Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles
A biographer struggles to reconcile the many contradictions in the character of feminist icon and author Tillie Olsen.
“I loved her,” literary scholar Panthea Reid says defensively in her biography Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles, of the feminist icon and author of such classic American short stories of the mid-20th century as “I Stand Here Ironing” and “Tell Me A Riddle.” Like Betty Smith’s famed 1943 novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Olsen’s tales show the shortchanged lives of gifted women from the working poor: unable to at once make a living, make art, and meet the needs of their families.Skip to next paragraph
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Reid’s comment bespeaks the complicated affection that she felt for Olsen, who authorized the biography, but then frustrated all efforts to present a true account of her through obscuring, outright lies, and incoherence. The declaration is also a sop to protectors of “Tillie Appleseed” – as Olsen was known by feminist fans – who feared a revelation of the author’s personal flaws.
Indeed, the biography reveals Olsen to be not a sympathetic figure emblematic of women’s struggles, but instead a self-serving and self-aggrandizing figure who – off the page – abandoned a young daughter, kept advances for books that she never wrote, and for decades got grants to write and then failed to do so – all the while regaling others with tales of her fictitious hardships.
But the book also shows her generosity. Olsen was a lifelong advocate for the downtrodden, a communist who spent much of her youth on the stump for universal human rights, and a moving chronicler of her times. It’s these two Tillies – the public idealist and private obfuscator – that Reid tries to reconcile, guiltily and at length. That she fails to do so is less the fault of biographer than subject. Three years after Olsen’s death, the enigmatic writer continues to elude attempts to fathom her.
Born in 1912 to Russian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Omaha, Neb., Olsen grew up the brilliant and spoiled child of radical parents. From them, she learned both her zeal for self-sacrifice for social causes and the entitled sense that she was something special. The contradictory impulses took hold of Olsen and drove her for the rest of her life.
As a result, for some 95 years, she veered between her love for the greater good and gross self-interest, and Reid is swept up in her wake. She careers along with Olsen as she steals her sister’s clothes, has extramarital affairs, palms her first child off on friends, is jailed for her politics, lies to one relative that another has died, and suggests to another that her dead brother – Olsen’s first husband – remains alive. She lands a second husband, has three more daughters, runs off to rallies, touts home economics, leaves her mate, ignores her dying parents, and becomes a gifted – if rarely productive – writer of short fiction.