When Californians need more water, they take it from their neighbors. Image credit: Robert Goldstrom
November 1999 Issue
TILLIE OLSEN, THE BELOVED FICTION WRITER, IS SELF-EFFACING IN PERSON. "I haven't published a lot of anything," she says. And she's partly right. Her output has been relatively small. But she makes up for that in quality. Most famous for the short-story collection Tell Me a Riddle (Dell, 1961), Olsen has the ability to imply whole lives in a few sentences.
Here the speaker of "I Stand Here Ironing" looks back on the difficulties of young, single motherhood: "She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily's father, who "could no longer endure" (he wrote in his good-bye note) "sharing want with us."
"I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet."
Olsen says she was born in 1912 or 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. Her parents were working class Russian Jewish immigrants and were deeply involved in the Socialist Party, which her father served as state secretary. Once, Eugene Victor Debs, head of the Socialist Party, came to Omaha in celebration of his release from prison (he was incarcerated for protesting World War I). Olsen and her sister presented him with red roses--an event she recalls fondly.
She showed early promise as a writer--part of what became her novel, Yonnondio (about a working class family in the 1930s), was published in 1934 in Partisan Review to high praise. But she spent much of her life working full-time jobs and raising four children. Among other things, she was a pork trimmer in meatpacking houses, a hotel maid, a laundry worker, a jar capper, a waitress, and a solderer.
In 1955, Olsen won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, which allowed her to do her first sustained writing in twenty years. She published Tell Me a Riddle when she was fifty. That book includes the much anthologized "I Stand Here Ironing" (a motherÕs reflection on her daughter, raised during years of poverty and anxiety), "Oh Yes" (the story of a threatened friendship between two young girls, one white and one black, who are entering the stratified world of junior high school), "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" (the tale of a seaman and unionist who returns to San Francisco on a drunken binge and finds only cautious acceptance from his former comrades), and "Tell Me a Riddle" (the story of the death of a Russian Jewish immigrant and revolutionary). In 1974, after setting aside Yonnondio for forty years, she finally revised and published it (Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence).
From personal experience, Olsen came to realize the obstacles in the way of many writers not born to luxury. "In the twenty years I bore and raised my children, usually had to work on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist," she writes in Silences (Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1978), her book on the economic and social reasons writers fail to produce, and why many do not come to writing at all. Here is her dedication to that book: "For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made--as their other contributions--anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost."
An activist most of her life, Olsen was jailed twice: "First in Kansas City, winter '32." She was distributing leaflets to the meatpackers. The charge was "making loud and unusual noises." There she "languished five or six weeks--no money for bail--and got pleurisy, then incipient TB," she writes in her essay "The '30s: A Vision of Fear and Hope" (Newsweek, 1994).
Her second arrest occurred just after the San Francisco General Strike in 1934. In response to the murders of several striking longshoremen, 100,000 marched down Market Street to protest. "No one spoke," wrote Olsen. "The only sound was the beat of our feet. Then came 'The Terror'--bloody crackdowns by vigilantes who, the police giving them the power to arrest, wrecked encampments and beat strikers and 'sympathizers.'"
At the time of the General Strike, Olsen was a single mother. She met Jack Olsen (a fellow Young Communist League member) that year and had three more children with him, marrying him in 1944 before he went off to war. They lived together until 1989, when he died.
Before our interview, Olsen and I ate lunch together at an Italian restaurant a few blocks from her home in Berkeley, California. After making sure the busboy got his own tip, she suggested we walk back the long way and took my arm firmly in hers.
Just before we reached her house, she pointed to a third-floor window. "That hat is always there," she said. I looked up. Visible in the window was the back side of a bureau mirror. A straw hat and a scarf were slung from the top. "Sometimes the scarf is gone," Olsen said. "And then it is back as though it never moved." We turned toward her house. "You have to ponder the little mysteries," she said.
Until about eight months ago, Olsen lived in St. Francis Square, a three-block, working class, multi-ethnic cooperative in San Francisco's Fillmore district. She now lives in a small house directly behind the home of her youngest daughter, Laurie. We sat on her sunny porch and--while hornets darted in and out of her open door--talked for several hours.
Q: Why do you write?
TILLIE OLSEN: Because I'm a human being and human beings have a need to express themselves. Also, I stuttered. So I listened a lot, and there was a lot to listen to in my neighborhood. And there was the wonder of the black church, right around the corner. I loved that music so much, sometimes I'd go sit on the stairs. Once one of the women said, "Why don't you come up and sit in a real chair?" So I went in and came every Sunday I could.
I also had luck because I was proud of my class--because of growing up with Socialist parents and having sat on Eugene V. Debs's lap and given him red roses. And hearing him. I remember how he said passionately, "You are not heads to them, brains that can think. You are not hearts to them, that can feel. You are hands." And he held up his hands. And he started, you know: "Cowhands, farmhands. . . ." I was impressed again by the power of language.
Q: How were you in school?
OLSEN: I had this real passion for books, although almost everything I read wasn't anything like the people I knew or the life around me. The marvel was, by imagining, I gained so much from [as Anna says in Yonnondio] "being in places you've never been, inside people's heads you wouldn't ever get to know." Without articulating it, I also learned I had something to add to literature. In study hall, instead of doing my work, I read because I didn't have much time otherwise. Ours was a large family [Olsen had five siblings, and she was the second oldest], and sometimes my mother worked outside. There was so much to be done.
We were poor. My mother used to buy chicken feet. And you'd have to chop off the nails. Then you'd scald them, then you'd peel them. Once, my daughter Julie was buying chicken feet for soup, so I told her about this. "You know, one doesn't always remember accurately. There's nothing to peel," she said. And I said: "Julie, when you buy them now, they're already peeled."
I remember when I first started high school and we were studying ancient history. My mother, who had never had formal education, was always curious about what we were learning. She said, "Tell me, what was good about slavery for humanity? I don't mean for the slaves themselves." I thought this was a crazy question. "What do you mean? Nothing is good about it." And she said, "No, think about it. What was good?"
Well, I really thought she'd lost it. I couldn't think of any answer. So she said, "Those who owned them had leisure." Not everybody used their leisure in the same way. People who were thinking were able to be philosophers, like Socrates, or playwrights, or sculptors. And she went on to the uses of literacy by a small number of humanity.
On some of the jobs my mother did she could bring along a couple kids. There were some where she couldn't, and then she worried. This was before child care.
It was the period before automatic dishwashers, and you washed clothes with the washboard. If you were lucky, you could get a wringer--what Walt Whitman called "the technological sublime." I really appreciated that phrase. I know there's a lot of scorn about these advances. But think of the enormous difference in time even having an electric dishwasher makes. I remember women in my generation saying, "It wasn't Lincoln who freed the slaves. It was the Bendix." The Bendix was the first automatic washing machine.
Q: What was your life like when you were trying to write?
OLSEN: I'd try to get to work as early as possible, which was very difficult to do with the kids, and very much the kind of morning I describe in "I Stand Here Ironing"--you know, lunches packed, the lost shoe or sock. I would try to get to work early enough--even five minutes--because there was this marvelous electric typewriter. I would just type as fast as I could whatever was in me to write--my "five to keep writing alive"--although I missed some of the wonderful gossip that took place in the restroom before it was eight o'clock and time to be sitting down.
I would have time on the streetcar in the morning going. I would also write sometimes on the streetcar coming home, usually having to stand up, rush hours, with one child picked up from child care.
It was really hard when I got into something and had to put it aside. And when I finally won my Stanford fellowship, it took me a long while to fully use the time. I had this fear of interruption, the cost of leaving writing again.
Q: Are writers still silenced by their economic circumstances as they were when you began your career?
OLSEN: Yes, of course, the silences go on. The first silencing is the inequality of the educational system. We still have a strong class system in this country. Look at what's happening with most public schools. Think of the future writers who are being lost all along. Future writers. In Yonnondio, the kids really hate school, and their mom wants them to get a good education, but instead they are turned against it. And as I write in there, "For was it not through books they had been taught that they were dumb, dumb, dumb?"
That process is exactly what is happening in the public schools now for many children-- the doing in of bilingual programs, for instance. I'm enraged by charter schools. Every school should be a good school. We are just setting up more educational class systems.
The second silencing is the workload so many have to carry, the problem of time. You may use spoken speech marvelously, people love to listen to you. Or you are a great gossiper, or somebody who is empathetic to what others are thinking and feeling, but none of that gets written.
Q: A lot of your fiction uses language as it is spoken.
OLSEN: Think about all that we've lost that has been said orally because nobody was taking it down. I feel very fortunate to live in a time where we have so many different voices. We have a much richer literature than we've ever had, and we can know our country so much better.
Tolstoy was so excited, absolutely thrilled, when Maxim Gorky began to publish because he was writing working class. When he met Gorky, Tolstoy told him about the time he'd had this great night in Petersburg. It's winter, freezing, but he's had a night of gypsy music and women. He comes out, dressed warmly in his army great coat and fur hat, striding along, to use Thoreau's expression, "inhabiting his body with inexpressible satisfaction." He feels this tug at his coat. Here is this filthy little bare-legged kid trying to pull him back and pointing to this half-naked woman, vomit all over her, lying unconscious in the gutter. He brushes that kid aside. He has no intention of touching her, freezing to death though she may be. His beautiful mood is spoiled. Again the little boy, looking imploringly up at him, pulls at his coat. He pushes him away hard.
By this time, Tolstoy is crying, and he puts his arms on Gorky's shoulders, looks into his eyes. "And you," Tolstoy says, "you must keep writing what happens with the people who are not ever written about. Or else that little boy will follow you with his eyes all of your life as he does me."
Q: How did you come to write down your stories?
OLSEN: I didn't realize that I really had something to add until I crossed the tracks to Omaha Central High School, crowning its highest hill. It is still considered one of the most prestigious public schools in the country.
For the first time, I encountered class differences, clothes, attitudes, backgrounds. The dean called me down to give me cast-off clothes to wear, which were usually recognized by those who had donated them.
The really close friends I developed there were working class. Aggie Jensen--who was six feet tall, which was phenomenal for a female. Her father would never let her cut her hair-- her braid, five feet of it, went down, I know you won't believe me, to her mid-calf. Beautiful. Sometimes we would get together enough money to rent a rowboat. And when we did, she would unbraid her hair, and there would be that wonderful blond wake behind us in the water.
We were all considered freaks in that school. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. We didn't have handkerchiefs. Sometimes my mother would come up with a rag for our runny noses in the winter, sometimes not. Sometimes I smelled of garlic. I was from over across the tracks, and what's more, Jewish. Most of the Jews who did go to Central High, with a few exceptions, were well off, some generations in this country.
There are "hidden injuries of class" whether you are conscious of it or not.
When I crossed the tracks to Central High, I left behind those eighth graders who went out into the world or were becoming mothers in a few years. Most of my eighth grade class never went on. You were out of school. Period.
Central High was my first college of contrast. Central High School was where I first learned about the power of circumstances, about economics. I learned about what people of color were like through my neighborhood relationships, and also that there was racist hatred because there was a lynching in our neighborhood.
Q: What happened?
OLSEN: I was very young. I knew something terrible was happening. Our next-door neighbors, who were black, came and stayed in our house. It had started in the city jail, and the whole thing was a plot by some politicians to remove the recently elected sheriff, part of a reform movement. Other reform candidates had also been elected. And so they trumped up this raping that was supposed to have taken place, got a crowd, broke into the jail, and lynched an innocent black man.
Q: How old were you?
OLSEN: I must have been about seven, maybe eight. Some years later I read about it at the Western Heritage Museum, where there was a whole section on that lynching. I still have a recurring nightmare--the smell of burning flesh and a boy about my age whose father is trying to put this open pocketknife in his hand, pushing him, and telling him to go up [to the hanged man] and bring back part of his ear.
Q: This must have made a big impact on your views of race.
OLSEN: I very much dislike the word "race," and I never use it. I use the word "racist." Race is not a fact. There is only one race: human. Skin color is less than 2 percent of the DNA.
Q: What were your parents' educational experiences as immigrants in this country?
OLSEN: My father learned English very quickly and spoke it without an accent. But he was out in the world a lot. The big thing for my mother was when we finally moved to Omaha, and she went to night school. Somewhere I have the original of what she wrote. It was so eloquent. Years later, after they'd moved to D.C.--it was the year that she died, actually--she said the happiest time in her life was when she went to night school. In that Czarist Russia, Jewish girls were not taught even to read and write. It took her becoming a revolutionary and joining the Bund, the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization, to learn to read and love books.
Q: How did you learn?
OLSEN: In the college of literature. What's in books--history, too. And the great college of motherhood. You learn so much about human development, human capacity. And it doesn't have to do with whether you have wealth and advantage or not. It has to do with the parenting those first few years before the world comes in with its enormous effect. The ecstasy of achievement when you first learn to walk, the passion for language. When children first learn to talk sentences, you usually can't shut them up. When they learn how to climb, for instance, again the ecstasy of achievement, that real hunger to learn, to have experiences, to be on top of something.
And the college of activism--that whole participation with others in trying to make change for the better. When I had only one child, I was already a labor activist. I did leaflets for unions in the old mimeograph days way back in 1932 and '33. And of course, '34 was the year when union organizations finally were really winning. The General Strike was my second-ever arrest. The city jail was just packed. We'd be serenaded every night from the men's section with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."
But I was separated from the common cells and put in with the widow of the superintendent of schools. She had murdered her lover because he'd been unfaithful. But she was upper class, so because I seemed to be a nice girl, they put me in the two-person cell with her. And she would sing to me, "Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved." So I missed the camaraderie of being with the other women.
And I was terribly worried about my daughter Karla, of course, and what was happening with her.
Q: Grace Paley writes about that--being in jail and worrying about the children.
OLSEN: But of course, Grace had a much more protected situation than I did because I was renting a room from a landlady who did not like kids anyway. And here was this little girl. It was a very strange period for me.
I was sprung, much to my surprise, very early. I'd published the first part of Yonnondio in Partisan Review--it was the second issue ever of Partisan Review. It had been reviewed in The New Republic by a man called Robert Cantwell, in which he wrote, "Of all the fiction published in a little magazine, this is unmistakably the work of early genius." He was exaggerating. But anyhow, they had this protest meeting in New York about my arrest, which I didn't know about until I got out. I was furious. The protest shouldn't have been about one person, who happened to be in that freaky situation. It should have been about the fact that the jails were jammed with strikers.
In San Francisco, I worked at the old Palace Hotel, first of all as a maid, changing beds and vacuuming up. All the lamp shades, damn them, were pleated. So you had to be sure to dust between every single pleat, and meanwhile you were on a time schedule. The head housekeeper would come and run her finger down the pleats to check.
Q: What would happen if she found dust?
OLSEN: You were told, "Once more and you're not going to have that job." And this was already the Depression.
Q: What was your political involvement at this time?
OLSEN: After I got together with Jack, there was another child. It was the period of the Spanish Civil War. We lefties said over and over and over again, "If Hitler and Mussolini and Franco win there, there's going to be World War II." If only we'd had enough power, millions of people would be alive and the Holocaust would never have happened.
A lot of San Francisco waterfront guys went to Spain. A proportion of them were members of the Young Communist League. It was a young group that went. I was nursing Julie, my second daughter, then. Julie is named after one of the seafarers who was killed in the retreat across the Ebro, Julius (Jack) Eggan.
Spain was where we felt it was really being decided whether or not the Western powers were going to act, and they didn't. They did not lift their embargo on arms, which meant Franco won. People see Picasso's Guernica. They don't know what that is really about. Guernica was the first bombing of an entire town. The United States backed the real bastards because they were all anti-Red.
It's hard for me to talk about the terrible things that have happened in my lifetime because they didn't need to be.
Q: What gives you hope?
OLSEN: History gives me hope.
Q: Even though this century's been so violent?
OLSEN: The century has also been full of resistance. Why is it that the resistance movements--often so heroic and so ingenious--get obliterated from consciousness?
There's always been resistance, and there comes a time when changes are made. The fact that human beings do not put up forever with misery, humiliation, degradation, actual physical deprivation but act is a fact which every human being should know about. We are a species that makes changes.
I have a lot of faith in the American people if they have access to truth. I buy 100 copies at a time of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was Eleanor Roosevelt's great work. And it happened in San Francisco, at the first meeting of the United Nations. I was there because I was head of CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] War Relief, and also I was president of the California CIO state auxiliary. So since labor was big and important because it was needed in the war, I was invited to U.N. gatherings.
It was such a time of hope.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes economic rights. It also has a clause that the son-in-law of Karl Marx would have loved. He wrote a book called The Right to Be Lazy, one of my favorite revolutionary pamphlets--the right to vacations with pay, what Walt Whitman called "loafing and inviting one's soul."
I sometimes, if it's an adult audience, ask how many of them are familiar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most highly educated people have never read it. It's a tragic erasure of our heritage.
Q: What was your experience as a woman in the Communist Party?
OLSEN: We could not change our society. It was a time of the six-day workweek, by and large--I'm speaking of the early thirties. It was the beginning of the period in which there were enough--thanks to the unions partly--good wages so mothers could stay home with their kids, though some of us were working everyday jobs, too.
In the warehouse union, we really taught about . . . we didn't call it sexism, we called it male chauvinism. There were trials. One party woman, Lil Carlson, brought her guy, who was one of the heads of the Young Communist League in California, up on charges for male chauvinism. And she was not the only one. There were also trials for white chauvinism, which meant racism.
The party certainly created feminists. I was very interested that just in the last month, Betty Friedan suddenly broke down and said she'd been a member of the Communist Party.
We also read Lenin on housework, which is a very, very interesting essay. He uses the word "degrading," which I never felt, because you really see the results of what you've done. But the enormous amount of time it took! That was a factor in our not being as active. Of course, the men came home, and if we were working, we did not sit down like they did. It took a women's movement to change that.
Q: Did you have trouble because of your party membership in the 1950s?
OLSEN: Yes. There was a guy who testified before the Un-American Activities Committee that it was at the house of Jack and Tillie Olsen that everybody was ordered to throw their party books into the fireplace. The only thing he goofed on was that we never had any fireplace, let alone the fact that it never happened.
I was president of the PTA. A neighbor called one morning and said, "Do you have your radio on?" I said, "No." And she said, "Well, you'd better put it on. It's about you." I said, "About me?" So I turned it on fast and heard I was "an agent of Stalin who'd been empowered to take over the San Francisco school system."
Fascinating to me, there were some who absolutely believed every word--that I was that. They should have known better because they knew and worked with me. Some went by their own reality knowledge and were angry about it. They called the station to protest.
The biggest surprise was our school principal. She was a graduate of Stanford. She never let you forget it, and she felt humiliated because she was the principal of this working class school. But she was very, very proud of my work. She called up all of her principal friends to assure them that it wasn't true. She told them what an absolutely wonderful person I was, and it was because of my stirring up other members of the PTA that we finally got a school library when we hadn't had a library and we got a playground when we hadn't had a playground before, and how well read I was, and how she couldn't believe I had not gone to college.
Q: How has the situation of women writers changed?
OLSEN: There's been some change, as is evident by the number of women writers who are read. And education itself has somewhat changed. There's a lot more encouragement, a lot more writing classes. It was the women's movement that gave women in academe a certain strength. If you'd look at the old reading lists, maybe George Eliot, the Bront‘s, Virginia Woolf might be taught. At Stanford, I think it was 1971, they needed somebody [to teach their first-ever course on women's literature], and my name was suggested. Well, I had no credentials. I had never gone to college. And there was quite a to-do about whether or not I had the qualifications. It was supposed to be a small class. I went into this auditorium. It was jammed. There were, I think, four guys, one of whom went out and then came back again and then went out and then came back again. There were over 100 women there, including faculty wives. By and large, none of this had ever been taught at Stanford before.
Q: What effect do you hope your writing will have?
OLSEN: What does hope have to do with it? It depends on time, circumstances, whether or not your writing lives the life of being read, taught. Certainly, for years, I wrote of women's lives, working class lives, when few others were. I do know that the two talks printed in Silences had real impact at the time, as did my reading lists--for academics, especially.
I haven't published a lot of fiction. I haven't published a lot of anything. But it does go on, it's taught, anthologized. That's very dear to me, and dearest of all are the people whom it has affected. I know that for some people, they feel that it's their life or the life of their mother, or alcoholic relative [that I'm writing about], or they suffer over a daughter and think, "my wisdom came too late" [as the speaker says in "I Stand Here Ironing"].
In the title piece of Tell Me a Riddle, I was writing about a revolutionary generation, immigrants in this country whose children grew up here. But I wanted to write about other aspects of their individual lives. Little is written about revolutionaries, let alone Jews who became atheists, "idealists," some people might term them, not "realists." I like to quote William James, who said, "The world can and has been changed by those to whom the ideal and the real are dynamically contiguous." It was their struggle to do this and make needed changes.
There was a period in my parents' lives--it was a period in our country's life--when the ideal and the real were dynamically contiguous. They really felt that the international movement was going to change the world and make it a more just, human place. They were young when they came here, but they'd lived so very, very much.
The world is so different from the world of their youth and the world of my youth. Still, power is primarily held by people of wealth and position. By and large, class interest still rules in our country.
Who are the people who make policy and how do they get there? You may get an elite education, but you don't learn labor history (which means the lives of most of humanity).
There aren't many of my generation left who did make history. I'm going to be eighty- eight.
There is entrenched power, and with few exceptions it has no feeling for the vulnerability and sacredness of human life. And they have the weapons and the power until there is a movement of people, as has happened over and over in the past.
And that's why "These Things Shall Be," that British labor song in "Tell Me a Riddle," is sung still:
These things shall be, a loftier race
than e'er the world hath known shall rise
with flame of freedom in their souls
and light of knowledge in their eyes
They shall be gentle, brave and strong,
to spill no drop of blood, but dare
all . . .
On sea and fire and air.
And every life shall be a song.
I have a lot of hope from young people, too, with that flame of freedom and light of knowledge, as well as from some of the old people, whom I honor a lot. There's the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who fought in Spain, what's left of them, and there's no bitterness, there's no cynicism. They believe, too, as I do, that it's in human beings not to put up with what is harming and depriving. I am a believer, but the U.S. über alles psychology is very strong now and our bombings from the air. I don't want to die leaving the world as it is right now.
You know the old saying, "Whoever degrades another degrades me"? That's Walt Whitman--an American, I'm proud to say.