The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Tillie Olsen:
Chronicler of working class life

Jan 22, 2007

Tillie Olsen, social activist and writer, died January 1st, aged 94. She became well-known in the 1960s after her books about the lives of working class women were published.

Olsen’s parents were poor Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father was active in the Nebraska Socialist Party. Born in 1913, Olsen joined the Young Communist League in the 1930s. She began working and organizing among meat packers before she fell ill with one of the diseases of poverty, tuberculosis. In 1932, she participated in the San Francisco general strike and wrote a description of it for left-wing magazines. There she met her husband and fellow activist, Jack Olsen, with whom she had four daughters.

Although she wrote occasionally, her busy life did not allow her to become a published writer until her children were grown. In 1961 she published four short stories, including the memorable Tell Me a Riddle. One of those stories, “I Stand Here Ironing,” was made into a movie.

Olsen continued to chronicle the difficult lives of mothers with social consciences, very little money, no education and too much to do. Her second book, Yonnodio, is a brutal story of poverty in a mining family, told from the view of the mother and the oldest child. This daughter Maisie would like to get an education to avoid her mother’s fate.

Olsen describes hell “choreographed by Beedo, [the speed-up system of the 1920s] ...Music by rasp crash screech knock steamhiss thud machinedrum. Abandon self, all ye who enter here. Become component part, geared, meshed, timed controlled.

Hell. Figures half-seen through hissing vapor, live steam cloud from great scalding vats. Hogs dangling, dancing along the convey, 300, 350 an hour; Mary running running along the rickety platform to keep up, stamping, stamping the hides...”

In fact, the book doesn’t end the story of this miserable family starving on what the father makes at the packing house. Instead Olsen adds a note that the book was set aside for 40 years by a young writer who had no time herself to pick it up again. So we don’t know if the children ever got some education and escaped their parents’ hell.

Olsen’s understanding of poverty among women in this society made her a favorite of the women’s movement.

She remained active in various causes and as a teacher and writer into her 80s. Her books are worth another look in this new century as well.