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Tillie Olsen (1912–2007)

Author of Tell Me a Riddle

17+ Works 1,749 Members 32 Reviews 11 Favorited

About the Author

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Tillie Olsen received only a high school education. But because of her success as a writer, she has served as a visiting lecturer and writer-in-residence at a number of colleges, including Amherst College, Stanford University, and MIT. She has received numerous awards for show more her work, including an O. Henry Award for best American short story (1961) and a Guggenheim fellowship (1976-77). The widely anthologized "I Stand Here Ironing" (1961), in the circumstances of its publication and its voice and subject, embodies the concerns of Olsen's literary career. In this monologue of a woman reviewing her relationship to her 19-year-old daughter, Olsen suggests the themes of the blighted potential and wasted talent of working-class women that have preoccupied her throughout her career. As she irons, the woman mournfully meditates on how she may have prevented her daughter's full "flowering" - a flowering that she herself has never had. Most intensely recalled is how she had to leave her infant daughter to go to work after her husband abandoned them. A mother herself by age 19, Olsen did not publish her first work until she was in her forties (though she began to write in her teens) when the pressures of supporting herself and her four children lessened and she felt she had written something worthy of publication. At times considered unrelenting in the despair that she attributes to her characters, Olsen's style is marked by a rhythmic, hypnotic lyricism and an evocative use of language. Olsen later published an introductory essay to the reprint of Rebecca Harding Davis's nineteenth-century novel, Life in the Iron Mills. In Silences (1978), a collection of essays, she addresses directly the various cultural, political, and economic forces that silence women writers and writers from working-class or minority backgrounds. (Bowker Author Biography) show less

Works by Tillie Olsen

Associated Works

Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (1995) — Contributor, some editions — 926 copies
Points of View: Revised Edition (1966) — Contributor — 414 copies
Women & Fiction: Short Stories By and About Women (1975) — Contributor — 367 copies
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (2015) — Contributor — 290 copies
Black Women Writers at Work (1983) — Foreword, some editions — 129 copies
Life in the Iron Mills (1861) — Contributor, some editions — 127 copies
Allegra Maud Goldman (1976) — Foreword, some editions — 106 copies
Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writings (1990) — Contributor — 72 copies
Infinite Riches (1993) — Contributor — 54 copies
The Jewish Writer (1998) — Contributor — 53 copies
The Experience of the American Woman (1978) — Contributor — 46 copies
The Seasons of Women: An Anthology (1995) — Contributor — 46 copies
Granta 1: New American Writing (1979) — Contributor — 44 copies
Fifty Best American Short Stories 1915-1965 (1965) — Contributor — 36 copies
At Work: The Art of California Labor (2003) — Afterword — 25 copies
The Best American Short Stories 1971 (1971) — Contributor — 21 copies
The Best American Short Stories 1961 (1961) — Contributor — 10 copies
The Best American Short Stories 1957 (1957) — Contributor — 7 copies
Enjoying Stories (1987) — Contributor — 2 copies


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Common Knowledge

Legal name
Lerner, Tillie (born)
Date of death
USA (birth)
Wahoo, Nebraska, USA
Place of death
Oakland, California, USA
Places of residence
Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Berkeley, California, USA
San Francisco, California, USA
Oakland, California, USA
Lake School, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Omaha High School, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
political activist
Awards and honors
Robert Kirsch Award(2001)
American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award(Literature ∙ 1975)
Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award(1996)
Guggenheim Fellowship
Frances Goldin Literary Agency (estate)
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.



The saddest book ever... this is the story of a poor family that just got more and more poor. The author's use of imagery helps the reader feel the descriptions of the Earth, the skinny children, the despair of poverty and hopelessness... first, working in the coal tunnels, and the father getting much of his pay in scrip for the company store. Then, tenant farming and the owner taking everything he harvested, yet still he owes...on to the slaughterhouse work he considers himself lucky to get. The air in the town is so stifling from the slaughterhouse and Benjy has asthma and can't breathe.... Things get worse and worse, and the story remains unfinished, but the reader can imagine the ragged end of this family, during the depression that beat them further and further down.… (more)
burritapal | 7 other reviews | Oct 23, 2022 |
These stories are sad, but realistic, and make me glad I read them. Especially "Tell me a riddle," the short story for which the book is named. Since my Dad recently died, and I was his caretaker, I identified with the way his wife's life continued to become limited, until she was bedridden, and eventually died. The whole senselessness of a life that had been full with a brain full of compassion and knowledge, ending, and going where?, emanated from this story.
burritapal | 9 other reviews | Oct 23, 2022 |
Excellent, five stars!
NorthElliot | 2 other reviews | Sep 14, 2022 |
Tillie Olsen does a remarkable thing. She reduces two entire lives to a seven page short story. She paints them complete and offers us up their every sorrow and joy on a canvas that bleeds.

It won’t take you long, but it will matter that you read it. If you are a mother, it might teach you something or make you consider anew; if you are a daughter, it might make you look at your mother with a forgiving heart.

There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents
never came. One visit she was gone. "They moved her to Rose Cottage," Emily shouted
in explanation. "They don't like you to love anybody here."

That line alone should make you cry.

Read It Here

My special thanks to Diane S. for introducing me to this story and writer. I love my Goodreads friends!
… (more)
mattorsara | 2 other reviews | Aug 11, 2022 |



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