April 24, 2014

Tillie Olsen: Listening to Silences

Tillie Olsen
Many of the stories -- about half-- in the book of poems Night Train Red Dust reflect the people and history of the Iron Range.  It's also a meditation on the layers of history and earth, and how those layers contain stories of resistance. Individuals are not isolated. We influence and draw strength from one another. In order to understand this period of time, it's useful to consider writers and artists of the same era.

"I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron, " says Tillie Olsen in a story.  

The era of the 1900s to 1930s was a progressive time when women finally won the right to vote. Efforts to address social problems were strong. Many women activists who helped achieve the vote for women also were part of the Temperance Movement, and this provided new opportunities for leadership. Settlement Houses offered services to immigrants and families. Along with industrialization, our nation was confronted with the hazards of machinery, factories, and unsafe working conditions.
The Triangle Factory fire in New York City seared the American public. Both factories and mines had dangerous equipment in dangerous environments. Workers worked long hours and were poorly paid, and they had no protection from the careless excesses of capitalism and corporate greed. Socialist and Communist organizations offered workers a vision of a better life.

Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) was a political and social activist and a writer during these times. According the American Modern Poetry website, she was born in Nebraska, but she lived in Faribault, Minnesota for a period of time where she wrote the beginning chapters of Yonnondio. She was in Minnesota after an intense year and a half where, as a member of the Young Communist League, she was leafletting workers of a meatpacking company and was arrested for disturbing the peace and "making unusual noises."  She was arrested and jailed. In jail, she was beaten up. She also was suffering from pleurisy and tuberculosis.  She arrived in Faribault to recover, at the age of 19, but those years were also financially stressful. The father of her children left her with the responsibility of raising them, despite her serious illness, and she was often unable to pay her rent. Here is an excerpt from Silences:
The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years—response to others, distractability, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you, make you, become you. The cost of ‘discontinuity’ (that pattern still imposed on women) is such a weight of things unsaid, an accumulation of material so great, that everything starts up something else in me; what should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years.
She was born into a first generation Jewish immigrant family, and she did not identify very much with the upper class or what she termed the  'culture class' of writers.  Her energies were focused on the demands of her four children, of making ends meet, and her work as an activist.  Her book Silences is well known, especially her essay "I Stand Here Ironing." She was sensitive to the ways that the demands of living and working prevented many people from writing or doing 'creative' work.

She helped to advance the voices and writing from people of the oppressed and lower classes. "We cannot speak of women writers in our century," she wrote, "without also speaking of the invisible, the as-innately-capable: [those] born to the wrong circumstances—diminished, excluded, foundered." Tillie Olsen helped promote the writing of Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills.  Olsen was also noted for her strong support for public arts funding.  We must listen to these voices, she insisted. We must have these stories.

Constance Coin wrote about Tillie Olsen's literary and political contributions, and she noted the value that Olsen placed on the many voices that were often silenced. Of Yonnondio and other writing, Coin writes:
Even so, in this first publication we already see emerging in Olsen's writing a tendency, which will later become dominant, that competes with her desire for monological authorial and pedagogical control. In this "worker's correspondence" poem, she gives others a voice, straining toward a collective form. The poem is a vehicle for the stories of exploited Chicanas, as Tell Me a Riddle will be permeable to multiple oppressed voices. And in nascent form, "I Want You Women Up North" prefigures Silences' maverick intertextuality. Olsen "yields the floor" Filipe Ibarro's words as she will to dozens of other writers in the later text, and she allows Ibarro's words to conclude the poem, as she will give the "last word" in Silences to Rebecca Harding Davis.
In an obituary of Tillie Olsen in Slate Magazine, Jess Row said, "Look around you on your way to work, she might say to us, or the next time you eat at a restaurant or visit a nail salon, and listen: That deafening silence is the sound of literature not being written."

On the Modern American Poetry website I found this interview, excerpted here:
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.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.
These words of hers attest to the value and power of written language.  If we record our history, we can help provide hope to ourselves and the future generations.

Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Gill, Vicraj. "In Her Own Words." Bloom . Blog: quotes from Tillie Olsen.  http://bloom-site.com/2013/02/13/in-her-own-words-tillie-olsen/

Modern American Poetry.  “Tillie Olsen (1912-2007).” Prepared and Compiled by Cary Nelson.  Web. Retrieved 24 April 2014  http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/olsen/olsen.htm

Olsen, Tillie. "I Stand Here Ironing." Full text. Web. http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/2010/278/resources/olsen_ironing.pdf

Row, Jess. “Her Silence Spoke Volumes:The Importance of Tillie Olsen."  Slate Magazine. January 2007. Web.  Retrieved 24 April 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/obit/2007/01/her_silence_spoke_volumes.html

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