- Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles
Tillie Olsen is a legend in western American literature for her depictions of life in the West, particularly the harsh conditions of working people’s lives in the 1930s, and for her support of scholars in their efforts to bring to light voices that have been previously silenced. For this, the Western Literature Association awarded her the Distinguished Achievement Award in 1996. Thus, Panthea Reid’s ten-year odyssey in writing a definitive biography of this enigmatic woman has been long awaited by western literature and history scholars alike.
Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles will delight readers with its disclosure of previously unknown facts about Olsen. Reid could not have done a better job of tracing the writer’s life, and she has meticulously documented every detail, beginning with background on Olsen’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives and concluding with Tillie’s last years when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. The appendices and endnotes alone comprise nearly one hundred pages (in small type).
Reid pictures Olsen as a rebel, socially, politically, and sexually, beginning in her elementary school years; she uncovers her high school newspaper columns, an early sexual initiation with a leader of the young people’s Socialist League, an abortion at seventeen, and a connection with a poetry group Reid calls “a latently lesbian Sappho Club” (46). Especially important in understanding Olsen is the large role the Young Communist League as well as the Communist party played in her life and in her writing and, as Reid explains, in inhibiting her writing. Many wonder why Olsen did not publish more, even after she received publication offers, grants, and fellowships, including time alone to write without the responsibility of a husband and family. Reid speculates that having no models of working-class writers, working to help support the family and caring for her children, being isolated from a writing community, and enduring illnesses were reasons for not writing. These circumstances also cast Olsen in the “roles of procrastinator, excuse-maker, and victim” (223). What I enjoyed the most about the text were the snippets of writing from Olsen’s journals and letters scattered throughout the narrative. When she attended mass on Christmas in 1929, she wrote, “all thru the beautiful frail music, clink; clink of money being collected” (53). In another entry, she described searchlights crossing the sky: “Blue—the [End Page 318] pure blue of a star, long finger of light—I run to the kitchen window; suddenly they begin moving, suddenly the sky is mad. Falling, shifting, straightening, the tall slim stems weave each other” (81).
Reid announces in her final chapter, “Enter Biographer,” that after writing her biography on Virginia Woolf, “it occurred to me that a biography of a living writer would be fun to write” (314). She chose Tillie Olsen because she saw her name and address on the roster for the Virginia Woolf Society and because she had taught a couple of her stories decades earlier. Reid and Olsen’s relationship began on “teasingly good terms,” but the more Reid probed, the less cordial the relationship became (318). Reid explains, “Her determination to protect her image, along with her failing memory, now made her an even more untrustworthy narrator. Still, she was losing her ability to hide her past, while I was honing my ability to discover it” (328). Like fellow Nebraskans Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, Olsen was not above concealing or changing facts about her life.
As much as I admire and respect the thorough, complicated, and even contradictory research that Reid compiled, and the herculean task of uniting it into a cohesive narrative, I bridle at her tone at times. I understand the necessity to act as a sleuth as well as an interpreter, yet I also understand the complex relationships that exist in this endeavor. In Reflections on Biography (1999), Paula R. Backscheider writes that a biography encompasses a “dynamic interaction of lives, those of the biographer, the subject and the reader” (162). This is, I...