"Tell Me a Riddle" reissued in paperback
On August 15, 1971, ten years after its original publication, Tillie Olsen's short story collection Tell Me a Riddle was re-issued in a new paperback edition. The collection of four stories, "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?," "O Yes," and the title story, was hailed at its original publication as "small in size but large in achievement." Decades later, Olsen's stories are still regarded as masterpieces, with their "almost miraculous rendering," as one reviewer put it, of the rhythms of human speech and thought.
Though she began writing as a teenager, literary success came late to Olsen. Born in Nebraska, she left high school in the eleventh grade, in 1929. As the Great Depression deepened, she joined the Young Communist League and the Omaha Council of the Unemployed. Later, she worked in a variety of low-wage jobs and was twice arrested for radical activities, once in Nebraska for distributing leaflets and once in California after a police raid targeting radicals. Olsen's involvement in leftist politics was a family tradition; her father had served as secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party and was active in the Omaha Workmen's Circle.
It was also in the 1930s that Olsen began writing her novel, Yonnondio, though it would not be published for several more decades. She put away her writing when she married Jack Olsen, another member of the Young Communist League. Busy with raising four daughters, she found no time to write until the mid-1950s. Her first short story was published in 1956, the same year that she won a writing fellowship at Stanford. In 1961, "Tell Me A Riddle" won the O. Henry Short Story Award. In 1980, it was made into an Oscar-winning movie. It was republished in the collection of the same title also in 1961.
In the late 1950s, Olsen also unearthed the drafts of the novel she had begun in the 1930s. Yonnondio: From the Thirties tells the story of a poor Midwestern family seeking stable jobs and a better life during the Great Depression. Not published until 1974, the novel was hailed as "remarkable" and a work of "great depth and vibrancy" when it finally appeared. In addition to her fiction, Olsen wrote tellingly of the hardships faced by women writers who are limited by the demands of family. In Silences (1978) and earlier essays, she lamented the burdens that a patriarchal society places on female artists, and discussed her own long hiatus from writing. Olsen made an important contribution to the feminist movement in the 1970s both as an authentic voice for the experience of working-class women and by leading the way in uncovering the work of eloquent American women writers whose work had been forgotten.
Olsen received numerous awards for her fiction. In addition to a National Endowment of the Arts award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Mari Sandoz Award of the Nebraska Library Association, she won the Rea Award of the Dungannon Foundation for the best short story of 1994. Newsweek named her as its emblematic writer of the 1930s. In 2001, she received the Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. Olsen taught writing at numerous colleges, and was a writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was always an outspoken advocate for progressive and working-class politics. Olsen died on January 1, 2007 in Oakland, California.
To learn more about Tillie Olsen, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and We Remember .
Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1003-1004; New York Times, November 12, 1961, March 31, 1974; San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2001; Joanne S. Frye, Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York, 1995); Mara Faulkner, Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen (Charlottesville, VA, 1993); Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, jwa.org/feminism/index.html?id=JWA038; jwa.org/weremember/olsen-tillie.