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Tillie Olsen

One Woman, Many Riddles

Panthea Reid

Publication Year: 2010

In Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles, Panthea Reid examines the complex life of this iconic feminist hero and twentieth-century literary giant, hailed by many as the mother of modern feminism. Based on diaries, letters, manuscripts, private documents, resurrected public records, and ountless interviews, Reid's artfully crafted biography untangles some of the puzzling knots of the last century's triumphs and failures and speaks truth to legend, correcting fabrications and myths about and also by Tillie Olsen.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xv

Tillie Olsen’s handwriting was tiny and peculiar. With much practice and many magnifying glasses, I think I’ve learned to read it, but I apologize in advance for any mis-transcriptions. To ensure the coherence of quotations from her letters and journals, I have taken a few liberties: normalizing spelling and punctuation, except when the original oddities...


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pp. xvii

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pp. 3-5

The enigma of Tillie Lerner Olsen is intertwined with the enigmas of the twentieth century. Neither can be labeled cavalierly. Neither can be explained succinctly. In answering here, as best I can, the riddle of Tillie Olsen, I hope I have also helped to untangle some puzzling knots of the last century’s triumphs and failures. ...

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1. Escapes: 1880s-1916

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pp. 6-20

On 14 January 1912 in Omaha, Nebraska, a baby named “Tybile,” Yiddish for little dove, was born to Ida Goldberg and Sam Lerner. The name echoed the universal symbol of the peace that Ida and Sam expected America to provide. ...

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2. Reality Raised: 1917-1924

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pp. 21-33

At the beginning of 1917, the Lerners were lodged in a tenement house on North Twentieth Street, cramped quarters that frustrated the wind child in Tillie, which “struggled, choked and twisted to leap out and run with the wind whenever it heard the wind’s voice.”1 ...

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3. Magnetic Personality: 1925-1929

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pp. 34-54

The Tillie Lerner who dumbfounded officials by rebelliously reciting Spartacus’s speech was intimidated at first when, just thirteen, she entered Omaha’s Central High in January 1925. This giant edifice was built around the old high school, which was then demolished, leaving a central courtyard,...

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4. Revolutionary and Mother: 1930-1933

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pp. 55-77

Though Goldfarb did not appear on New Year’s Eve, he did so soon afterward and established a “deep flow of understanding” with Tillie. By 4 January 1930, she felt “all new—high tide. Hope. Ghosts laid,” the ghosts of her entanglements with Konecky. ...

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5. Early Genius: 1934

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pp. 78-99

By the beginning of 1934, federal agencies were getting people back to work (the Civil Works Administration alone employed four million workers), but the depression was too broad for a quick fix. However impoverished, half of all American families owned radios, and most gathered by them...

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6. Great Feminine Hope: 1935-1936

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pp. 100-121

By 1935, folk songs, plays, movies, and “Popular Front” culture had heightened the country’s social awareness.1 Led by FDR, many Americans now blamed greedy rich tycoons for the Great Depression. In New York City on 6 January, an audience of 1400 people at the opening of Clifford Odets’s...

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7. Dead and Resuscitated Ego: 1937-1939

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pp. 122-141

For New Year’s 1937, from a Los Angeles address on Whiteside Avenue,1 Tillie sent Cerf and Klopfer a postcard picturing a man passed out on a bench. A woman in a frilly dress is asking “Are you a Dead One?” Tillie scribbled, “I guess the dead one is me,” at least to Random House. ...

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8. War-Relief Heroine: 1940-1945

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pp. 142-167

To Tillie, former president Herbert Hoover’s 1938 Berlin meeting with Hitler had proved that capitalism was in cahoots with fascism. Hitler’s 1939 awards to Henry Ford and Charles A. Lindbergh confirmed her theory.1 Stalin’s 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler, however, shook her either-or assumptions by putting communism in cahoots with fascism. ...

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9. Ex-GI's Ideal Wife: 1946-1950

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pp. 168-183

Traveling about like a tumbleweed, Tillie had almost lost touch with the Dinkin family, but she wrote a poem when she heard of Harry Dinkin’s death, which she read at the funeral on New Year’s Day 1946 in Petaluma. ...

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10. Victim and Remaker: 1951-1955

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pp. 184-203

Tillie faced the New Year in a state of dread. Gleeful reports of U.S. successful testing of a massively destructive hydrogen bomb appalled her, as did flag-waving over “police action” in North Korea, which bombed villages, refineries, ports, and infrastructure. ...

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11. Great Value as a Writer: 1956-1961

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pp. 204-223

After a tearful leave-taking, Tillie remained haunted by images of Ida’s shrunken frame propped up on pillows, her blue eyes still steely but her voice almost silenced. Harry wrote that Ida had revived only enough to ask “very pointedly” if Tillie had written. ...

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12. Ego Strength: 1962-1969

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pp. 224-247

As 1962 began, Tillie was torn between triumph and despair. She had written one of the best books of 1961, but now she was writing only patients’ case histories as she trod the corridors of San Francisco General Hospital. Radcliffe forms, sent by Anne Sexton, included the promising news that fellowships...

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13. Tillie Appleseed; 1970-1974

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pp. 248-267

On the calendar, the 1960s were over. In American hearts and minds, though, they seemed endless. Nightly news shows still broadcasted Vietnam body counts. Disaffected citizens still held vigils and teach-ins. ...

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14. Queen Bee: 1975-1980

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pp. 268-289

As 1975 began, Tillie invited Candace Falk to walk with her. Falk expected to meander along picking up shells or admiring the sunset, but Tillie would don her grand cape and march, undaunted by wind or spray. ...

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15. Image Control: 1981-1996

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pp. 290-313

At the beginning of 1981, images of Tillie Olsen formed an odd palimpsest of positive and negative impressions. The day after Lee Grant appeared on the Merv Griffin talk show promoting the movie Tell Me a Riddle, a blur of calls and visits celebrated Tillie’s fame and her sixty-ninth birthday. ...

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16. Enter Biographer: 1997-2007

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pp. 314-336

When I finished writing Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf, it occurred to me that a biography of a living author would be fun to write. When I happened on Tillie Olsen’s name and address in the roster of the Virginia Woolf Society, it seemed serendipity. ...

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pp. 337-338

On 17 February 2007, at the First Congregational Church of Oakland, family and friends held a memorial service called a “Celebration of the Life of Tillie Olsen.” Mike Margolis called the community together by blowing on a conch shell; Karla Lutz and Tillie’s caregivers danced and sang an Amharic welcome chant in honor of Tillie. ...

Appendix A: Bibliography of Primary Works by Tillie Lerner Olsen

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pp. 339-341

Appendix B: Family Tree of Olsen, Lerner, Goldberg, Goldfarb Families

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pp. 343-345

Appendix C: 1935 Plan for the 1930s Proletarian Novel

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pp. 347-349


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pp. 350-420


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pp. 421-428


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pp. 429-449

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Panthea Reid is the author of William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual and Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf. She has edited books on Walker Percy and Ellen Douglas. She attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and the University of Alabama and holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813548135
E-ISBN-10: 0813548136
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813546377
Print-ISBN-10: 0813546370

Page Count: 484
Illustrations: 25 photographs
Publication Year: 2010