I mentioned the sad passing of Tillie Olsen back on Wednesday, but I know little about the writer herself. Happily, Anne has written a wonderful appreciation of Olsen over at Fernham.

Good friend of RSB, the publisher and writer Anthony Rudolf, contacted me when he heard of Olsen's death. Anthony knew Tillie and had recently written to the TLS championing her work in a letter that they didn't print but I reproduce below:

Two missing titles so astonished me in Claire Harman’s review of Myles Weber’s Consuming Silences – “a study of famously stalled or one-hit writers” -- that I reread the piece to make sure my eyes had not skipped a few sentences. No, I was right first time. I am referring to Tillie Olsen’s wonderful but supposedly unfinished novel Yonnondio: from the Thirties (Faber, 1975) -- the confused manuscripts turned up in the early 1970s and she reworked them nearly forty years after writing the book (1932-1936) -- and to Ralph Ellison’s second novel Juneteenth, also unfinished (he lost years because part of the manuscript was consumed in a fire) and which received a mixed critical reception. For me, Yonnondio is no more unfinished than Schubert’s symphony.

Unfortunately, there are two possibilities concerning these omissions: either Myles Weber did not mention the two books, which raises severe doubts about his research and his conclusions, or Claire Harman herself has failed to mention them. If Weber did not mention them, Harman should have rebuked him, assuming she knew of their existence. If he did mention them, perhaps she was unconsciously seeking to improve the story of silence on the part of two prose fiction writers who, on the strength of their first books, Tell me a Riddle and Invisible Man, count as major figures in American literature. As indeed does Henry Roth, whose late and prodigious flowering after decades of silence – although he wrote essays -- surely muddies the waters of Weber’s thesis more than Harman allows.

As for Ellison, not only did he write a second novel, he also wrote many extraordinary essays. Since when is a writer obliged to write only in one genre? To judge by Harman’s account (or her account of Weber), you would think Ellison did nothing for decades but worry about Invisible Man. In respect (or rather disrespect) of Tillie Olsen, Claire Harman vilifies and ridicules Silences, a classic work about creativity and its associated problems. Finally, Harman (or Harman’s Weber) is simplistic when it comes to Olsen’s class politics, which have to be read and understood alongside the legendary long silence of a great poet, her near contemporary George Oppen.

This is a good opportunity to ask your readers if they can help me concerning the provenance of a brilliant and appropriate phrase Tillie Olsen uses in Silences, namely ‘trespass vision’, as applied to Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills, and which she herself puts in quotation marks. This suggests she has borrowed the phrase from another writer, but unusually she does not give a reference.

Readers Comments

  1. Thomas McGonigle Saturday 06 January 2007

    About Tillie: After the death of Hannah Green, Tillie's very good friend, I was talking to Tillie on the phone about her giving a blurb for the reprint of Hannah's THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE... and I had been lamenting the death of Hannah and how she had not lived to see the publication of LITTLE SAINT... Tillie said that since Hannah was a woman of letters she knew that the sole advantage that a writer has in the world not much interested in her or his work is that there is always the possibility of a posthumous book there is not such thing as a posthumous business deal..." I remember Tillie in 1970-71? in a small room at Columbia University reading from her story Hey Sailor WHat Ship and how both Tillie and Hannah were crying as Tillie read the dedication at the end of the story For Jack Eggan 1915-1938"...

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