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Tillie Olsen, 94; author known for a slim output of raw, powerful works

Times Staff Writer

Tillie Olsen, whose struggles with poverty, motherhood and writing endowed her slim body of work with uncommon power and made her a hero to a generation of women writers, has died. She was 94.

The longtime California resident, best known for the story “Tell Me a Riddle,” died Monday night at Kaiser Oakland Medical Center, according to her daughter Laurie. She had been in declining health for some time.

Olsen published just five stories, an unfinished novel and several poems over a seven-decade career. Yet few writers who wrote so little were as admired as she was. As Harvard professor and author Robert Coles once noted, “Everything she wrote became almost immediately a classic.”

“Her writing is so pure,” said Florence Howe, founder of the Feminist Press, which published many forgotten writers championed by Olsen. “She’s a writer’s writer. Everyone mourns that there isn’t another volume like ‘Tell Me a Riddle.’ ”

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Olsen brought a self-critical eye to literature, often writing about the trade-offs of motherhood. But she also wrote about the hidden injuries of childhood and the inner worlds of blue-collar men -- an impoverished coal miner and an alcoholic seaman.

“I had a life that was constantly filling me with a kind of outrage at what was being said or written that was not true as I saw it,” Olsen said in 1981. “If you know you have something to say that isn’t there, or isn’t being said enough, it helps move you.”

Her words moved critics. “Tell Me a Riddle,” about a long-battling husband and wife who find peace in the crucible of her dying, won the O. Henry Award for best short story in 1961 and was made into a well-regarded 1980 movie.

It also was the title of a collection of four short works. It includes “I Stand Here Ironing,” a mother’s anguished reflection on an older daughter that is one of the most anthologized stories in the American canon.

Her last major work was “Yonnondio: From the Thirties,” a novel about a poor family during the Depression that was wrenching in its intimacy with the brutalities of lower-class life. Lost for 40 years, the unfinished manuscript was published in 1974 and called a masterpiece of the 1930s.

Olsen also earned distinction as the author of “Silences,” a 1978 nonfiction book that explored the social and economic obstacles that stilled writers for long stretches of their careers. It was widely seen as a literary manifesto for the women’s movement.

The book’s most affecting passages concerned Olsen’s own long literary silences. A single mother at 19, Olsen for years held low-paying jobs, including tie presser and housemaid, while raising four daughters and trying to keep her writing alive.

Her struggles gave her great empathy for accomplished writers overlooked by history. She compiled a list of 100 forgotten writers that received wide circulation in the early 1970s and helped bring many of them back into print. Among scores of works that she championed was “Life in the Iron Mills,” a story by 19th century writer Rebecca Harding Davis, whose writing has been compared to that of Chekhov and Tolstoy.

“Olsen really encouraged two generations of scholars and teachers and writers to pay attention to voices that were long forgotten and neglected because they were not valued by the majority,” said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of English at Stanford University. “Today when we look at literature courses, the fact that they look so different from 30 years ago is due in good measure to the paradigm shift that Olsen helped set in motion,” said Fishkin, the co-editor of a book about the impact of Olsen’s work, “Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism” (1994).

“Among women writers in the United States, ‘respect’ is too pale a word: ‘reverence’ is more like it,” novelist Margaret Atwood once wrote about Olsen. “This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children, and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer.... The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance but ... for the near miracle of her survival.”

The second of six children, Olsen was born Tillie Lerner in rural Nebraska on Jan. 14, 1912.

Her parents were Jews who fled to the United States after participating in the abortive 1905 Russian revolution.

Books were a little-seen luxury in the Lerner household, but young Tillie grew up with an abundance of revolutionary literature, such as the Liberator, a socialist journal edited by Max Eastman. She also read great writers, such as Thomas Hardy, in the five-cent Blue Books that were designed to fit into a worker’s pocket.

She left her neighborhood to attend Omaha Central High School. At this academic campus in a better part of town, her poverty stood out. She wore clothing donated by other students. She smelled of garlic. She wiped her nose on her sleeve because she could not afford a handkerchief.

But she soaked up literature under the tutelage of a caring teacher who introduced her to Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Edna St. Vincent Millay and who made sure she heard Carl Sandburg when he came to Omaha for a reading.

After the 11th grade, Olsen dropped out of school and plunged into the hurly-burly of socialist politics. At 18, she joined the Young Communist League and was sent to the Communist Party school in Kansas City, Mo. Caught distributing leaflets to packinghouse workers, she was thrown in jail for a month, beaten by another inmate and became sick with pleurisy, which turned into incipient tuberculosis.

The Communist Party sent her back to Omaha and then to Faribault, Minn., to recuperate. During this period, the unmarried Olsen became pregnant with her first child.

She also began to write “Yonnondio.”

The first part was published by the Partisan Review in 1934 as a short story called “The Iron Throat.” It was named the best of 200 stories published in 50 literary magazines that year; reviewer Robert Cantwell called it “a work of early genius.”

She moved with her daughter Karla to San Francisco and in 1936 met Jack Olsen, a longshoreman and organizer. They were married in 1944 and had three daughters together, Julie, Katherine Jo and Laurie.

For the next decade, she was consumed by motherhood, unionizing and sheer survival. She worked a string of menial jobs and moved with her family whenever there wasn’t enough money for rent.

Olsen seized any free moment to write: standing in the bus, at night while the children slept, even while performing household chores. “It is no accident,” she wrote in “Silences,” “that the first work I considered publishable began: ‘I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.’ ”

But such scraps of time could not sustain serious writing. Noting that the “simplest circumstances for creation did not exist,” she gave up completing the novel after the birth of her second child.

In 1953, when her youngest child entered school, she enrolled in a writing course at San Francisco State University. That led in 1955 to a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University.

For eight months at Stanford, Olsen was free to concentrate on writing. “I had continuity, three full days [per week], sometimes more -- and it was in those months I made the mysterious turn and became a writing writer,” she said.

She finished “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” about the shore visit of a seaman on a drunken binge, and “Oh Yes,” about the fragile friendship of a white girl and a black girl entering junior high. Both stories would appear in her 1961 collection.

She also began to write “Tell Me a Riddle.”

In the introduction to the 1994 edition of the “Riddle” collection, critic John Leonard said the stories bore repeated readings for their moral force and innovative language. Her prose, he wrote, “lashes like a whip ... cracks and stings.”

But when the Stanford program ended, so did Olsen’s writing. Work on “Tell Me a Riddle” languished until 1959, when she won a Ford Foundation grant. She was nearly 50 when the story was published in a magazine in 1960.

“Tell Me a Riddle” has been called a work of lyric intensity: 50 pages of raw, compressed emotion. The main characters, David and Eva, are a husband and wife battle-worn from 47 years of bickering, numbing work and little money. When Eva is diagnosed with terminal cancer, David takes her across the country to see their children a final time. But she refuses to hold a new grandchild; another one asks her for riddles but she says she knows none. Lost in memories, she dwells within herself, despite her family’s yearning for connection and understanding. Her husband, pained into a remembrance of their love, crawls into bed beside her as she writhes in death.

“There is no more powerfully moving a piece of fiction in recent years,” novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote of “Riddle” some years later, calling it “supremely beautiful in its nuances, its voices and small perfect details.”

It might have been her last major published work. But in 1972, Olsen’s husband made a discovery while sifting through old papers. Recovered were four chapters and dozens of typed and scrawled fragments of “Yonnondio,” the novel she began in 1932 about a family imprisoned by Depression-era poverty. In the solitude of the MacDowell Colony for writers in New Hampshire, Olsen pieced together the manuscript based on her memories of who she was and what her goals were four decades earlier. She wrote no new sections and did not revise the existing ones.

Annie Gottlieb, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1974, said the result was “no less than a saved life: a never-to-be-finished work that nonetheless lives with great depth and vibrancy.”

In “Silences,” Olsen addressed the conflict between human potential and everyday oppressions. Called a classic of feminist literature by author Alix Kates Shulman, it examined the pressures that muted writers such as Herman Melville, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Willa Cather and Katherine Mansfield. Olsen was especially passionate about the impediments to women writers, who, by her calculation, made up only 1 in 12 writers “of achievement.” She noted that among the relative few who succeeded in creating “enduring literature,” almost none were married or had children -- women such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte.

Atwood observed that “Silences” is “of primary importance to those who want to understand how art is generated or subverted and those trying to create it themselves.”

Not everyone was sympathetic. “There are some women who feel that when Tillie Olsen gave up her writing to raise all those kids it was a sellout,” novelist Lisa See wrote in Publisher’s Weekly in 1984, “just an excuse not to sit down and do the work.”

Olsen could have devoted herself to writing in later years, after her children were grown. Instead, she divided her time among labor campaigns, mentoring hundreds of would-be writers, lecturing and teaching at Stanford, Amherst and other institutions.

In “Silences,” she acknowledged her failure.

“The habits of a lifetime, when everything else had to come before writing, are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first. What should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write: what should take months, takes years.” She may also have been hindered by her perfectionism.

According to Howe, a longtime friend, she constantly rewrote her old stories, covering the pages of “Tell Me a Riddle” with tiny, handwritten revisions.

She is survived by four daughters, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a sister.

Olsen’s family requests that donations be made to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush St., No. 500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

elaine.woo@latimes.com


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