Reconstruction 8.1 (2008)


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Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) / Anthony Dawahare 

 

<1> On January 1, 2007, Tillie Olsen, one of the most respected working-class American writers, died. In her 94 years, pulled in often-conflicting directions by parenting, writing, political activism, literary events, and wage labor, she managed to write three books and several poems, pieces of journalism, essays, and short stories. Her most revered literary works are an unfinished novel she wrote during the Great Depression, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (published in 1974), Tell Me a Riddle (1961), and Silences (1978). Tillie is also greatly admired as a social activist who fought throughout her life for the working-class and, therefore, by necessity against sexism, racism, and capitalism.

<2> Yonnondio, now recognized as a classic of proletarian literature, centers on an American migrant family, the Holbrooks, who move from city to farm in search of non-exploitative work and stable family life. Olsen's depiction registers the brutalizing effects of economic exploitation and its patriarchal ideology on this working-class family from the 1920s. Yet, it equally documents the irrepressible desire of working people to  resist spontaneously their brutalization. In Tell Me a Riddle, a collection of four stories, Olsen writes about mid-century working-class people in suburban locales ringed by Cold War fears and conformity. A number of her characters, and several who traverse the stories, have participated in revolutionary struggles either in pre-Soviet Russia or Depression-era America, and now find themselves living in contradiction with the present and feeling politically isolated. The stories movingly address both the loss of and desire for mass movements of progressive change, for "that joyous certainty, that sense of mattering, of moving and being moved, of being one and indivisible with the great of the past, with all that freed, ennobled" ("Tell Me a Riddle" 113). Like Yonnondio, Tell Me a Riddle is particularly sensitive to the lives of working-class women and mothers who struggle with the weight of household labor, child-rearing, and sometimes wage-labor, and who want so much more of life, and not only for themselves. Olsen's last major work, Silences, helped to establish her as a foremost contemporary Marxist and feminist literary critic and theorist. In this work, Olsen is mainly concerned with the silences of writers and omissions of literary history due to unfavorable social circumstances that confront working-class, female, and black writers. It also includes one of the finest literary critical essays written on Rebecca Harding Davis, a nineteenth-century American writer who wrote a ground-breaking novella on unrecorded working-class lives entitled Life in the Iron Mills (1861).

<3> There are numerous ways that we will remember Tillie's specific literary achievements and contributions, as so many studies and now obituaries have already demonstrated. However, it seems to me that we should not forget her life-long commitment to a dialectical materialist comprehension of capitalism and to the struggle for a truly socialist society. Simply put, Marxism, and the political and literary movements it fostered, remained the foundation of her life and work. This may seem obvious to some, but I would argue that her dialectical materialist understanding of the problems of our class society, as well as their resolutions, have yet to be sufficiently credited in studies that otherwise recognize components of her Marxism, such as her critique of class exploitation. Too often her Marxism has been subsumed by other concerns of her work, such as sexism. The Cold War may be over, but not the after-effects of U.S. anti-communism that Tillie combated throughout her life. Tillie was one of the most important writers of the last century who developed the literary means to fulfill the promise of a Marxist aesthetic formulated as far back as the 1920s and 30s.

<4> While there are many aspects to her dialectical representations, suffice it to note here that in her work, everyday life is revealed in all of its damaging but change-making contradictions and potentials. To be sure, the dramas of working-class life she represents are characterized by series of interrelated contradictions from which her characters cannot escape within the constraints of their material conditions. In Yonnondio we discover lives torn by scarcity and need, wealth and poverty, and individualism and cooperation, at work and in the home. In Tell Me a Riddle, we find similar and new contradictions like the desire to attend to one's family needs and the needs of the entire working-class, as well as the desire to maintain interracial relationships within a segregated society. In Silences, the contradictions between the desire to write and the lack of supportive circumstance (familial, cultural, social, and economic) come to the fore. And, in general, the interrelated poles of these contradictions are actuality and potentiality. Remarkably, Olsen reveals all of these contradictions as having a social basis in the political economy of capitalism - contrary to those who unlink the problems of women or of African Americans from the class structure and relations of capitalism, or who use an "intersectional" model of class, race, and gender.

<5> Moreover, Tillie portrays these antagonistic contradictions as what drive change and the growth of the new out of the old. She thus represents the ways in which working people–in spite of exploitation, of restrictive relations of production and its myriad forms of oppression like sexism and racism - dialectically transcend these circumstances, both conceptually (through critique and plans for a better life) as well as through their interpersonal, economic, and political struggles. Tillie's belief in the possibility of the working class creating an egalitarian and democratic classless society was based on her comprehension of dialectical contradictions and developments within our world - not simply on some abstract level or through a utopian moral judgment imposed on existing reality. "Human resistance to oppression is inevitable," Olsen declared at a lecture in 1984. "That has been human history. Human will, courage, capacity to change what degrades, harms, limits, is inherent . . . human qualities whereby we have faced, solved, and transcended so many horrors, agonizing problems . . . " ("The Word Made Flesh" 6-7). Her work needs to be read for many reasons but, from this perspective, also because it addresses the current theoretical impasse that abandons indispensable dialectical notions - totality, instance, mediation, transcendence, and determination - necessary for an adequate understanding of the world.

<6> Olsen's life and writing engages the primary historical and literary challenge of proletarian literature broadly conceived: namely, how to represent the singularity of working class lives while at the same time depicting the complex web of historical determinations that shape them. In this sense, Olsen's work successfully engaged major twentieth-century debates over whether or not literary and/or conceptual totalization of individual experience is possible or even desirable, given the forms of Hegelian and Marxist totalization that reduce difference to a common identity (whether conceived as World Spirit or class, respectively).

<7> "I Stand Here Ironing," the first story she wrote and published in the 1950s after a period of silence following her literary successes in the 1930s, is itself a meditation of sorts on the predicament of writing dialectically about the life of an individual from the working class. The story is a mother's response in the form of an interior monologue to a high school counselor's phone call about his wish to understand and help her daughter. While ironing clothes, this mother who birthed and raised her daughter cannot "total it all," even though she understands the broadly social and class conditions that shaped her family life and daughter's personality. She "will never come to say ... [s]he is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear" (13). Her daughter is not simply her child or a "child of history"; she is also a human being with a will to make of herself who she is within her historical limits. She is more complex than any representation that reduces her to past and present determinations can make out. Like all of Olsen's characters, this young woman is defined by necessity but also by freedom. Olsen gives life to Jean-Paul Sartre's comment on the relationship between freedom and necessity, namely, "that a man can always make something out of what is made of him. This is the limit I would today accord to freedom: the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his social conditioning has given him" ("Itinerary" 7).

<8> Given the immense responsibility to represent accurately both individual working-class lives and their complex determinations - that is, not to misrepresent those who have so often been misrepresented and harmed - one may have the impulse of James Agee, a contemporary of Olsen, who, when given the assignment by Fortune magazine to document the lives of Southern Sharecroppers, wished to "do no writing at all ..." (10). Instead, his record "would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement." We may even wonder whether the work involved in dialectical representation was too much for Olsen at times, accounting for "silences" when scarce time was available. But, like others of her generation (including Agee), Olsen had to write, to risk misrepresentation and betrayal of one's loyalties and affections because, as she quotes Walt Whitman on indigenous peoples' histories, with "[n]o picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future ... unlimn'd they disappear ... " Fortunately, for us, as a historical materialist, Tillie Olsen "limn'd" the working class enough "to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger" (Benjamin 255). As Walter Benjamin goes on to say, such dialectical images of life must be seized since they are under threat "of becoming a tool of the ruling classes." Our corporate ("popular") culture is expert at representing the constant dangers to working-class life (from unemployment, poverty, homelessness, fascism, and war) as their opposite - i.e. as not of its (the ruling classes') own making.

<9> In some ways, Olsen's dialectical perspective and literature are not hard to account for. She was raised by Russian immigrant parents who themselves were part of socialist movements of the twentieth century, namely those of the 1905 Russian Revolution and then, later, as members of the American Socialist Party. They were friends with important socialists such as Eugene Debs, whom Olsen recalls as a child. She was part, if only as a child, of the heady days when, for the second time (following the short lived Paris Commune of 1871) the working class declared its political presence and commanded the stage of world history in Russia in 1917. The great black intellectual and writer W.E.B. Du Bois, not yet a Communist himself, could write then that Bolshevism was "the one new Idea of the World War, the idea which may well stand in future years as the one thing that made the slaughter worthwhile ... is the vision of great dreamers that only those who work shall vote and rule" ("Forward" 234-35). And, when the market crashed in 1929, and U.S. capitalism's own internal contradictions proved its worthlessness for working people, Tillie joined up with the Communist Party, which in those days was the place to be for U.S. workers and intellectuals interested in fighting against exploitation, oppression, and imperialist war - for being part of an international mass movement that aimed to realize the egalitarian and democratic principles of the Bolshevik Revolution on a world scale. In the post-war period and until the day she died, she was either in or close to the Party, and maintained friendships with old comrades and others on the left.

<10> Yet, as Malcolm Cowley noted in the 1930s, Marxism alone does not make one a great writer ("What the Revolutionary Movement Can Do for a Writer" 59). To be sure, as biographies of Olsen have made clear, so many other influences and experiences "compound" ("I Stand Here" 13) the life of Tillie and contributed to the writer she was. Often noted are her experiences as a woman and a mother that provided her with insights into the lives of working-class women, as well as her thorough knowledge and love of a tradition of great writers such as Walt Whitman, William Blake, Rebecca Harding Davis, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Andersen Nexo, and Maxim Gorky on (as she used to say) the side of life. Present and future readers of her work will have ever more to say what made Tillie and her work so honest, perceptive, and moving. It is clear that we can never be content to say "[s]he is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear" (13). Tillie Olsen was that but much more - one who dialectically transcended her time and was herself "strong with the not yet in the now" ("Tell Me" 109), with the sensibility of a world still struggling to emerge where human labor is not for sale but given freely to satisfy the needs of humanity.

 

Works Cited

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. and Intro. by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Cowley, Malcolm. "What the Revolutionary Movement Can Do for a Writer." American Writers' Congress. Ed. Henry Hart. New York: International Publishers, 1935: 59-65.

Du Bois, W.E.B. "Forward." Crisis 18.5 (Sept. 1919): 234-35.

Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1978.

---. Tell Me a Riddle. New York: Delacorte Press, Seymour Lawrence 1961.

---. "The Word Made Flesh." Prefatory essay to Critical Thinking/Critical Writing:

Prize-winning High School and College Essays. Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northern Iowa, 1984. 1-8.

---. Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Lincoln: University of Nebraska P, 2004.

Sartre, Jean Paul. "Itinerary of a Thought." Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre. London: Seagull Books, 2006.  3-66.

 

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