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Tillie Olsen, in gratitude, admiration, wonder

The great short story writer Tillie Olsen died on January 1, and at 5:00 AM a week later, I woke myself out of sleep with words of hers that I didn’t know I remembered.

A few short, simple words, I hasten to add, rather than one of the aching, chiseled phrases from Tell Me a Riddle, her story collection. What came back to me in sleep was baby talk, from a lesser, fragmentary work — Yonnondio: From the Thirties, the novel begun when Olsen, then Tillie Lerner, was nineteen years old.

What I heard was I can do! I!

No doubt I heard these words in response to my own anxieties about what I can do, next, as a writer. Which is fitting, because over the years Tillie Olsen’s life and words have been a constant source or inspiration to writers, particularly female writers, under duress.

But these days I can’t even be sure you’ve heard of her: lifelong socialist activist; mother of four; in the early 1970s a beacon to a generation of feminist scholars and writers. And first and foremost, author of four luminous short stories that, as one of the cover blurbs of Tell Me a Riddle says, ‘will be read as long as the American language lasts.’ I can only hope so. Right now, I don’t think all four stories are in print. Luckily, the best two — the first and the last, ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ and ‘Tell Me a Riddle’ — are easily available in collections.

Her published output was small, fragmentary, idiosyncratic: Yonnondio, the reconstructed unfinished novel; Silences, a collage of quotes and commentary about the writing process and its vicissitudes; and, once again, the stories that constitute Tell Me a Riddle.

To find out more about her life, you can click on this link to the obituary Tillie Olsen’s four daughters wrote for her last week. If you want something more analytical, try Constance Coiner’s searching, clear-eyed investigation of Olsen’s take on the demands and joys of marriage, motherhood, and family; of passionate political involvement; and no less passionate literary aspiration, achievement, frustration.

An early chapter from Yonnondio was published in a 1934 Partisan Review and hailed as ‘an unmistakable work of early genius.’ But — for many reasons and through many exigencies — the author abandoned the work and believed she’d lost the manuscript until many years later. Piecing together the rediscovered drafts and notes, Olsen appended a note to the reclaimed text, published in 1973: ‘In this sense — the choices and omissions, the combinings and reconstruction — the book ceased to be solely the work of that long ago young writer and, in arduous partnership, became this older one’s as well.’

I find myself pausing as I type the words arduous partnership — the sonorous slant rhyme of it so unmistakably Tillie Olsen – before returning to her younger words (the ones that woke me up). The final scene of the extant manuscript: a view of a mother and baby, a desperately poor Chicago working family, some of the older children taken sick, on a nightmarishly hot summer evening after a near-hallucinatory day of jelly-making:

Flies bumble and fry in the lamp; peach and amber jars of jelly and fruit cover every surface.Anna sits at last, holding Bess at the kitchen table, singing with heat-cracked lips ‘I Saw a Ship a-Sailing,’ waiting for Will to come home so that the lights can go out and the trying-to-sleep time can begin again. I Saw a Ship — It is all heat delirium and near suffocation now.


Bess has been fingering a fruit-jar lid — absently, heedlessly dropped it –aimlessly groping across the table, reclaimed it again. Lightning in her brain. She releases, grabs, releases, grabs. I can do. Bang! I can do. I! A Neanderthal look of concentration is on her face. That noise! In triumphant, astounded joy she clashes the lid down. Bang, slam, whack. Release, grab, slam, bang, bang. Centuries of human drive work in her; human ecstasy of achievement, satisfaction deep and fundamental as sex: I achieve, I use my powers; I! I! Wilder, madder, happier the bangs. The fetid fevered air rings with Anna’s, Mazie’s, Ben’s laughter; Bess’s toothless, triumphant crow. Heat misery, rash misery transcended

Typing out the passage, I wondered whether I really needed to send you to the biography to find the life — or to find life. Olsen’s fiction teems with it. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: recurring concerns writ large and small nestle within each other like fractals, setting their rhythmic stamp on the phrases and sentences. Themes and obsessions exist in embryo, in the writing’s infancy, in baby Bess crashing down the jar lid.

Human potentiality was Tillie Olsen’s overarching story — aspiration and frustration, memory, rediscovery, and recapitulation — human potentiality crushed or resurgent but never sentimentalized (at least in the stories themselves, if not always in the discussion that surrounded them).

I remember the shock to my own uneducated sensibilities, upon first encountering the penultimate sentences of ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’ I was in my twenties, grown up in the vitamin-enriched sunshine of post-war, mid-century, suburban upward mobility. Olsen’s narrative is a mother’s meditation on an oldest child, born during the great depression, a child of anxious, not proud love, her gifts not always encouraged. The child is almost a young woman now (You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-loveliness). Thought slow and ordinary in her early years, she now shows a rare talent for performance; a teacher (the you of the sentence I cited) wants to help her.

Of course, I thought, it’ll all come out okay now, my unformed younger self the like a deer caught in the headlights of Olsen’s prose, naively unprepared for the elegiac wisdom of what comes next: Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom — but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by.

A final sentence follows, turning on a harsh, touching metaphor so inevitable as to be almost but not quite redemptive. But you should read it for yourself, in the living metrics of the entire story. As for me, I’m still catching my breath, still trying to make sense of the paradoxes of waste and fulfillment, time and generation, that articulate this writing.

Time and generation. Writerlike (and not, I suspect, in a good way), I find myself seeking out novel words of praise. ‘Timeless’ hovers into view; I bat it away like a mosquito. These stories are suffused with time, their sentences moving to its rhythms, their protagonists simultaneously ravaged by it, starved for it. And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? Trapped in the inadequate scale of human separation and limitation, that’s exactly what these characters, these narrators and their author try to do — to find a story true and yet commonplace enough to account for the passing of damaged, flawed people through inexorable time, resonant enough to account for their stray glimpses of lost, better possibility, just hopeful enough to keep faith with the generations to come.

In the years since the stunning moment of education I was afforded by ‘I Stand Here Ironing,’ I’ve tried to learn how a novel, a story, a sentence can (must!) account for the passing of time. I’ve navigated Proust’s big sentences, their collusion of senses and tenses in the service of the mysteries of involuntary memory, the impossible necessity of living your life and having it too. I’ve written a romance novel that didn’t honor the rules of fast-moving genre narrative (some readers liked it, some didn’t). I’ve gotten older myself (aging more quickly as I read the comments from those who didn’t like that book).

Returning to Olsen’s stories after these voyages, I find myself more awed and astonished than when I first set out. ‘Tell Me a Riddle,’ the title story of the collection, is the narrative of a death: what’s sensed, known, and remembered coalescing into shapes of breathtaking complexity and originality, as though encoded into the long-chained molecules that build life.

Sick and angry, the dying old woman reluctantly attends a community sing, in the shabby old people’s community near Santa Monica Pier.

So it is that she sits in the wind of the singing, among the thousand various faces that become age.

She feels rather than hears the wind of the singing because she’s turned off her hearing aid (as she would have wished to turn off sight). But it also seems to me that she feels the storm that blows behind Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, piling up the refuse of human suffering. And within the macrocosm of history curls the microcosm of the unique self: for this old woman, it’s the wind blown through flutes, the memory of the day she first heard music.

While from floor to balcony to dome a bare-footed sore-covered little girl threaded the sound-thronged tumult, danced an ecstasy of grimace to flutes that scratched at a cross-roads village wedding

The long chain of synaesthetic metaphor takes yet another turn. The little girl of memory floats from floor to balcony to dome, but history, experience, and life have weight, irrevocability.

Yes, faces became sound and the sound became faces; and faces and sound became weight — pushed, pressed

Pushed, pressed…. Yes I know, it’s weighty stuff — particularly to find on the almost-blog of a writer of lighter-than-air fiction, of happy-ever-after endings (for better or worse, and armored now with doubt and irony, my younger sensibility will be with me to the end).

But my task, my responsibility right now is to remember, to thank, and to share the pleasure, the pain, the beauty of these stories.

Tillie Olsen’s family has requested that on January 14, which would have been her 95th birthday, ‘people whose lives have been touched by Tillie gather with friends in their homes and public libraries to celebrate her life and to read her work together.’ As it happens, I’m not at home today, or in a public library. But from cyberspace, in the gathering space of the web, I want to say what I can, in awe, in mourning and in celebration, and in gratitude once again for the words she gave us for our endings: death deepens the wonder.

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