A few years ago, at a publishing conclave in Manhattan, someone handed me a slim unlovely galley called The Riddle of Life and Death. It consisted of a pair of novellas: Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Tell Me A Riddle, by Tillie Olsen. I’m always in the market for Tolstoy — even Tolstoy I already own. But who, I wondered, was this Tillie Olsen? And aside from a certain anagrammatic plausibility, what had she done to deserve the unenviable role of Count Leo’s undercard, the “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man” to his “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” Before I could be bothered to find out, a move to a new apartment landed the book in a giveaway box on the stoop.
Well, praise be to the gods of books on stoops, who apparently make allowances for callowness. Walking through my neighborhood one day last December, I stumbled across a hideous Delta Trade Paperback of Tell Me A Riddle. If the Gift-like circularity hadn’t caught my attention (give an Olsen, get an Olsen) the promise of an introduction from John Leonard would have:
See how it’s done: First what Cynthia Ozick once called “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or pascal. memory, history, poetry, and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.
Jesus, does it ever. I actually postponed reading Leonard’s introduction until I’d finished the book, but by the second page of the first piece, “I Stand Here Ironing,” I, too, was feeling the love: palpable, unflinching, almost parental. By the twelfth and last page, I was in tears. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a story about a working mother, but to call it that — even to call it the best story ever written about a working mother — feels reductive. Work-life balance may now be the stuff of Atlantic cover stories and Lean In, but in 1961, exploring it in fiction was a downright radical act.
The middle two of these four stories more obviously connect to Olsen’s reputation as a feminist and Paleyesque working-class heroine. But the political virtues that helped to land them in anthologies and on syllabi in the ’60s and ’70s may also have contributed to Olsen’s relative obscurity among readers of my generation, for whom the canon wars are settled history. (The fact that she never published another collection of fiction after Tell Me A Riddle can’t have helped. Nor, come to think of it, can the spectacular disservice book-cover designers have done to it.) Oddly, then, the partial eclipse of her politics might be a good and a timely thing: it gives us room to see her art.
The novella that concludes Tell Me A Riddle tells the story of a long marriage, and is one of the great pieces of writing about death. As the wife grows sick, the couple haul themselves around the country, visiting their far-flung progeny. And in the nearness of its approach to their worries, it approaches poetry:
In the airplane, cunningly designed to encase from motion (no wind, no feel of flight), she had sat severely and still, her face turned to the sky through which they cleaved and left no scar.
So this was how it looked, the determining, the crucial sky, and this was how man moved through it, remote above the dwindled earth, the concealed human life. Vulnerable life, that could scar.
There was a steerage ship of memory that shook across a great, circular sea: clustered, ill human beings; and through the thick-stained air, tiny fretting waters in a window round like the airplane’s — sun round, moon round. (The round thatched roofs of Olshana.) Eye round — like the smaller window that framed distance the solitary year of exile when only her eyes could travel, and no voice spoke. And the polar winds hurled themselves across snows trackless and endless and white – like the clouds which had closed together below and hidden the earth.
“Tiny fretting waters…” “Clustered, ill human beings…” “Vulnerable life, that could scar…” I’ve been carrying these lines around with me for months now, waiting for a chance to share them. Normally, the fact that someone beat me to the punch here at The Millions would be a source of regret, but I’m happy to find myself in Alice Mattison’s amen corner. Tell Me a Riddle really does deserve a place next to Ivan Ilyich, it turns out — not because Tillie Olsen’s a progressive and a humanist (though more power to her), but because she’s a master, and this story, this book, is her masterpiece.
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Tillie Olsen will be the featured author throughout the week.
Sometime in the seventies, in a dilapidated New Haven bookstore I picked up a paperback copy of Tell Me A Riddle, Tillie Olsen’s collection of four short stories. The book had been celebrated when it came out in 1961, but I hadn’t known about it. I was the mother of young children, beginning to publish poems. I wanted to write fiction, but couldn’t. Tillie Olsen’s stories (and Grace Paley’s, which I discovered at around the same time) turned me into a fiction writer, as if they pointed to a door in what had looked like a blank wall—a door to which, as it turned out, I owned a key.
I thought then that short stories weren’t an interesting form, but I had read few of them, and almost none by contemporary American women. I associated short stories with tight plots and surprising endings that affected the reader intellectually more than emotionally.
The four stories I now read by Tillie Olsen, about ordinary life — children, parents, old people, black and white people trying to lead lives that included one another, people worrying about money, people whose friendships were strained by human weakness and societal pressures — did not have surprising endings, only endings that showed how the difficult truths that the author had laid out were even more true than you might have expected, but that love was also more possible than you might have thought. Tillie Olsen’s characters had faults. They were likelier to say the wrong thing than the right. They hurt one another. But nobody disappeared permanently from anybody else’s life. Like the family I grew up in — my parents were the children of immigrant secular Jews, like some of Olsen’s characters and like Tillie Olsen herself — they said the unspeakable to one another, and continued going about their business together, wounded or not. Moreover, Olsen’s stories were political without being preachy, without sacrificing the particular person to the general truth. They are as strong today as when they first came out. They have psychological precision, musical language that reveals feeling and experience by entering into a character’s sensory experience, and political ferocity expressed in plausible generalizations from the experience of intensely real men and women.
Here’s the opening of “Hey Sailor, What Ship?”:
The grimy light; the congealing smell of cigarettes that had been smoked long ago and of liquor that had been drunk long ago; the boasting, cursing, wheedling, cringing voices, and the greasy feel of the bar as he gropes for his glass.
“He” is Whitey, a Merchant Marine on shore leave, trying to get himself sufficiently under control to reach the house of the old friends who deplore his drunkenness and despair but let him in. I’d never before seen a story about that kind of friendship, but in my own life I’d known some of them — friendships that are mostly painful, hard to justify to skeptical onlookers, but indispensable.
“O Yes,” also about friendship, begins with a young girl and her mother, “the only white people there, sitting in the dimness of the Negro church that had once been a corner store, and all through the bubbling, swelling, seething of before the services, twelve-year-old Carol clenches tight her mother’s hand, the other resting lightly on her friend, Parialee Phillips, for whose baptism she has come.” The story is about two girls, one black and one white, whose friendship is destroyed as they become teenagers by the differing expectations of teachers, the pressure of their friends, and the contrasting lives they live because of poverty and race. Even now, decades later, I’ve read few stories, especially by white people, about the stresses of black and white friendship — as opposed to stories about black servants and white employers.
Those two stories are my favorites, though the others are more anthologized and famous. The first story in the book is “I Stand Here Ironing,” in which a mother ironing clothes outlines, in an imaginary conversation with a social worker or guidance counselor, the obstacles in herself and in her life that kept her from caring properly for her oldest child — who, she hopes, will at least learn “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” The last story — almost a novella — is “Tell Me A Riddle,” about the dying of a passionately political old woman who was an imprisoned Russian radical in her youth and cannot relax, ever; her husband, who just wants to move to someplace comfortable and live out their remaining time peacefully; and the granddaughter who nurses the old woman and makes the couple behave like human beings, forcing them to become the old lovers they still are by rejecting any other view of them except as people who love and are loved.
The paperback I read, back in the seventies, had no cover. Later I learned that when you bought a paperback without a cover, it meant that the author and publisher were being deprived of money: booksellers tore off covers and returned them to publishers for refunds, and they were supposed to discard the books. But if Tillie Olsen had known how I came by her stories, I don’t think she’d have objected. A Communist when she was young — she was born in 1912 and was in her twenties during the Great Depression — she was a lefty all her life and, apparently, took delight in almost any disruption of established order. In her last decades she was a vocal feminist who regularly used more than her allotted time as a public speaker, and jumped from subject to subject, resisting all demands — benign or not — for coherence and logic. Her passionate speeches about feminism and the thirties inspired many. When she was invited to Yale, a mile away from my house, I heard her speak. She spontaneously sang “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and I was smitten. She died in 2007.
Her biographer, Panthea Reid (Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles), provides useful and fascinating information, but disapproves of her subject. Tillie Olsen wasn’t truthful, regularly fictionalizing her experience. Her extreme disorganization and heedlessness sometimes did harm. And like the regretful mother in “I Stand Here Ironing,” she didn’t take good care of her first child. Reid still manages to show that Tillie Olsen was a splendid, larger-than-life woman, and that many people forgave her faults, finding a great deal in her to love.
Tillie Olsen was forty-nine when Tell Me a Riddle was published. After writing the stories in it and publishing them in journals, Olsen won lucrative grants and fellowships. Publishers twice gave her contracts for novels (back in the thirties, Bennett Cerf, at Random House, worked hard to get her to write, and provided over a thousand dollars as an advance to support her meanwhile). Olsen repeatedly told her publishers she was almost done with a novel, but she never completed one, or any stories except for those four. She promised to write, accepted money to write, but didn’t write. Reid describes these periods as if Tillie Olsen was making irresponsible choices, but any reader who has tried writing a novel will guess how much pain she must have felt.
Olsen did write part of a novel. It was lost among her papers, found forty years later, and published, when the author was in her sixties, as Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Its harrowing, gorgeous, sensitively written chapters recount the childhood of Mazie Holbrook. Her father works in the Wyoming mines, then becomes a tenant farmer whose large family nearly starves. He finds work digging in the sewers, where the men are forced to work more quickly than is safe, and finally he gets a job in a slaughterhouse, where he is in danger from scalding water. The story is an indictment of injustice, callousness, and lack of opportunity, a chronicle of the Great Depression — and also a sharply observed account of kids growing up. It is even more fervent in its outrage than Tell Me a Riddle, but no less exact and irrresisitible in depicting life moment by moment. It breaks off at page 132 with a note from Olsen that starts, “Reader, it was not to have ended here.”
Tillie Olsen’s only other book was Silences, published in 1978. I still have the hardcover edition I bought for $10.95 when the book was published: I didn’t deprive Tillie Olsen of all the royalties I owed her. Silences consists of quotations, lists, transcripts of talks. It includes an essay about Rebecca Harding Davis that Olsen wrote for a reprint of Davis’s nineteenth-century novel Life in the Iron Mills. In disconnected or partly connected paragraphs and footnotes, Silences argues that life as we’ve known it through most of history discourages writers — especially women — from writing. It looks at all the reasons women have failed to write and publish over the centuries, from the need to take care of children, to biased reviewers, to lack of confidence and emotional breakdowns. Olsen barely mentions her own situation, but it becomes clear that when she did have enough time and money to write, she simply couldn’t. We learn from her biography that she worked full time as an activist for the Communist Party for years, including the years when Bennett Cerf was waiting for his novel. It must have been hard to believe that she could do more for the world by sitting alone writing and rewriting paragraphs than by going out and fighting for social change. Also, my guess is that Tillie Olsen didn’t know how to write a novel — it’s not obvious — and resisted the consecutive thinking it would require. She had no one to talk with — either in a formal class or in friendship with other novelists — about just how writers plan, shape, and complete novels. She wrote the four stories in Tell Me A Riddle, in fact, when she was allowed to audit a creative writing class, taught by Arthur Foff, which one of her daughters attended. He encouraged her, told her about writing fellowships at Stanford, and urged her to apply. She won a fellowship and was helped further by a teacher there, Richard Scowcroft. But still couldn’t produce a novel.
A novelist friend told me recently that she was thrilled to come upon Silences when it was published. My recollection is that I didn’t like it. I wanted more fiction from Tillie Olsen, not an explanation of why there wouldn’t be any. And Silences was alarming. When it came out I had three children under the age of eight and had published no books. It did offer a little bit of hope, finding some cause for optimism in the accomplishments of the women’s movement. It still must have been difficult for me to believe, reading it, that I could write and publish when so many couldn’t. But I did write and publish stories and novels, partly because of what I learned from Tillie Olsen’s work. She wrote so little, but she did write those forthright, honest, unsentimental stories about city life and family life in an imperfect society. Living her politics, she wrote with keen attention and respect about people and situations that might have seemed too insignificant for fiction. Decades later, I am still trying to emulate the courage in those four stories.
For more on Tillie Olsen, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.
The recent death of Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) reminds us that the value of a piece of literature is not quantifiable – not by word count, not by books sold – but, rather, resides in a black box between writer and reader, in a transaction that defies easy explanation. Olsen’s writing was not prodigal – she only published one complete book of fiction – but was, in its artistry and its impact, prodigious.Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection of four stories, drew on activist sensibilities forged in the 1920s and 30s and on Olsen’s innate poetic gifts. It consciously reclaimed the lives of minorities, of immigrants, of working-class people, and, especially, of women, as worthy of fictional examination. In so doing, it anticipated much of the finest literature published since.It seems that Olsen was as inspiring in person as she was on the page. Her great-nephew Matt Osypowski, himself a fiction writer, recently told The Millions:I started a novel (unfinished) in her apartment when I was eight or nine years old. Something about her presence made me want to do what she did, to master the language in the way that she had. She would send me the most beautiful birthday cards – short notes of pure music. Her partner, Jack, was deeply involved in labor politics in San Francisco, as was my grandfather. Their work was steeped in conflict, ideology, and mass movements… There was a beautiful contrast between their work and Tillie’s, the big picture on their end and on hers all the small pictures that make the big picture matter. Her work can make me so sad, but it’s never an impotent sadness – beneath it lie all her hopes for a better world, hopes that she wrote for, fought for, and helped all of us in the family share and understand.Another fond remembrance, by John Leonard, is posted at The Nation (via The Mumpsimus).