Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

A biographer struggles to reconcile the many contradictions in the character of feminist icon and author Tillie Olsen.

Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles By Panthea Reid Oxford University Press 449 pp., $34.95
Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles By Panthea Reid Oxford University Press 449 pp., $34.95

“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.

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.

As of the 1950s, Olsen was recognized for the stark beauty of her short tales of blue-collar powerlessness and frustration, and for depicting the lot of many creative women of her time, stymied by sexism in the marketplace and the lion’s share of responsibility at home. Certainly, she blamed her own scant productivity on – among other things – her role as a nurturer. (“She fabricated an ego-supporting tale,” Reid writes, “about helping ‘care for and support her five siblings.’ ” But this was patently untrue. Olsen did little for her original family beyond make up bizarre tales about them: among them, that her father took her as a child to watch a lynching.)

Her siblings found Olsen’s tendency to “raise reality” disturbing, to say the least. One brother confided that Olsen was unable to tell the difference between truth and lies. Because of it, he said, her siblings had agreed that she “’cannot be our historian, nor inscribe the ‘family bible’ in her images and her mirrors.’”

Others also refused to buy her tale of being kept down by external forces. Referring to her supposed inability to write due to the demands upon her – even as she ran off to give lectures and accept awards – book reviewer William H. Pritchard said in The New York Times, Olsen has “shrewdly turned her lifelong writing block into a badge of feminist honor.”

It’s hard to make sense of someone at once so earnest and so false. Yet, to her credit, Reid tries. More, she sheds light on what may have been behind some of Olsen’s disingenuousness and failure to produce work, at least in her later years. Olsen died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, and may have been manifesting its symptoms long before she was diagnosed.

Reid concludes her book with a sense of conflicted loss. While she wept at Olsen’s death, “I have never adored Tillie,” she admits. Reverence hampers facts, she says, then adds, “My biographer’s obligation ... is to try to tell the truth as artfully as possible and not to let love hamper honesty.”

No wise reader could ask for anything more.

Susan Comninos is a writer in New York. She contributes to the Miami Herald, Forward, and Albany Times Union, among others.

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