Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Tillie Olsen - Presenté!

It is with sadness that we reprint the following article. The world of Working Class Literature has lost one of our giants:
Author and activist Tillie Olsen, whose landmark book of short stories, "Tell Me a Riddle," depicted the lives of working-class women, died of complications of Alzheimer's disease Monday in Oakland. She was 94.

Though she wrote just two other books, "Yonnondio" and "Silences," her influence was great.

"She was indispensable -- in her spirit and in her influence on young women writers," said Joyce Jenkins, editor of Poetry Flash magazine.

Ms. Olsen was born Jan. 14, 1912, on a tenant farm in Nebraska, the second of six children of Jewish Russian immigrants who had fled the failed Russian revolution of 1905.

"In 1929, she embarked on what would be a lifetime odyssey of working-class jobs," her daughter, Julie Olsen, said Tuesday.

She worked in a factory, in a laundry, as a hotel maid, as a waitress and as a pork trimmer in a meat packinghouse.

During the Depression, she became active in labor, social and political causes and joined the Young Communist League.

After moving to San Francisco, she and her lifelong companion, Jack Olsen, were among the protesters jailed on "Bloody Thursday" during the general strike of 1934.

The couple raised four daughters -- Karla, Julie, Kathie and Laurie -- in San Francisco's Mission District. Jack Olsen died in 1989.

"Our home became a refuge and gathering place for people who shared their commitment to build a more just world," Julie Olsen said.

During World War II, Ms. Olsen was head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations War Relief and was also president of the California CIO state auxiliary.

After the war, during the fiercely anti-Communist McCarthy era, Olsen was accused of being an "agent of Stalin working to infiltrate the city's schools through the PTA," her daughter said. She was never formally charged.

Between work, activism and raising a family, she found scraps of time to write, and finally, after receiving a Wallace Stegner fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University, published her first short story, "I Stand Here Ironing," in 1955. She was 43.

"In that story, she demonstrated that a woman doing mundane domestic things could be inspiring and enspiriting," Frances Howe, director of the Feminist Press at City University of New York, said Tuesday.

"She told women writers that it's OK to write about how you live and what you do," Howe said.

"There is something epic about her work," said San Francisco poet Brenda Hillman. "But I don't think the subject matter alone would have made her a great writer. Her style was so plain, dispassionate, spare and heartful."

Ms. Olsen's perfectionism was well known.

"She writes almost totally in dialogue, and if you cut a line, you're lost," said Howe, who is just now preparing a new edition of "Tell Me a Riddle" -- paired with Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" -- to be published by the Feminist Press in March.

"She had such energy," said Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley.

"Something about that activist background energized people to believe that they were part of a cause bigger than themselves," Margolin said. "She had a kind of generosity, because she wasn't self-seeking. She was in service of social justice."

Despite the bloody conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, Ms. Olsen never succumbed to despair.

"I have a lot of faith in the American people if they have access to truth," she said in an interview published on the Web site of Modern American Poetry. "I buy 100 copies at a time of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was Eleanor Roosevelt's great work. And it happened in San Francisco, at the first meeting of the United Nations."

Among her many honors, Ms. Olsen received the 2001 Fred Cody Award. Named for the founder of Cody's Books, the award is given each year to a literary figure who has contributed greatly to the community.

Ms. Olsen is survived by four daughters and eight grandchildren. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, 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. The date and time of a public memorial will be announced.


Blogger Ericka Lutz said...

Thank you for this! Tillie Olsen's family would like to let people in the San Francisco Bay Area know about her public memorial celebration.

Please circulate this information widely -- the family is trying to get this information out to all those who might be interested.

Tillie Lerner Olsen
Author, Feminist, Activist
January 14, 1912 - January 1, 2007

Join family, friends, and readers for a Memorial Celebration of Tillie Olsen's Life

Saturday, February 17, 2007

First Congregational Church of Oakland

2501 Harrison Street (corner of 25th and Harrison)
Oakland, CA

1:00 celebration followed by reception.

Parking on site. The church is 8 blocks from the 19th Street BART Station.


Please share this information with others you know who cared about and
were affected by Tillie's writing, teaching, speaking, or friendship.

Also, you can visit for more information about her life and work.

Many thanks, and hope to see many of you there...

Ericka Lutz
(Tillie's granddaughter)

5:16 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home