Nebraska Authors

Tillie Learner Olsen

AKA: Mrs. Jack

Born 1912 Omaha, NE (USA)

Died 2007-01-01
Oakland, CA (USA)

Born (either 1912 or 1914) and raised as a small child in the rural farming community near Mead, NE, Tillie Olsen’s family moved to Omaha in 1918. Her parents were both immigrants from the Russian Jewish community, and were active in the Socialist Party and especially the Workmen’s Circles, a national Jewish Socialist movement which was strong in Omaha in the 1920s. The family’s home life included regular political activities and labor organizing. In her twenties, Tillie rebelled against her parents’ views by joining the Young Communist League in 1931, a move that carried her to Kansas City and St. Joseph, MO, where she assisted in organizing labor strikes. By the mid-1930s, Tillie had moved to Minnesota, where she started writing Yonnondio: From the Thirties, and eventually to California.

In California, Tillie met and married Jack Olsen, a fellow radical, with whom she had four children. Although the demands of motherhood prevented Tillie from continuing with her writing, she remained active in labor organizing. She finally returned to her novel in the 1950s, after her husband found the manuscript for Yonnondio and encouraged her to resume writing. As she gained fame, she used her notoriety to shine a light on the issues of women writers, and to try to resurrect long-lost works by other women writers. Much of her additional printed work has dealt with the plight of women writers, and with the often-loving, often-divisive relationships between mothers and daughters.
Olsen's fiction has been translated into 13 languages; 'Tell Me A Riddle' Olsen's short story, won the 1961 O'Henry award for best short story, and its film adaptation won an Academy Award in 1981, for Best Actor; Her papers are housed at Standford University and New York Public Library.

Places Lived

Wahoo, NE
Omaha, NE
San Francisco, CA

Author Of

  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction


Fiction; Feminist Literary Criticism; Communism


Attended Omaha Central High but dropped out her senior year


Nebraska 150 Books honor for Tell Me a Riddle, 2017
Received the Mari Sandoz Award by the Nebraska Library Association, 1991
O. Henry Prize for Tell Me a Riddle, 1961


Tell Me a Riddle. 1961.
Life in the Iron Mills: and Other Stories. 1972.
Yononndio: From the Thirties. 1974.
Silences. 1978.
Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother. 1984.
Sleeping With One Eye Open. 1999. (Excerpts from a talk by Tillie Olsen in Kallet and Cofer)
Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works. 2013.
Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology 1867-2017. 2017. (contributor)

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Tillie Learner Olsen

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(e.g. Author is buried in Fremont, not in David City / Also wrote for the Daily Nebraskan during her time as a student)