Features / Fiction / In Their Own Words / Nonfiction

In Her Own Words: Tillie Olsen

by Vicraj Gill

In this week’s feature, Tillie Olsen and the Writing of Fiction, Alice Mattison gives us an idea of the impact Olsen’s work had on readers and writers alike. Though she published relatively little, the writings and speeches that Tillie Olsen left us with comprise a fierce, life-long effort to find solutions to the hardships faced by women and the working class—the limits life and its obligations imposed on their time; the barriers that prejudice posed to their popular reception. Several of the quotes below are taken from Silences, notes from a talk Olsen gave at the Radcliffe Institute in 1962 on the suppression and subjugation of female authors and writers of color. All of them reveal Olsen’s passion for bringing awareness to both the pains and the triumphs of artists disadvantaged by race, gender, or class.


“All that happens, one must try to understand.” — from “Tell Me a Riddle,” 1961


“There are ‘hidden injuries of class’ whether you are conscious of it or not.” —Interview with The Progressive, November 1999


“… Almost unnoted are the foreground silences, before the achievement. George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A. E. Coppard, Angus Wilson, Joyce Cary—all close to, or in their forties before they became published writers; Lampedusa, Maria Dermout (The Ten Thousand Things). Laura Ingalls Wilder, the ‘children’s writer,’ in their sixties. Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these, the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.” — from Silences


“And he yearned to package … for everyone that joyous certainty, that sense of mattering, of moving and being moved, of being one and indivisible with the great of the past, with all that freed, ennobled.” —“Tell Me a Riddle”


“I know that I haven’t powers enough to divide myself into one who earns and one who creates.” —Silences


“The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years—response to others, distractability, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you, make you, become you. The cost of ‘discontinuity’ (that pattern still imposed on women) is such a weight of things unsaid, an accumulation of material so great, that everything starts up something else in me; what should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years.” —Silences


“…she would not have been permitted to go unescorted, or to linger, or to initiate or participate too actively in any conversation. In homes such as the Hardings’, labor relations, politics, gritty subjects, were not discussed around the ladies socially. How did she come then by the observation, the knowledge…?

She must have had to use ‘trespass vision,’ eavesdrop, ponder everything, dwell within it with all the resources of intellect and imagination; literally make of herself (in Henry James’s famous phrase) ‘one on whom nothing is lost.’ Each walk, each encounter, had to be freighted with significance, each opportunity for knowing seized. More, with demeaning, painful, excited stratagem, she must have had to create opportunities for knowledge; and for a knowing relationship with those outside the bounds of her class.

And in the process, the noting of reality was transformed into comprehension, Vision.”

—from Olsen’s “Biographical Interpretation” of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories


“Be critical. Women have the right to say: this is surface, this falsifies reality, this degrades.” —Silences


Anne Marie Cusack: How did you learn?

Olsen: In the college of literature. What’s in books—history, too. And the great college of motherhood. You learn so much about human development, human capacity. And it doesn’t have to do with whether you have wealth and advantage or not. It has to do with the parenting those first few years before the world comes in with its enormous effect. The ecstasy of achievement when you first learn to walk, the passion for language. When children first learn to talk sentences, you usually can’t shut them up. When they learn how to climb, for instance, again the ecstasy of achievement, that real hunger to learn, to have experiences, to be on top of something.

And the college of activism—that whole participation with others in trying to make change for the better.

—Interview with The Progressive


“… whenever any of us of that class, meaning those of us who must put so much of their life into the getting of a living, and not in the professional satisfaction sense…whenever any of us of that class and/or sex and/or color, generally denied enabling circumstances, come to what the world recognizes as achievement, it is not by virtue of our … I don’t say ‘dazzling,’ but you know, very special qualities, qualities which are expressed and used in everyday life, unnoticed, unseen … but by virtue of our special luck, combined with whatever capacities we have. And I am one of those who I feel had a special luck.” —Interview with Mario Materassi, 1988


“There is entrenched power, and with few exceptions it has no feeling for the vulnerability and sacredness of human life. And they have the weapons and the power until there is a movement of people, as has happened over and over in the past.” —Interview with The Progressive


“The fact that human beings do not put up forever with misery, humiliation, degradation, actual physical deprivation but act is a fact which every human being should know about. We are a species that makes changes.” —Interview with The Progressive

Bloom Post End

Homepage photo credit: Jesse Olsen

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