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Tillie Lerner Olsen, internationally honored writer, human rights and anti-war activist, a formative voice of the women's movement, and a cherished friend, deeply loved Mother, Grandmother and Great-Grandmother, died January 1, 2007, two weeks shy of her ninety-fifth birthday.
Tillie Olsen is internationally known and honored for her powerful, brilliantly crafted, poetic writing depicting the lives of working-class people, women and people of color with respect, profound understanding and deep love. Her books, Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondio from the Thirties, Silences and her essays and lectures have been translated into twelve languages. Her works are considered by many to be central to working class literature, women’s studies, and the understanding of creative processes and the conditions, which permit imagination to flourish.
Tillie Lerner was born on a tenant farm in Nebraska, the second of six children of Samuel and Ida Lerner, Russian Jewish immigrants who left their homeland after their involvement in the failed 1905 revolution. She grew up in Omaha where her father worked as a painter and paperhanger and served as State Secretary in the Nebraska Socialist Party. Tillie was strongly influenced by her parents' revolutionary heritage and by their humanistic and socialist beliefs. From a young age Tillie was a voracious reader, and though she dropped out of high school after the 11th grade ending her "formal" education, in her words, "public libraries were my sustenance and my college". In 1929, she embarked on what would be a lifetime odyssey of low-paying jobs (hotel maid, packinghouse worker, linen checker, waitress, laundry worker, factory worker, secretary, etc.) in Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota, eventually finding her way to California. An activist and a member of the Young Communist League, Tillie was jailed for organizing packinghouse workers in Omaha and Kansas City, and became involved in labor, social and political causes of the depression-era. It was while recovering from pleurisy and tuberculosis contracted as a result of factory conditions and weeks in jail, that she began to write her novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, which would not be published until forty years later. In 1932, her first daughter, Karla, was born, and the next year they moved to San Francisco.
In the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, Tillie was jailed on "Bloody Thursday" along with the man who would become her life-long partner - Jack Olsen, a waterfront warehouseman, union organizer and educator who shared her commitment to human rights and the struggle for justice. Two poems and a series of reports written in the course of that historic strike and published in the New Republic and The Partisan Review, brought Tillie's writing to the attention of the nation, and she was invited to attend the American Writers Congress of 1935 in New York City as one of a few young writers.
In San Francisco’s Mission district, Jack and Tillie raised their four daughters, Karla, Julie, Kathie and Laurie, and their home became a refuge and gathering place for people from all walks of life who shared their values and commitment to build a more just world.
The conditions of working class life, raising a family and activism did not permit Olsen to pursue her writing for many years, although she continued to keep notebooks and to write on tiny slips of paper, "capturing voices, words, thoughts" in the small moments she could. Throughout the years of child rearing and maintaining a family with few resources while working on "everyday jobs" Tillie organized in her neighborhoods for parks and playgrounds, was a founder of the city's first Parent Cooperative Nursery school, fought for quality child care programs, became a leader in the PTA, served as director of the California CIO War Relief and President of the Women's Auxiliary of the CIO during the second world war.
During the McCarthy era, Olsen was accused of being an "agent of Stalin working to infiltrate the city's schools through the PTA" - and though she was never charged, Jack was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Commission for his labor organizing activities - which lost him his job and ushered in years of financial difficulty for the family.
Tillie as Writer
At 42. Tillie attempted to return to writing by taking a class at San Francisco State College. Encouraged by her teachers there, 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 at the age of 43. Over the next eight years, she produced the four stories that were collected in her distinguished volume, Tell Me a Riddle, about which literary critic Julian Moynihan wrote: (Olsen) ''explores the deep pain and real promise of fundamental American experience in a style of incomparable verbal richness and beauty. As a great work of literary art, it will be read as long as the American language lasts. " The London Tribune stated: "Out of poverty and hardship.. reveals with compression, depth and a passionate economy of language a working class America that few writers have known or realized existed." The title story of that collection received the O'Henry Award as the Best American short story of 1961.
Tillie Olsen was awarded many distinguished fellowships and awards for her writing, for her contributions to literature and for her activism, including those from: the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliff Institute, the British Post Office, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Stanford University Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship, The Rea Award for the Short Story, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award, The Mari Sandoz Award, and the Los Angeles Times "Robert Kirsch" Life Time Achievement Book Award. The American Academy and Institute of American Arts and Letters presented her with an award for distinguished contribution to American Literature, citing her writing as "very nearly constituting a new form of fiction'. Olsen has been awarded eight honorary doctorates. The plaque she kept on her wall, however, was an honorary high school diploma from Omaha Central High, given at the time of her honoring at the University of Nebraska. Her work has been anthologized in hundreds of volumes, made into three films and two stage-plays.
Olsen's non-fiction book Silences, based on her many speeches and articles, was published in 1978 and examines the critical link between economic class, color and gender that have prevented so many writers from writing. Her reading lists and syllabuses published by the Feminist press became the heart of the Women's Studies canon and were instrumental in bringing important forgotten books by women and working class writers back into print.
In 1970, Olsen had been instrumental in founding the Feminist Press, (now the Feminist Press at the City University of New York). She championed the republication of the 19th century classic Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis, writing an extended biographical Afterword, which inaugurated the Feminist Press’ reprints of “lost “ American classics by women writers which have become essential texts in American history and literature and women’s studies courses. The Feminist Press issued a new edition of Olsen’s Silences and in March 2007 will begin a new series pairing literature by women and men with Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle matched with Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych.
Between 1969 and 1974, Olsen taught at Stanford University, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts, and served as the first woman "visiting writer" at Amherst College. Throughout this era, mindful of her ''hatred for all that, ...slows, impairs, silences writers", Olsen continued her activism and efforts to encourage other women and working class writers to their own voice, creativity and expression. Tillie Olsen's papers are archived at Stanford University in their Special Collections at the Green Library.
In November, 2006, author Scott Turow wrote a column for National Public Radio's You Must Read This, in which he said "Tillie..had invented a literary tradition of her own...every line is measured, compressed, resonant, stripped bare, so that paragraph after paragraph achieves the shocking brevity and power of the best poems...By now I have read Tell Me a Riddle so often that it is essentially memorized...I read with my abiding gratitude to Tillie, who was the first person to tell me what I most wanted to hear; that I had the stuff to be a writer".
Tillie our "brilliant, beautiful, warrior Mother"*
(*daughter Kathie's words)
Although she was deeply proud of her Nebraska mid-western roots, for 70 years San Francisco was her home and her community. She and Jack raised their four children in the Mission District, and then lived for twenty years in the Western Addition in the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehousemen's Union) built St. Francis Square Cooperative Housing "dedicated to the belief that people of all races and walks of life can live together in harmony".
In San Francisco, Tillie became a familiar and passionate presence in community meetings, on picket lines and at demonstrations throughout the Bay Area - for labor, against apartheid and racism, as part of anti-war movements, on behalf of women's rights, to create a strong public education and public library system, and for the protection of the earth. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Tillie was a familiar figure in the Western Addition and Tenderloin, handing out leaflets or posters, taking brisk walks, and stopping to talk with homeless people. When she would offer a few carefully folded dollar bills to “help out”, her response to "Thank you and bless you" was inevitably, "Don't bless me - curse the system!", always punctuated with a kiss.
In recognition of Tillie's enormous contribution to the life of the city, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the City Board of Supervisors declared a citywide Tillie Olsen Day in 1981. She was similarly honored by the City of Santa Cruz in 1998.
Tillie was a beautiful, powerfully charismatic and compassionate woman, who saw and sought the humanity in everyone. She built enduring relationships with tellers in the bank, checkers in the supermarket, homeless people who frequented her neighborhood, young children, college students, mothers yearning to become writers, and many others who she came to know through correspondence she maintained with people throughout the world who were touched by her writing and speaking. Her writing, teaching and the example of her life have had profound influences on others to claim their voice, write, speak and take action.
In 1989, Tillie's life-long partner, Jack Olsen, passed away. Tillie is survived by her sister, Vicky Bergman of Pembroke Pines, Florida, and by four daughters and their husbands, Karla and Arthur Lutz of Larkspur, California, Julie and Robert Edwards of Soquel, California, Kathie Olsen and Charley Hoye of Jacksonville, Oregon, and Laurie Olsen and Michael Margulis of Berkeley, California. She leaves eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, fifteen nieces and nephews - and many dear friends of all generations across the globe who have been deeply impacted by her enormous capacity for joy and celebration of human life, her powerful use of language, and by her compassion and profound commitment to create a more just world dedicated to human rights, dignity and peace.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 255 Bush Street #500, San Francisco, California 94104.
(This obituary written by Tillie’s daughters, January 1, 2007)
Copyright 2007-12 - Habib Krit