth to which she plumbs both the content and the context of their character, how it is that they have come to be who they are. What is also extraordinary, considering the conservative tenor of the times in which she began writing in earnest about such people—the 1950s—is their inclusion in fiction at all. It is for her abiding interest in the complex lives of people struggling on society’s margins and the manner in which she portrays them that Olsen has created a unique and honored place for herself in the tradition of the American short story.

In the four pieces gather in her 1962 collection,Tell Me a Riddle—“I Stand Here Ironing,” “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” “O Yes,” and the title piece—and in the 1970 story “Requa I,” Olsen address the problem of how to interpret the experiences—or as she would call them, “life comprehensions”—of those living outside the mainstream culture in a form—literature—whose very nature has been defined by that same culture. The result, writes Joanne Frye in this ambitious study of Olsen’s short fiction, is a small body of work, with many layers densely packed, that conveys with lyricism and keen perception both the grace and the hardship inherent in people’s daily lives.

Though Frye never suggests a simplistic, literal autobiographical interpretation of the stories, she gives ample attention to the significant influence of Olsen’s life experiences on her work: as daughter of poor Russian immigrants; as working class woman, wife, and mother raising a family in a working-class, urban neighborhood; as political activist in behalf of socialism, labor unions, and feminism. In-depth interviews Frye conducted with Olsen shed light on this personal history as well as on the writer’s artistic choices.

Frye’s assessment also includes a comprehensive survey of the scholarship on Olsen as it grew from a scattered, mostly positive response to her artistry in the politically conservative 1950s and early 1960s to a feminist outpouring as the women’s movement took hold in the late 1960s and the 1970s. More recent studies of Olsen’s work complement the earlier criticism with more direct investigations of its biographical and political underpinnings.

Counterbalancing the response of the professional critic is that of what Frye refers to—after a phrase coined by Virginia Woolf—as the response of the “common reader”: the reader as mother or daughter, as brother or son, as worker, as family caretaker; the reader responding to a story not from the vantage of literary history but of personal history. And it is here, Frye concludes, that Olsen has realized her most prized achievement: to speak not only of “ordinary” people but to them. (from the book jacket)