Student Researchers Publish Book on Writer, Activist, Amherst Lecturer Tillie Olsen

Submitted on Monday, 10/14/2013, at 1:39 PM

By Katherine Duke '05

When, during their sophomore year, Annemarie Iker ’12 and Katie Allyn ’12 enrolled in “The 20th Century: 1900–1941”—taught by Barry O’Connell, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of English—they didn’t know that it would eventually lead them to publish their own book. They weren’t even familiar with the figure who would become the book’s subject.

“The biggest names that popped up when I thought of 20th-century American literature, before taking [the course], were probably Fitzgerald, Hemingway—you know: the big guys,” says Iker, a European studies major from Marin County, Calif. “Professor O’Connell introduced me to new writers.” One of those writers was Tillie Olsen.

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Iker (left)and Allyn sit in front of Johnson Chapel. Their book shows that, as a lecturer in the English Department in 1969-1970, Olsen had an office in the chapel, decorated with a portrait of Emily Dickinson.

The course included reading and discussion of Yonnondio: From the Thirties, Olsen’s unfinished novel (written in the 1930s but not published until the 1970s) about the struggles and travels of a poor American family in the pre-Depression era. The novel’s fragmented style, multiple narrative voices and attention to the often-overlooked experiences of women and children made it “so strikingly different from every other book I’ve read in any class,” says Allyn, an English major from the New York City area. “Professor O’Connell’s passion for it was so clear [and] infectious. He was so connected, not just with the characters … but with Tillie Olsen also and her whole history.”

That history, the students learned, included dropping out of high school, working low-paying jobs, becoming a union organizer and political activist, raising four children, holding fellowships at Stanford University and the Radcliffe Institute and publishing her first book, 1961’s Tell Me a Riddle—all before becoming one of the first women to join the Amherst College faculty.

Olsen taught at Amherst during the 1969–70 academic year and, for many reasons, “had not been an easy fit” with the rest of the English Department, Iker says: “Tillie Olsen wasn’t just a woman—she was a communist woman. She had no Harvard degree, let alone a college degree or even a high school degree. And … she was a pretty self-assured woman, by all accounts.” To the entirely male, predominantly white and mostly affluent student body, she offered courses on “The Struggle to Write” and “The Literature of Poverty, Oppression, Revolution and the Struggle for Freedom.”

Allyn and Iker were so intrigued by Olsen that their curiosity wasn’t satisfied at the end of the course. The two friends would stand out in the snow during later semesters, marveling over Yonnondio and fantasizing about doing a research project on Olsen’s life and work.     

And in the summer of 2011, they did just that. With funding from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, support and encouragement from O’Connell and advising from Assistant Professor of English Robert Hayashi, Allyn and Iker dedicated the summer to an in-depth study of Olsen.

The student researchers read and re-read what Iker calls Olsen’s “slim but powerful oeuvre” (which includes, in addition to Tell Me a Riddle and Yonnondio, a nonfiction book called Silences [1978], about the intellectual, social, economic and political circumstances that can prevent people—especially working-class people and mothers—from generating and publishing large amounts of writing). They looked through issues of The Amherst Student from the year that Olsen was on campus. They turned to the Five College library system for secondary sources of information. They flew to Northern California, where the author had lived until her death in 2007, and delved into the Stanford Archives, which hold Olsen’s notes, manuscripts and syllabi, including those for her Amherst courses.

In a “goosebump-producing” coincidence that they delight in recounting, they even stumbled upon the cemetery where Olsen and her husband, Jack, are buried. The cemetery turned out to be in Marin County—where they had stopped to visit Iker’s parents—and right next to a favorite canyon where Iker had brought Allyn to go hiking. They found the cemetery closed, but suddenly, Iker says, an employee “came out of the misty woods” to help them find the Olsens’ graves. (Tillie’s epitaph reads, Our beautiful, brilliant, beloved Mama / Inspiring working class writer, activist, teacher / Life long lover of nature, song, the written word / Passionate advocate for the dignity of all people.)  

Allyn and Iker also conducted hours of interviews with people who had known Olsen, such as (among others) her daughter Julie Olsen Edwards; former Amherst professor Leo Marx, who helped to recruit Olsen to the college; attorney and best-selling author Scott Turow ’70, who did an independent study with her; several other Amherst alumni who took her courses; and Robin Dizard, Lorna Peterson and Marietta Pritchard, three of the “faculty wives” with whom Olsen socialized and participated in the women’s movement in Amherst.

“The interviews, we thought, would be just a small component of the project,” says Iker. “But we realized throughout the summer that they were this great and unanticipated gift.”

“We decided it would be most reflective of our summer to showcase other people’s words and conversations,” says Allyn.

The end result is a self-published book titled Tillie Olsen and Amherst College: Conversations. (The students initially had only a few copies printed, to give to Frost Library and to those who helped them with the project, but now the book is available for purchase through Blurb.com.) Through intertwined snippets of the various interviews, and through new and historical photographs and photocopies, the book describes the Amherst College of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a tumultuous “transitional” time of debate and action regarding civil rights, the Vietnam War and coeducation. It shows evidence of the tremendous popularity of Olsen’s unique courses (“I’m taking this course (my first literature course ever),” reads a student’s handwritten note, “because of the nature of most lit. courses. Most represent the elitist culture of the time, not the mass culture, or working-class culture”). It includes photos of Olsen in Johnson Chapel (“To realize she was walking around, sitting in places that I’ve been—that’s kind of cool,” Iker says). It examines Olsen’s lasting “ripple effect” on those who knew her, on social justice and on academia.

“When I would tell people that I was working on this project,” Allyn says, “a lot of people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, Tell Me a Riddle changed my life.’ Or, [Olsen] wrote a story called ‘I Stand Here Ironing,’ and the first line is I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves [tormented] back and forth…, and people would just recite that all the time.”

On the other hand, Iker notes, many current students are unfamiliar with the writer: “‘Tillie who?’ they say. And I think, personally, it may, in an odd way, have to do with just the success of her endeavors.”

Allyn explains: “A lot of professors now—at least in my English classes—really think carefully about their syllabus and about representing a wide range of voices, and I think that’s a huge shift” that Olsen helped to spur and that this generation of students takes for granted.

Allyn also realized, in the course of the research and interviews, that she had been taking coeducation for granted. She says it’s much easier to be a woman at Amherst today than it was in Olsen’s time.

“[The research] both clarified and complicated my attitudes towards Amherst,” Iker says. “Thinking about 1969 and 1970 … when Amherst was just really a hotbed of political activity and conversations, made me wonder about our time here and whether the placidity is something like apathy or not. But I would agree, overall, with Katie, that it’s made me feel so fortunate to be here at a time when I don’t feel like my gender inhibits me in any way, or limits me.”

Did Iker and Allyn do their summer project for academic credit? No, they say—just “life credit.”

After all, every kind of life experience can be enlightening, can be worth reading and writing and talking about and can have what Amherst calls “consequence.” That’s what Tillie Olsen taught.

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Visit this page to learn more about the research project, to see photos of Olsen, to read excerpts from the interviews and to peruse “Tillie Olsen’s Reading List” of works she thought everyone should study to gain understanding of women’s lives and feminist issues. First published in Women’s Studies Quarterly in 1972, and included in Iker and Allyn’s book, the list is now widely consulted and respected. “I think I will be a better person once I’ve read everything on it,” says Iker.

Photo by Rob Mattson