Reading Between the Lines: Beyond the canon

A few months ago, I interviewed the writer Alice Mattison for a literary program in New York.

mattison book 88 (photo credit: )
mattison book 88
(photo credit: )
A few months ago, I interviewed the writer Alice Mattison for a literary program in New York. Many of Mattison's characters are secular Jews, a couple of generations removed from immigration, and I asked her whether she identified with Jewish American writers who cover similar terrain, suggesting Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Her affinities lay more with Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, she told me, and I said, "Of course." But I'll admit to slight embarrassment now. Though I've read and adored Grace Paley's work, I'd never even heard of Tillie Olsen. Less than two weeks later, Olsen's name came up again, this time in a newspaper obituary. She died on January 1 at the age of 94. Mattison was nothing but gracious in our interview, but I did feel mildly rebuked by her eschewal of Bellow and Roth. My reference to these great novelists betrayed my allegiance to the standard narrative of Jewish American fiction, in which these men serve as touchstones. Luckily, we all have the ability to subvert our canons, and toward this end, I was soon reading Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle. Biographical context is important to many writers, but to Olsen even more than most, as her life influenced not only what she wrote, but what she didn't. Olsen was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Nebraska in 1912. Her family struggled financially, and she dropped out of school after the 11th grade, taking various working-class jobs. Olsen was a member of the American Communist Party for a time, and in the 1930s she was a labor activist, while beginning to write fiction, as well. In 1935, Olsen received a book contract from Random House, but she was a young mother and the demands of family and finances forced her to abandon her novel. Indeed, Olsen's working life cast a shadow on her writing in two ways. Her characters grapple with the same hardships that she endured, but perhaps as importantly, her hardships limited her ability to write. Tell Me a Riddle, published in 1961, is a slim volume comprised of four stories, and it represents Olsen's only completed work of fiction. The title story in Tell Me a Riddle is probably Olsen's best-known work, a heartbreaking tale of an old woman's decline, her alienation from children and grandchildren and, most of all, her toxic marriage. "For forty-seven years they had been married," the story begins. "How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say - but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown." This first sentence is representative of Olsen's prose, not only because it gets at the pain and struggle of her characters, generally, but because it hints at stylistic elements of her writing. I associate literature about the working class with minimalism, the stories of Raymond Carver or a book I recently discovered, Denis Johnson's Angels. But Olsen's writing exhibits modernist tendencies: stream of consciousness, ambitious sentence structure, fragmented narration. In fact, this was my biggest surprise about Olsen's work, and surprises like this, shifts in the landscape of literary possibility, are why we must reach beyond the canon - beyond our Roths and Bellows. As a feminist and activist, Tillie Olsen fought for those whose voices too often get drowned out. How appropriate, then, that it was Tillie Olsen who reminded me to listen more closely for the whispers of literary greatness.