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Tillie Olsen (1912–2007)

Author of Tell Me a Riddle

Includes the names: Tillie Oslen, Tillie Olsen

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Short biography
Tillie Lerner was born on a tenant farm in Nebraska to Russian-Jewish immigrants who fled their homeland after their involvement in the failed 1905 Russian revolution. She grew up in Omaha, where her father worked as a painter and paperhanger and served as state secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party. Tillie was a voracious reader from a young age, and although she dropped out of Omaha High School after the 11th grade, she said, "public libraries were my sustenance and my college." In 1929, she embarked on what would be a lifetime of low-paying jobs, such as hotel maid, waitress, and factory worker. She joined the Young Communist League and became deeply involved in many labor, social, and political causes. She was briefly jailed for organizing packinghouse workers in Omaha and Kansas City. At age 19, while recovering from illness contracted as a result of factory work, Tillie wrote her first novel, later titled Yonnondio: From the Thirties, which would not be published for another 40 years. In 1932, her first child was born, and the next year she moved to San Francisco. In 1936 she met Jack Olsen, an organizer and a longshoreman. They married in 1944 and had 3 more children. At age 42, Tillie Olsen decided to try to return to writing. She applied for and received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University and published her first short story "I Stand Here Ironing" in 1955. Over the next eight years, she produced the stories collected in her most famous volume, Tell Me a Riddle, the title story of which received the O'Henry Award in 1941 as the Best American short story of the year. Tillie Olsen drew attention in her work to lives of women and the poor and influenced American feminist fiction since the 1940s. She became a teacher and writer-in-residence at numerous colleges, such as Amherst College, Stanford University, MIT, and Kenyon College. She was the recipient of nine honorary degrees, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
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