Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

Panthea Reid, Author
Panthea Reid, Author . Rutgers Univ. $34.95 (449p) ISBN 978-0-8135-4637-7
Reviewed on: 11/30/2009
Release date: 01/01/2010
Paperback - 484 pages - 978-0-8135-5187-6
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Attempting to solve “the riddle” of Tillie Lerner Olsen, literary scholar Reid paints a warts-and-all portrait of the woman who became an iconic feminist and admired writer. The author of the celebrated stories “I Stand Here Ironing” and “Tell Me a Riddle” was, according to Reid, an imperious narcissist who used her charisma to cover her inadequacies. But Reid also presents Olsen's life as a metaphor for the 20th century, encompassing Communist activism, WWII patriotism, early feminism, and civil rights activism. Olsen (1912–2007), born in Omaha, Neb., to poor Russian Jewish immigrants, displayed early on a magnetic personality, verbal prowess, and what would become a lifelong habit of lying. A Communist during the 1930s, Olsen was thrust into the limelight after being jailed during a San Francisco dockworkers' strike. Putting the Party before personal loyalties, she neglected her daughter, was unfaithful to her husband, and took an advance from Random House without delivering a novel. A second marriage to fellow Communist Jack Olsen was happier, but sputtered as she finally tried to publish a book in 1974. Reid, author of biographies of Faulkner and Woolf, paints a deftly engrossing, nuanced, and meticulously researched portrait of a perplexing, larger-than-life woman. Photos. (Jan.)

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