Tillie Olsen

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Tillie Olsen’s Life–by Constance Coiner Essay, Research Paper Constance Coiner Tillie Olsen’s parents, Samuel and Ida Lerner, who were never formally married, were Jewish immigrants. They participated in the abortive 1905 Russian revolution, and, after Samuel escaped from a Czarist prison, fled to the United States. They settled first on a Nebraska farm; when it failed about five years later, they moved to Omaha. Despite laboring long hours as a farmer, packinghouse worker, painter, and paperhanger, Samuel Lerner became State Secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party and ran in the mid-twenties as the socialist candidate for state representative from his district (Rosenfelt, "Thirties" 375). Ida Lerner, who was illiterate until her twenties, was one of the

people who inspired the highly acclaimed "Tell Me a Riddle." The strong bonds she had with her mother, Olsen has said, "are part of what made me a revolutionary writer" (Rosenfelt interview). Olsen’s conviction that capitalism blights human development, which she has often expressed in relation to the enormous potential evinced by young children, originated in the painful witnessing of her mother’s deformation. If you [could see] my mother’s handwriting, [in] one of the few letters she ever wrote me … she could not spell, she could scarcely express herself, she did not have written language. Yet she was one of the most eloquent and one of the most brilliant . . . human beings I’ve ever known, and I’ve encountered a variety of human beings in recent

years, some of whom have a lot of standing in the world. (interview) When Olsen was 11 or 12, Ida Lerner wrote the following letter to her English instructor: 2512 Caldwell Street Omaha, Nebraska December 10, 1924 Dear Teacher: I am glad to study with ardor but the children wont let me, they go to bed late so it makes me tired, and I cant do my lessons. It is after ten o’clock my head dont work it likes to have rest. But I am in a sad mood I am sitting in the warm house and feel painfull that winter claps in to my heart. I see the old destroyed houses of the people from the old country. I hear the wind blow through them with the disgusting cry why the poor creatures ignore him, dont protest against him, that souless wind dont no, that they are helpless have no material to

repair the houses and no clothes to cover up their bodies, and so the sharp wind echo cry falls on the window, and the windows original sing with silver-ball tears seeing all the poor shivering creatures dressed in rags with frozen fingers and feverish hungry eyes. It is told of the olden days, the people of that time were building a tower, when they were on the point of success for some reason they stopped to understand each other and on account of misunderstanding, their hopes and very lives were buried under the tower they had built. So as a human being who carries responsibility for action I think as a duty to the community we shall try to understand each other. This English class helps us to understand each other, not to feel helpless between our neighbors, serves to get

more respect from the people around us. We are human beings trying to understand, we learn about the world, people and our surroundings. This class teaches us to understand each other and brings better order in the every day life of the community. IDA LERNER Moreover, Ida Lerner "was very conscious of the situation of women." Olsen remembers in particular a photograph of a statue–featuring a woman on all fours with an infant "chained" to her breast–that her mother had clipped from a leftist journal (interview). In her adult life, Olsen saw her mother only three times. They were separated by a continent, "by lack of means," and by Olsen’s jobs and responsibility to her own children. Ida Lerner, who "had no worldly goods to leave,"