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

January 04, 2007|Elaine Woo | 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.' "

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.

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