Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1978)

Every writer must discover, if not forge, his or her writing practice. By that I mean a given writer’s pattern or way of getting an idea, capturing it, committing it to paper and doing work that follows as one crafts the idea into a finished creative work.  Part of the creative process are silences, the natural and nurturing ones, and unnatural ones, thwart, hamper or extinguish one’s creative energy and projects.    Learning to distinguish the two, or to perceive their interaction, is a valuable skill for a writer.  For those of us who will become teachers of writers, it is valuable knowledge to instill and to wield, lest one unwittingly shame or diminish a writer struggling with silences. 

Tillie Olsen’s work Silences describes and documents factors and forces that silence writers.  Olsen notes, “Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some cease to publish after one work appears; some never coming to book form at all.”  Through its juxtaposition of questions and excerpts from writers’ journals and interviews, the book attunes to the ear to types of silence. 

The book is organized into two parts.  Part One—Silences consists of three essays.  The first, Silences in Literature—1962, represents Olsen’s earliest and most systematic investigation into silences.  This essay casts the question broadly:  what are the claims of creation, and what happens when those claims cannot be primary?  She considers the silencing occasioned by time lost to earning an income, to confidence undermined by having an aesthetic not currently popular, or subject matter not deemed worthy.  Examples and comments are taken from the experiences of Melville, Rilke, Rimbaud, Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, and finally her own experience as a writer.

The second essay, “One of Out of Twelve: Writers Who are Women in Our Century—1971” examines the disparity between men and women’s literary output as evidence of factors that silence women.  Chief among them is the cultural norm that women’s first responsibility is her care for as wife, mother, daughter and her function as “the essential angel” who does domestic labor.  Running a close second is blight—the leeching of will by the constant devaluation of women as artists, and the constant focus from the 1950s tp the 1980s, on men’s stories as uniquely representative of humanity. 

The final essay in Part One discusses then Virginian, now West Virginian, author Rebecca Davis Harding. Her novel Life in the Iron Mills was published in 1861 in The Atlantic to great acclaim.  Olsen asserts, “Nowhere in fiction was industrialization, the significant development that would transform the nation, a concern, not its consuming of the lives of numberless human beings.”  Hugh Wolfe, the central character of the novel, is a sculptor, whose thwarted desire to create ends in suicide.  Despite its success and its groundbreaking subject, Davis Harding was forgotten until the second women’s movement began to recover lost voices.   Olsen’s essay traces the contours of Davis Harding’s life and development as a writer.

Part Two has the intriguing, rather lengthy title “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepings Roundings, Expansions.”  In this section, Olsen organizes dimensions of silences into categories and offers both source material from male and female writers.  I do not aim to systematize or summarize, but how to whet your appetite by naming some of the categories: Silences of the Great in Achievement; Subterranean Forces—And the Work of Creating in Circumstances Enabling Full Function; A Sense of Wrong Voice; Literacy; The Damnation of Women; Wives, Mothers, enablers; Blight: The Hidden Silence—Breakdown; Hidden Blight—Some Effect of Having to Counter and Encounter Harmful Treatment and Circumstances; and Creativity, Potentiality, First Generation, among others.

This section is a rich archive of insights and experiences against which an individual writer may measure him or herself. For men and women like me, in and beyond middle age, the book names cultural norms we may yet be struggling with.  In the absence of such analysis, it’s easy to construe the struggle as evidence of personal failure, rather than evidence of the power of social context.  For writers in their twenties and thirties, reading Silences yields historical awareness (that’s what it was like) that provides a point of comparison for current gendered expectations (how is it now?). 

As I have lived with this book over time, I continue to see its power but I see limits as well.The only dimension of sexuality that she considers is heterosexuality (wife and mother in relation to husband and father).While she perceives the silencing effect of these relationships in terms of the need to defer to or please men on women writers, she does not discuss sexual violence, its pervasiveness, and how such violence impairs the trust in self and one’s truth so needful to creative expression.Olsen showed courage to name the silences that she heard.I hope that we continue to name silences as we find them.