This Day in Jewish History

1912: A Superb Writer Who Would Live Long and Produce Very Little Is Born

Tillie Olsen, daughter to a socialist, hardscrabble family, had a bent for labor activism and a gift for writing, when she wasn’t suffering from writer’s block.

Tillie Lerner Olsen (January 14, 1912 – January 1, 2007), US writer and feminist.
Christopher Felver, Wikimedia Commons

January 14, 1912, is the probable birthdate of the writer Tillie Olsen, whose longevity – she died at age 94 – can be seen as being in inverse proportion to her literary output. Although Olsen earned critical acclaim during her life, and continues today to be studied in college English classes in the United States, her entire published opus consists of only a book of short stories, a novel, and a collection of related essays – on the subject of writer’s blocks.

Olsen used the experiences of a dirt-poor childhood, and her demanding adulthood as mother, manual laborer and political organizer, as the raw material of her fiction, at the same time as she became a feminist symbol of the working-class woman who was too busy taking care of business to indulge her passion for writing.

Tillie Lerner was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on the tenant farm worked by her parents, Samuel Lerner and Hashka (later, Ida) Goldberg, both of them immigrants from what is today Belarus. Both had participated in the failed Russian revolution of 1905, and fled to the United States after it was quashed.

By 1907, the couple, who never officially married, had moved to Nebraska; Tillie was the second of their six children.

Brilliant, and unbridled

When the farm failed, the family relocated to Omaha, the state capital, where Samuel worked as a paperhanger and house painter, and was also active in Socialist Party politics. Ida remained illiterate until she was in her 20s, but, according to her daughter, although she “could not spell [and], could scarcely express herself  she was one of the most eloquent and one of the most brilliant . . . human beings I’ve ever known.”

The family lived in Omaha’s north side, where most of the city’s other Jews resided.

Tillie had to help out with chores and with caring for her younger siblings: It was only thanks to her frequent illnesses that she had the opportunity to read as a child. She was apparently a gifted student (she wrote a humor column in her school newspaper), but wild in her personal life. At age 16, she became pregnant, and left Omaha’s Central High School to undergo an abortion. She returned in 1929, but left again before graduating.

According to Olsen biographer Panthea Reid, Tillie was married in 1931 to Abraham Goldfarb, the father of her first child – a marriage she excised from her own life story. It was only in 1934 that she took up with longshoreman and union organizer Jack Olsen, the father of her next three girls. The couple only married in 1944.

Tillie was active in the Communist Youth League and later, in the Communist Party. In her many blue-collar jobs, she always became involved in political organization, which landed her in jail several times.

Never finished the book

In 1932, while recuperating from the pleurisy she contracted during a prison stay, Olsen began writing a novel. On the basis of a chapter that was published in Partisan Review, Random House signed her to a contract and gave her a monthly stipend to complete the book. She never did, but the book, called “Yonnondio,” was published in unfinished form, in 1974.

In 1933, Olsen moved to San Francisco, where she remained for the rest of her life. She raised four daughters, held a wide variety of jobs, and was active in multiple political causes, writing when she could steal the time. She published little of what she wrote: After much-acclaimed collection of four interconnected stories, “Tell Me a Riddle,” in 1961, her next book, a nonfiction collection called “Silences,” came out only in 1978.

By then, Olsen was well-known, and, because her daughters were grown, she could take advantage of the grants and the positions as writer in residence that she was increasingly offered. Yet according to biographer Reid, Olsen, “fearing that she had lost her creativity blamed circumstances [for her limited output] while at the same time altering the facts of those circumstances.”

Olsen became a feminist and working-class icon, and when maintaining the legend required airbrushing certain parts of her biography, she was not averse to this, says Reid.  

Tillie Olsen died on January 1, 2007.