Tillie Olsen, born Tilly Lerner (1912-2007), was an American writer closely associated with the feminist movement and the author of short stories, essays and books.
Tillie Lerner was born in Wahoo, Nebraska in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her parents, Samuel and Ida Lerner, were politically engaged and her father was the state secretary of the Socialist party in Nebraska. The Lerner family was a big one, with six children and life was not easy for them. Olsen said that they were poor but she valued the experience she gained from those years.
Olsen was an avid reader and did well at school but at the age of 15 she had to drop out of high school and start work to help her family. She worked as a waitress, hotel maid, factory worker, packinghouse worker and a secretary. As a member of the Young Communist League, she spent a short time in jail for organizing packinghouse workers in Kansas and Nebraska.
Due to poor working conditions in a tie factory where she worked, Olsen suffered from pleurisy and tuberculosis. During her recovery she started writing Yonnondio: From the Thirties. In 1934, she was sent to jail again, this time for taking part in San Francisco general strike. During the industrial action she met Jack Olsen, whom she married in 1944 and lived with until his death in 1989. They had four daughters.
Olsen had a busy life as a working mother and a volunteer at the local parent co-operative nursery school but she never abandoned writing. She wrote at night, while her children were asleep or while traveling to work. Her first published work, a collection of four short stories, Tell Me a Riddle was went on sale in 1961. The stories focus on the characters of one family. The first one, I Stand Here Ironing, reveals the thoughts of a mother about her difficult relationship to her daughter and how it was affected by poverty and abandonment. The title story, Tell Me a Riddle, a tale about the death of a Russian Jewish immigrant and revolutionary, was awarded the O'Henry Prize in 1961 for best American short story.
Her other fictional work, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, was finally published in 1974. For the development of the plot, Olsen drew heavily from her own experience. The story is set in 1920s and centers on the Holbrooks, a working class family living in Wyoming. The father, Jim Holbrook, is a miner married to Anna and together they have five children. At first, they are a loving, happy family, raising their children to be hardworking, decent and above all, well educated.
After an incident with their eldest daughter Mazie at the mine they decide to leave the farm and move east. They reach South Dakota and settle on a tenant farm. The family is optimistic, since they have everything they need for a while. With winter approaching, Jim realizes that they are still in debt and cannot manage. They are forced to move again and this time they end up living in a slum next to a slaughterhouse. Jim abuses his wife and children, while Mazie withdraws into a world of her own, on the verge of developing schizophrenia. Anna nearly dies while having a miscarriage and the Holbrooks lose everything they had and have to survive on leftovers.
Olsen received numerous awards, including a Ford Foundation grant in 1954 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975. A non-fictional volume, Silences, published in 1978, deals with the problems working-class writers and women writers face in order to be able to focus on their art. She also researched and analyzed the life and works of another writer, Rebecca Harding Davis. While working as an advisor for the Feminist Press, Olsen helped to promote lost feminist classics, such as The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Because of her communist inclinations and class-consciousness, a local radio station once referred to Olsen as "an agent of Stalin, who'd been empowered to take over the San Francisco school system." As a result of McCarthyism she lost some of her friends. Even though she did not publish many books, Olsen is extremely influential in American literature. Her preoccupation with the rights of women and the working class granted her an important role in society and she was frequently seen at events such as demonstrations and community meetings. Olsen died in 2007, at the age of 94.