Friday, January 13, 2006

Lorrie Moore and Tillie Olsen

Author Lorrie Moore was born on this day in 1957 in Glens Falls, New York. The winner of a Seventeen magazine short story contest who grew up to be a writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Moore's novels and stories are crisp mixtures of comedy and sadness, one-liners and confessions. Her female protagonists, in such books as Self-Help(1985; a collection of stories poking bitter fun at personal growth manuals), ANAGRAMS(1986; a "novel" in which Moore "rearranges characters to make new worlds," the same characters reappearing in different roles and environments) and the novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?(1994), are intelligent, perceptive and painfully self-aware of their disconnections with those closest to them -- including the clueless men stumbling around in Moore's fictional world, who sometimes read as though they've just wandered over from a Frederick Barthelme suburb in a late model Chevy. The combination of wisecracks and pathos in her work seems to prompt critical comparisons with the films of Woody Allen, but her voice is distinctly more sedate, cleverly suggesting the bone-chilling turmoil beneath a barely controlled surface.

Author Tillie Olsen celebrates her birthday tomorrow, born Tillie Lerner around 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska to Russian Jewish immigrants. Tillie Lerner enjoyed writing as a young girl, but left high school early to support her family as a slaughterhouse worker, and soon followed her family's leftist instincts as a member of the Young Communist League. She was jailed in Kansas City for trying to organize packinghouse workers; moved to California; participated in the San Francisco Warehouse Strike of 1934; and in 1936 met and married Jack Olsen, a union printer. Tillie had 3 daughters and worked to support them as a waitress and secretary -- living, in her own words, as "the essential angel (there was no one else to do her work)," desiring to return to writing but finding the "habits of years -- response to others, distractability, responsibility for daily matters" -- infringing on her ability to do so.

In 1955, Olsen nonetheless enrolled in a creative writing course at San Francisco State, and within months won a Stanford University creative writing fellowship. The fellowship gave her the time and economic freedom to begin the stories which would make up her brilliant book of stories, Tell Me a Riddle(published in 1961, when Olsen was 48), the title story of which won an O. Henry Award for best short story of 1961. Following the lead of her literary heroine, Rebecca Harding Davis (whose Life in the Iron Mills, written in 1861, was rescued from oblivion by Olsen and republished with Olsen's commentary in 1972 for the first time in 111 years), Olsen's stories highlight, in compelling vernacular cadences, the interior lives of ordinary people who are not often heard in literature: a working mother; a rudderless sailor, long in years and without family; an elderly Jewish wife with no community to support her, and no time to find refuge in reading. Olsen's life and work play out as variations on the theme of women silenced by duty, both demonstrating the impossibility of woman-as-writer and giving the lie to the argument. Her literary output has been small (other works include a novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, and a self-reflective book of criticism, Silences), but accomplished.

"[W]omen are traditionally trained to place others' needs first, to feel these needs as their own . . . their sphere, their satisfaction to be in making it possible for others to use their abilities . . . motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity." -- Tillie Olsen.

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