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Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

Feminist. Influential writer. Social and labor activist. The enigma of Tillie Olsen is intertwined with that of the twentieth century. From the rebellions in Czarist Russia, through the terrors of the Depression and the hopes of the New Deal, to World War II, to the cold war, to later progressive and repressive movements, the story of Olsen’s life brings remote events into focus. In Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles, (Cloth $34.95, 978-0-8135-4637-7, January 2010) Panthea Reid examines the complex life of this iconic feminist hero and twentieth-century literary giant.

Tillie Olsen spent her young adulthood in Omaha, Nebraska, Kansas City, and in Faribault, Minnesota before relocating to San Francisco in 1933. She was a 1920s “hell-cat”, a 1930s revolutionary, an early 1940s crusader for equal pay for equal work and a war-relief patriot, an ex-GI’s ideal wife in the later 1940s, a victim of FBI surveillance in the 1950s, a civil rights and antiwar advocate during the 1960s and 1970s, and a life-long orator for universal human rights.

In her classic short story “I Stand Here Ironing” and her groundbreaking Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondido, and Silences, Olsen scripted powerful, moving prose about ordinary people’s lives, exposing the pervasive effects of sexism, racism, and classism and elevating motherhood and women’s creativity into topics of study. Popularly referred to as “Saint Tillie,” Olsen was hailed by many as the mother of modern feminism. Based on diaries, letters, manuscripts, private documents, resurrected public records, and countless interviews, Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles is an artfully crafted biography untangling some of the puzzling knots of the last century’s triumphs and failures. It speaks truth to legend, correcting fabrications and myths about and also by Tillie Olsen.

Advance publicity includes the following comments on Tillie Olsen:
“A biographical bombshell. Reid's meticulous research undoes the feminist legend of Saint Tillie and replaces it with a complex, even-handed account of a passionate, often devious, and always ideological woman writer.”
Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers
From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

“Panthea Reid tells an enthralling, complicated story of a maddening, charismatic writer; her self-creation, self-destruction, and self-promotion; and her profound social commitments.”
Patricia Meyer Spacks, author of Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry

“The first comprehensive account of the extraordinary life of one of the twentieth century’s most exalted writers. Compelling reading.”
Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent

“Panthea Reid's quest for the truth about the courageous, egotistical, generous, maddening, and difficult Tillie Olsen is downright heroic. Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles is biography at its fascinating best.”
Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day

“An enthralling portrait of a vastly talented but famously underperforming writer. Tillie Olsen drove editors wild waiting in vain for her to deliver not excuses but greatness. I should know. One of them was my father.”
Rob Cowley, writer, editor, and anthologist


Panthea Reid on Herself and Writing Biography
Other Publications and History
Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles

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