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.