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What Tillie Olsen actually said

Today while I was packing books I came across my old paperback copy of Tillie Olsen’s Silences. The paper is brown and crumbly, and the words have been read, underlined, and read again so many years ago that they became part of the way my own brain works. It is a marvel to look at them and think that at one time, these ideas were new to me. Look.

Here is the conclusion of the essay that sent me keeling over in the library in 1973. It was actually published in 1971, entitled, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century”:

You who teach, read writers who are women. There is a whole literature to be re-estimated, revalued. Some works will prove to be, like the lives of their human authors, mortal: speaking only to their time. Others now forgotten, obscured, ignored, will live again for us.

I almost did my M.A. thesis on the poetry of Annette McConnell Anderson. When I found that her poetry “would not stand up to critical scrutiny” as the phrase was, I abandoned the thesis rather than speak that heart-breaking truth. I did place-names instead. My doctoral dissertation covered women writers of the Queen Anne period in England. I fell in love with them, and with the butch queen whose job it was to bear an heir to the throne. Anne gave birth to over twenty children. She was pregnant or recovering from childbirth her entire adult life. Every one of the children died. I took Seth to England with me in 1984, when I was doing research for the thesis. I showed him Kensington Palace, and there we toured the rooms where she lived. We stopped beside a cradle and Seth said, “There’s where she rocked one of her babies that died.” Her story became part of our story.

Read, listen to, living women writers; our new as well as our established, often neglected ones. Not to have audience is a kind of death.

I wonder what Tillie Olsen would have thought of blogs. I think she’d have loved them. I do.

Teach women’s lives through the lives of the women who wrote the books, as well as through the books themselves; and through autobiography, biography, journals, letters. Because most literature concerns itself with the lives of the few, know and teach the books closer to the lives of the many.

When I was interviewed for the job in South Africa, someone asked me, “What is your academic weakness? What are your areas for growth?” I answered, “I don’t know as much about the work of wealthy white men as most people with my years of education. I really do need to read the canon sometime.” They laughed. But I meant it. By then I had been studying literature written by women, working-class and imprisoned men, African writers and African-American writers, for twenty-five years. Every book I ever wrote, every article I ever wrote, examined or celebrated women writers.

Help create writers, perhaps among them yourselves. There is so much unwritten that needs to be written. There are others besides the silenced eleven-out-of-twelve who could bring into literature what is not there now. That first generation of their families to come into college, who come from my world which (in Camus’s words) gives “emotion without measure” are a special hope.

So it is with particular pleasure that I conclude my teaching career at a community college. The price–having to teach five courses a semester, not having graduate students to carry the torch forward, not having research grants, not having all the little perks–is worth it. I have not merely given lip-service to Tillie Olsen’s words. I built my career on them.

And still there is so much I have missed. Many women’s words I have not read. And many rich white men’s words, as well. My plan is to read all seven volumes of Proust between January and April, 2008. That gift. I can claim it now.

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