My vision is very different from that of most writers…I don’t think in terms of quests for identity to explain human motivation and behaviour. I feel that in a world where class, race and sex are so determining, that that has little reality. What matters to me is the soil out of which people have to grow, and the kind of climate around them; circumstances are the primary key and not the personal quest for identity…I want to write what will help change that which is harmful for human beings in our time.
(Tillie Olsen, cited by Deborah Rosenfelt 1985:245) 1
If any writer deserves the accolade of spanning two generations of political women’s writing, then surely it is Tillie Olsen. She began her literary career in the 1930s and survived those years (but barely) with the demands of paid work, domestic labour, childcare, political organising and writing all competing for her time and energy. In the more comfortable material conditions of the 1950s, McCarthyism created an ideological climate in which her writing could not flourish. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that Tillie Olsen started writing seriously again and found an audience for her work in the new discursive space that Second Wave feminism had created for women’s writing. Her collection of essays, Silences, and the short stories in Tell Me a Riddle were published and republished and gained a deservedly feminist reputation for the insights into the conditions of women’s lives and letters that they offered. Yet Silences, unlike Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Mary Ellmann’s Thinking about Women or Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing is not a book about women and literature, just as the stories in Tell Me a Riddle are not about gender politics per se. Tillie Olsen’s work is, indeed, not like that of most other feminist writers. It spans a much wider range of political concerns, in which class figures prominently as well as race. As the title of her only novel Yonnondio: from the Thirties and that of Deborah Rosenfelt’s path-breaking essay on Olsen indicates, her motivation and her aesthetic programme always came from the 1930s and remain rooted there.