American Voices: Tillie Olsen

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Tillie Olsen

Photo of Tillie Olsen
Photograph by Rob Edwards. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections Stanford University Libraries.

Born in Nebraska to Russian Jewish immigrants, Tillie Lerner Olsen started writing as a teenager. However, her attentions were diverted by her work as a hotel maid, factory worker, and waitress and her involvement in Depression-era labor movements. She largely set writing aside to raise four daughters in San Francisco.

After returning to writing in her early forties, she championed women, working-class people, and people of color, creating influential and innovative short stories and essays. Her famous short story “I Stand Here Ironing” (1961), narrated by a poor single mother, is a masterpiece of heartbreaking concision.

“Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work, enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: ‘I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.'””

—Tillie Olsen, “Silences” (1978)

“Tillie Olsen’s short stories and essays were revolutionary in content and form. Not only did she seek to give voice to the marginalized and bring the everyday lives of women to literature, Olsen also created new and liberating literary styles to convey these experiences and her humanist beliefs. An attentive listener fascinated by how people speak, Olsen was committed to bringing that authenticity to the page. She also drew on elements of poetry to distill and sharpen her evocative language.” —Donna Seaman, Senior Editor, Booklist, American Library Association

Selected Works by Tillie Olsen

One thought on “American Voices: Tillie Olsen

  1. Anonymous says:

    Julie Olson, Tillie’s daughter, was a friend. I met her at Timbertall Camp (a wonderful Ywca camp in the redwoods of California in the early 1950s) . After-camp visits with Julie in San Francisco (and meeting Tillie) were very important in expanding my horizons and understanding.. I credit that camp experience and knowing Julie as parts of my real -life education preparing me for adult achievements as a social science researcher. I’d like to get back in touch with her, . Please don’t publish my name (nor my email address).

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