Elevate Difference

Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

Part of Panthea Reid’s title seems to allude to Tillie Olsen’s 1961 collection of short stories, Tell Me a Riddle. It also seems to highlight the layers of complexity in a woman hailed as an iconic writer and feminist. Reid doesn’t idealize Olsen. This was a woman who began lying at a young age and continued throughout her life. She cheated on her husband, cheated Random House out of an advance for a book she never wrote, and cheated her daughter out of the experience of having a devoted and attentive mother. However, Reid does give full credit to Olsen’s work as a writer, feminist, and social activist. All great figures in history, I feel, have complicated relationships to the world and to other people. It is important to understand and acknowledge a great figure’s humanity as well as celebrating his/her greatness.

Reid was able to interview and get information from Olsen herself before Olsen’s death in 2001, and she also spoke with Olsen’s siblings, one of her daughters, other relatives, and Olsen’s colleagues and fellow writers. The book is well-researched and provides an in-depth look at her life. It doesn’t seem to have been an easy task for Reid. Reid worked on the book for ten years, and the ins and outs of Olsen’s life seem at times overwhelming.

Olsen had many roles throughout her life, and in a quote from her diary from age eighteen, she wrote: “With dozens of selves, quarreling and tearing at each other—which then is the natural self? ...None.” This seems fitting for a woman who ended up intertwined in some of the century’s most historic moments: she was a communist and revolutionary in the 1930s, promoted equal work for equal pay in the 1940s, earned the nickname “Tillie Appleseed” for planting the seeds of feminism and women’s studies, was an anti-war activist in the 1960s and 1970s, and was investigated by the FBI for subversion. The book is broken down by chapter into time periods from “Magnetic Personality: 1925-1929” and “Early Genius: 1934” to “Image Control: 1981-1996” and “Enter Biographer: 1997-2007.” It includes some black and white photographs of Olsen from childhood through to adulthood.

Reid doesn’t necessarily unravel all the riddles around Olsen, but she does an incredible job at bringing the parts of the riddles to light. We see Olsen as a self-absorbed and manipulative woman; Reid definitely knocks Olsen off any saintly pedestal. But she does this without lessening the impact of Olsen’s work. The book is readable and engaging; it isn’t just for scholars.

Written by: Kristin Conard, May 29th 2010