This intense examination of the writings of Tillie Olsen shows Elaine Neil Orr's deeply sympathetic passion for Olsen's literary world. Orr's objective is not simply to offer literary criticism but to interpret the subjects that inspire and disclose Olsen's spiritual vision.
In Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondio, and Silences, Tillie Olsen presents a world troubled by the problems of sex, race, and class and inhabited by people who are broken, silenced, and defeated. Yet her artistic vision of this tragic world reveals Olsen's resounding affirmation of life. Orr's study shows Olsen's work as a blending of Marxist, feminist, literary, and religious views that give it a unique spiritual perspective. "As the reader progresses through this book," Orr says, "he or she will discover, I believe, that even when Olsen's texts appear to fail, they still evoke our sympathy and compel us to listen." Though the body of Olsen's work is small, its substance is of great significance. Her vision is rooted in her family's Russian Jewish heritage and in her own history as an American worker, a member of the Communist party, a humanist, a feminist, and a mother.
Elaine Orr concentrates upon Olsen's characters who have "not as yet realized" yearnings. Tillie Olsen's portraits of weary workers and mothers, of children, of a dying sailor, and of a black church worker express her enduring hope for transformation and fulfillment and convey the central meaning of her work-the miracle and sanctity of each human life. Thus this first book-length study of Tillie Olsen is a religious interpretation showing a woman-centered world that intertwines the religious and the material and produces Olsen's vision of holiness.
Elaine Neil Orr grew up in Nigeria. She is professor of English at North Carolina State University and on the faculty of the Spalding University low-residency MFA program. Her other books are Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women's Fictions and Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life, a memoir.