It’s been more than forty-five years since Tillie Olsen appeared, in trousers, in the radio studio at KPFA in Berkeley, California, to record two stories from her Tell Me a Riddle collection: “I Stand Here Ironing” and “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” A third, “O Yes,” needed at least a gospel chorus, not in our budget. And I couldn’t imagine how to do the fourth, the title novella, without a Greek theater and a Bach Mass and a Russian Revolution: Somewhere coherence, transport, meaning. If they would but leave her in the air now stilled of clamor, in the reconciled solitude, to journey on… There are some stories that don’t translate into any other medium. They should stay in their books to surprise us, leaping from ambush. When she wrote Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen, like William Blake, covered paper with words “for the angels to read.”
At the time, I was too young to know anything important about poor people, black people, women or history. But we enter into books as if into a conspiracy: for company, of course, and narrative, and romance; for advice on how to be decent and brave; for a slice of the strange, the shock of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored or despised; and also for radiance and transcendence, that radioactive glow of genius in the dark. How dark it was, how dark. I could feel the darkness with my hands…. and as I journeyed upward after him, it seemed I heard a mourning: “Mama Mama you must help carry the world.” The rise and fall of nations I saw. And the voice called again Alva Alva, and I flew into a world of light, multitudes singing, Free, free, I am go glad. Suddenly, we hear a different music.
There was a lot of this music around in the early ’60s, especially at Pacifica radio, where so many of us went instead of graduate school to play with our politics and microphones, such a plenitude we took for granted, so many books so splendid, so savage and so nourishing, that they seemed to fall from some giant banyan–a Tin Drum and a Golden Notebook, a Catch-22 and The Fire Next Time, Flannery O’Connor and Chinua Achebe, Herzog and V–and we’d never again go hungry for meaning. Wised up, unriddled, we went away from Berkeley into the civil rights and antiwar and women’s movements, after which we would pedal the tricycles of our careers. And then, there was the oddest thing: After the whole culture has turned into a soapbox, a pillbox, a fire alarm and an icepick in the ear, there some of us were, pretending to be adults, fathers with our own kids to worry about, chairing some panel or other at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Tillie Olsen needed a grant. Or there some of us would be, sunk in the booze and discrepancies, sitting on the admissions committee for a writers’ colony, and Tillie Olsen wanted a cabin in our woods. Yes. Of course! Who else?
I am three times the age I was when she walked into that studio, and the older I became, the smarter she got, and I still can’t answer those questions the white child Carol asks in “O Yes,” after her friendship with the black child Parialee, Alva’s “jivetalk” daughter, has been “sorted” and “celerated” out of existence at the junior high school; after the scary humming in the black church, “so high up and forgotten the waves and the world, so stirless the deep cool green and the wrecks of what had been”: Oh why do I have to feel it happens to me too? Why is it like this? And why do I have to care?
As well as radiance, she gave us scruple. Looking back, it’s easy to deconstruct Tell Me a Riddle as a nest of prophetic texts on race war, class animus and feminism. From a sensibility formed in the Great Depression, in stories published in ’50s magazines you’ve never heard of, Olsen reported to the sassy ’60s on where we had been before America, and on those our steerage left behind; what blue-collar work was really like on the night shift or at sea; who lost out in claustrophobic marriages, and how it felt to be broke, trapped, female and speechless; on unions, radical politics, the immigrant experience, children lost and children sold, winter rage. To his grandmother Eva, who is dying of cancer, Richard explains the rocks. There are three kinds, he tells her: “earth’s fire jetting; rock of layered centuries; crucibled new out of the old (igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic). But there was that other–frozen to black glass, never to transform or hold the fossil memory.” And Eva, who was a revolutionary in Russia before she was a mother in America, who “can no longer live between people” because she was “nuzzled away” and “devoured” by seven “lovely mouths…drowning into needing and being needed,” sees herself as black glass. Which is why, out of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Victor Hugo, the native Samoan dance of a young Marine and a child’s cookie cut from some Mexican Bread of the Dead, the Book of Martyrs and a girlhood memory, she will sing herself to death.
But see how it’s done: First what Cynthia Ozick calls “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or Pascal. Memory, history, poetry and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.