The MacDowell Colony 

The Writers

Tillie Olsen

 (1912 or 1913 - )

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Modern American Poetry

Tillie Olsen Page


Tillie Olsen was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1912 or 1913, she is not sure of the date because it was never recorded. Her parents, working-class Russian Jews,  immigrated to the U.S. after participating in the ill-fated 1905 Russian Revolution. Her parents were active in the Socialist Party and her father served as State Secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party. Olsen dropped out of school at 16 to help support her family during the Depression. Politically active as a teen, she was a member of the Young Communist League (YCL) and was jailed for a month in 1931 for distributing leaflets to packinghouse workers.  She began working on her first novel, Yonnondio, the story of the struggles of a depression-era family, when she was 19. She continued to work on the novel over a four year period that included moving in with YCL colleague Jack Olsen and the birth of a child.  The first part of her book was published in the Partisan Review in 1934. She stopped work on the novel in 1937. In 1944 she married Jack Olsen. During the 1940's and early 1950's she had three more children, took at a number of different jobs factory worker, waitress, and secretary. During this period she continued to be active in political causes.  She didn't resume work on Yonnondio until 1953, when her youngest daughter entered school. She finally published  Yonnondio in 1974. Olsen is considered one of the early activists in the women's movement. Works include: Tell Me a Riddle (1961);  and Silences (1978)
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