Written by David Garon

biography of tillie olsen

    Tillie Olsen was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1913.  She has spent most of her adult life as a resident of San Francisco.  The daughter of Russian immigrants, she was raised in a working class, socialist environment. Her father fled Czarist Russia as a political refugee.  Growing up during the Depression she did not go to college, but early on got caught up in the struggle for survival doing whatever jobs she could find.

    “Public libraries were my college,” she would later say.  Though she began to write fiction during the early 1930s and, in fact, published the first chapter of what would become the novel “Yonnondio” in 1934, Olsen chose to defer a literary career  to the choice of “everyday jobs”, her work as a political activist, and the raising of four children.  Her political activism led her to join the Young Communist League and turn to organizing meat packers in Kansas City, for which she was briefly jailed.  The league’s activities also introduced her to her second husband, fellow activist Jack Olsen, by whom she had three of her four children.  It was not until her youngest child started school in 1953 that Tillie Olsen returned to her writing and enrolled in a creative writing course at San Francisco State College.  Her successes there earned her creative writing fellowships to Stanford University in 1955 and 1956. 

    The conflict between the demands of daily existence and the fulfillment of human potential is a theme that permeates Tillie Olsen's work. For twenty years, she was "silenced" as a writer while working to earn a living and single-handedly raising four daughters. "These are not natural silences, that necessary time for renewal," she said. "They are the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being but cannot." 

    Tillie Olsen was fifty years old when her first book, the short story collection Tell Me A Riddle, was published. The title story won the O'Henry Award and the story has been anthologized 72 times. Four of the stories have been adapted into stage productions, three into films, and one into an Opera.  She has received awards from The Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an award for distinguished contribution to American letters from the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

    The short story “I Stand Here Ironing” reflects, I think, mostly in part her personal life as a mother and what were her failures and successes as a mother.  Her experience in the working class and her activist activities really made her aware of what was important in her stories.

            Works Cited