The cover of Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works, a collection of Tillie Olsen’s short stories and non-fiction reportage from the 1930s, features a photo of the author seated at a table heaped with dirty dishes. The image speaks to Olsen’s status as a writer of women’s experience. Indeed, she has long been championed in feminist circles, and the collection includes stories about the regrets of a single mother and the subtle brutality of a man who treats his wife “like a shadow.” Yet Olsen’s true interest is more expansive than the “feminist” or “women’s experience” label would seem to imply. These are stories about the variety of ways that people need love—friendship, compassion, charity—and offer it to each other. Olsen’s moral code is unfashionably traditional, and the work gleams with a deep humanity.
A sentence plucked from one story could summarize the book as a whole: “All that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me.” The voice is almost certainly that of Olsen herself. Olsen jotted down notes her entire life, but it wasn’t until her four children were mostly grown that she was able to focus on writing. She took a class at San Francisco State College at age forty-two, and after encouragement from her instructors, applied for and won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. A year later, she was awarded the 1961 O. Henry Award. Other honors followed. Following the release of Tell Me a Riddle, Olsen went on to edit an collection of vignettes about the relationships between daughters and mothers—nothing of its kind had ever been published before—and played an instrumental role in founding the Feminist Press, dedicated to reissuing works by forgotten women writers. In 1978, she wrote Silences, a non-fiction book about the obstacles of race, class, and gender that stymie many aspiring authors, while her widely disseminated syllabi of women writers became the basis for promoting the inclusion of more women into the canon of American literature. A high school dropout born on a tenant farm, Olsen was also a lifelong activist and community organizer, jailed on several occasions for her connections to Communism. Her status among women writers is nearly unparalleled: “Respect is too pale a word,” wrote Margaret Atwood, “reverence is more like it.”
Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works is about human sentiment and hardship, but Olsen refuses soap opera schmaltz. For every Olsen character that survives, there is another who turns away, overcome by sadness or fatigue, and wills upon themself a living death. A sailor shored up in “‘Frisco” disappears for weeks on end, slogged with alcohol. A thirteen-year old boy, orphaned and uprooted to a damp logging town, spends his days in a glassy-eyed stupor. A long-suffering mother of seven retreats to her bed and refuses to get up. It’s a wonder anyone keeps on, Olsen seems to suggest. Her tone is kind and empathetic.
The stories unfold through terse snatches of dialogue and memory, rendered with more fidelity to real life than traditional plot. Olsen writes with her ear to the ground, capturing the hums and wails of a 1930s working class home with too many children and not enough money. The work of a writer is usually seen as incompatible with such hubbub, but she turns the assumption on its head. Household buzz is Olsen’s favored landscape. Where else do marriages congeal and children become adults? In the title story “Tell Me a Riddle,” an elderly husband and wife are embroiled in a battle over whether they should stay in their home or move to a retirement community, though “how deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say.” The fights of long-married couples tend to take a pattern; in this case, husband and wife exchange caustic barbs—“Vinegar he poured on me all his life . . . how can I be honey now?”—until she turns off her hearing aid and lets him shout at her blank face. It is typical of Olsen’s commitment to human complexity that even such well-seasoned venom is laced with affection. The wife hums a Russian love song under her breath and it’s the same as a truce; “nighttimes her hand reached across the bed to hold his.”
“I Stand Here Ironing” is the first story in the collection, and perhaps the best known of Olsen’s works. As the title indicates, the narrator irons a stack of laundry as she muses on her oldest daughter, Emily. (The premise is quietly startling. Domestic busywork is usually considered the antithesis of serious thought, not its conduit.) The narrator rehearses the circumstances of her daughter’s upbringing: born when her mother was admittedly still a child herself; abandoned by her father; left with unsavory babysitters and shipped off to a convalescent home; always too thin, unsmiling, asthmatic. The piece attests to the difficulty of being a single mother in poverty, but there is universality to parents’ internal monologues, and the narrator’s thoughts cut to the quick. The story is a secular prayer to Emily’s future, into which Olsen condenses all the melancholy of being an imperfect parent.
Olsen’s work has been widely anthologized, but this new release by the University of Nebraska Press offers the fullest available portrait of the writer. The inclusion of Olsen’s non-fiction reportage, a biographical sketch written by her daughter, an informative introduction, and a short reflective piece Olsen penned sixty years after her frontline experience in the bloody 1934 San Francisco General Strike have the cumulative effect of conveying that Olsen’s values were consistent across every aspect of her life. Readers don’t expect moral goodness from writers’ private lives, but remarkably, that is what Tillie Olsen delivers. Admiring her is an undiluted pleasure.