Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

Panthea Reid
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
While fans are often the eager, first read­ers of the biogra­phies of their idols, in the case of Tillie Olsen, they may be wise to recall the old say­ing, be care­ful what you wish for.’ For Reid’s well-researched biog­ra­phy of the fem­i­nist Com­mu­nist writer Tillie Olsen is a very mixed bless­ing. On the one hand, Reid has brought togeth­er a remark­able amount of mate­r­i­al on the life of Olsen — her Jew­ish par­ents’ strug­gles in rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia, her family’s dif­fi­cul­ties mak­ing a life in hard­scrab­ble Oma­ha, Tillie’s roman­tic and polit­i­cal adven­tures as a Com­mu­nist orga­niz­er in Cal­i­for­nia, and her strug­gles to become a respect­ed writer. On the oth­er hand, Reid is hon­est about Olsen’s lies and eva­sions — the cav­a­lier way she parked her daugh­ter with rel­a­tives, the ways she used fam­i­ly and friends when she need­ed them and ignored them when it wasn’t con­ve­nient, and, most unfor­tu­nate­ly, how she man­aged to hide the ter­ri­ble secret that she could no longer write.” Fans of Silences may believe Olsen’s own answer to this major rid­dle,’ that moth­ers and oth­er over­worked peo­ple are silenced by the bur­dens of the day-to-day labors they must per­form. But Reid’s biog­ra­phy offers a dark­er expla­na­tion, that Olsen was giv­en so much sup­port in the lat­ter part of her life by pub­lish­ers, uni­ver­si­ties, and fans, that she con­sumed all her ener­gies just talk­ing about being silenced. Since Reid is not address­ing a specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish audi­ence, Olsen’s rela­tion­ship to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty must be inferred from her pre­ferred empha­sis on uni­ver­sal social jus­tice, although Olsen’s occa­sion­al delight in her accep­tance in Jew­ish quar­ters is not­ed. Even if some read­ers resent Reid’s unvar­nished hon­esty, stu­dents of Olsen’s work will find this a valu­able guide to the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal roots of Olsen’s fic­tion. Appen­dices, index, notes, photographs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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