With this groundbreaking work, Olsen revolutionized the study of literature by shedding critical light on the writings of marginalized women and working-class people. From the excavated testimony of authors’ letters and diaries, Olsen shows us the many ways the creative spirit, especially in those disadvantaged by gender, class, or race, has been suppressed through the years. Olsen recounts the torments of Herman Melville, the shame that brought Willa Cather to a dead halt, and the struggles of Olsen’s personal heroine Virginia Woolf, the greatest exemplar of a writer who confronted the forces that worked to silence her.
First published in 1978, Silences expanded the literary canon and the ways readers engage with literature. This 25th-anniversary edition includes Olsen’s classic reading lists of forgotten authors and a new introduction. Bracing and prescient, Silences remains “of primary importance to those who want to understand how art is generated or subverted and to those trying to create it themselves” (Margaret Atwood, The New York Times Book Review).
“A valuable book, an angry book, a call to action.” —Maxine Hong Kingston
“Silences helped me to keep my sanity many a day.” —Gloria Naylor, author of Mama Day
“[Silences is] ‘the Bible.’ I constantly return to it.” —Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“Silences will, like A Room of One’s Own, be quoted where there is talk of the circumstances in which literature is possible.” —Adrienne Rich, author of Diving into the Wreck
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PART ONE — SILENCES
In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
"Whose heart-strings are a lute";
None sing so wildly well As the angel Israfel. ...
And the shadow of [his] perfect bliss Is the sunshine of ours. ...
If I could dwell where Israfel Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell From my lyre within the sky.
— Edgar Allan Poe
Had Milton's been the lot of Caspar Hauser,
Milton would have been vacant as he.
— Herman Melville
If Goethe had been stolen away a child, and reared in a robber band in the depths of a German forest, do you think the world would have had Faust and Iphigenie? But he would have been Goethe still. At night, round their watch-fire, he would have chanted wild songs of rapine and murder, till the dark faces about him were moved and trembled.
— Olive Schreiner
If Tolstoy had been born a woman ...
— Virginia Woolf
1962SILENCES IN LITERATURE Originally an unwritten talk, spoken from notes at the Radcliffe Institute in 1962 as part of a weekly colloquium of members. Edited from the taped transcription, it appears here as published in Harper's Magazine, October 1965.
(Several omitted lines have been restored; an occasional name or phrase and a few footnotes have been added.)
Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all.
What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation's needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me.
These are not natural silences — what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony) — that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature.
The great in achievement have known such silences — Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins. They tell us little as to why or how the creative working atrophied and died in them — if ever it did.
"Less and less shrink the visions then vast in me," writes Thomas Hardy in his thirty-year ceasing from novels after the Victorian vileness to his Jude the Obscure. ("So ended his prose contributions to literature, his experiences having killed all his interest in this form" — the official explanation.) But the great poetry he wrote to the end of his life was not sufficient to hold, to develop the vast visions which for twenty-five years had had expression in novel after novel. People, situations, interrelationships, landscape — they cry for this larger life in poem after poem.
It was not visions shrinking with Hopkins, but a different torment. For seven years he kept his religious vow to refrain from writing poetry, but the poet's eye he could not shut, nor win "elected silence to beat upon [his] whorled ear." "I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a poem which now I realised on paper," he writes of the first poem permitted to end the seven years' silence. But poetry ("to hoard unheard; be heard, unheeded") could be only the least and last of his heavy priestly responsibilities. Nineteen poems were all he could produce in his last nine years — fullness to us, but torment pitched past grief to him, who felt himself "time's eunuch, never to beget."
Silence surrounds Rimbaud's silence. Was there torment of the unwritten; haunting of rhythm, of visions; anguish at dying powers, the seventeen years after he abandoned the unendurable literary world? We know only that the need to write continued into his first years of vagabondage; that he wrote:
Had I not once a youth pleasant, heroic, fabulous enough to write on leaves of gold: too much luck. Through what crime, what error, have I earned my present weakness? You who maintain that some animals sob sorrowfully, that the dead have dreams, try to tell the story of my downfall and my slumber. I no longer know how to speak.
That on his deathbed, he spoke again like a poet-visionary.
Melville's stages to his thirty-year prose silence are clearest. The presage is in his famous letter to Hawthorne, as he had to hurry Moby Dick to an end:
I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, — that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me. ... What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash ...
Reiterated in Pierre, writing "that book whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood ... when at last the idea obtruded that the wiser and profounder he should grow, the more and the more he lessened his chances for bread."
To be possessed; to have to try final hash; to have one's work met by "drear ignoring"; to be damned by dollars into a Customs House job; to have only weary evenings and Sundays left for writing —
How bitterly did unreplying Pierre feel in his heart that to most of the great works of humanity, their authors had given not weeks and months, not years and years, but their wholly surrendered and dedicated lives.
Is it not understandable why Melville began to burn work, then ceased to write it, "immolating [it] ... sealing in a fate subdued"? And turned to occasional poetry, manageable in a time sense, "to nurse through night the ethereal spark." A thirty-year night. He was nearly seventy before he could quit the customs dock and again have full time for writing, start back to prose. "Age, dull tranquilizer," and devastation of "arid years that filed before" to work through. Three years of tryings before he felt capable of beginning Billy Budd (the kernel waiting half a century); three years more to his last days (he who had been so fluent), the slow, painful, never satisfied writing and re-writing of it.
Kin to these years-long silences are the hidden silences; work aborted, deferred, denied — hidden by the work which does come to fruition. Hopkins rightfully belongs here; almost certainly William Blake; Jane Austen, Olive Schreiner, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka; Katherine Anne Porter, many other contemporary writers.
Censorship silences. Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity (as Dreiser's ten-year stasis on Jennie Gerhardt after the storm against Sister Carrie). Publishers' censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as "not suitable" or "no market for." Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship — sometimes spurring inventiveness — most often (read Dostoyevsky's letters) a wearing attrition.
The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments. Isaac Babel, the years of imprisonment, what took place in him with what wanted to be written? Or in Oscar Wilde, who was not permitted even a pencil until the last months of his imprisonment?
Other silences. The truly memorable poem, story, or book, then the writer ceasing to be published. Was one work all the writers had in them (life too thin for pressure of material, renewal) and the respect for literature too great to repeat themselves? Was it "the knife of the perfectionist attitude in art and life" at their throat? Were the conditions not present for establishing the habits of creativity (a young Colette who lacked a Willy to lock her in her room each day)? or — as instanced over and over — other claims, other responsibilities so writing could not be first? (The writer of a class, sex, color still marginal in literature, and whose coming to written voice at all against complex odds is exhausting achievement.) It is an eloquent commentary that this one-book silence has been true of most black writers; only eleven in the hundred years since 1850 have published novels more than twice.
There is a prevalent silence I pass by quickly, the absence of creativity where it once had been; the ceasing to create literature, though the books may keep coming out year after year. That suicide of the creative process Hemingway describes so accurately in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro":
He had destroyed his talent himself — by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, by snobbery, by hook and by crook; selling vitality, trading it for security, for comfort.
No, not Scott Fitzgerald. His not a death of creativity, not silence, but what happens when (his words) there is "the sacrifice of talent, in pieces, to preserve its essential value."
Almost unnoted are the foreground silences, before the achievement. (Remember when Emerson hailed Whitman's genius, he guessed correctly: "which yet must have had a long foreground for such a start.") George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A.E. Coppard, Angus Wilson, Joyce Cary — all close to, or in their forties before they became published writers; Lampedusa, Maria Dermout (The Ten Thousand Things), Laura Ingalls Wilder, the "children's writer," in their sixties. Their capacities evident early in the "being one on whom nothing is lost"; in other writers' qualities. Not all struggling and anguished, like Anderson, the foreground years; some needing the immobilization of long illness or loss, or the sudden lifting of responsibility to make writing necessary, make writing possible; others waiting circumstances and encouragement (George Eliot, her Henry Lewes; Laura Wilder, a writer-daughter's insistence that she transmute her storytelling gift onto paper).
Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these, the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity. Traces of their making, of course, in folk song, lullaby, tales, language itself, jokes, maxims, superstitions — but we know nothing of the creators or how it was with them. In the fantasy of Shakespeare born in deepest Africa (as at least one Shakespeare must have been), was the ritual, the oral storytelling a fulfillment? Or was there restlessness, indefinable yearning, a sense of restriction? Was it as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own guesses — about women?
Genius of a sort must have existed among them, as it existed among the working classes, but certainly it never got itself onto paper. When, however, one reads of a woman possessed by the devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even a remarkable man who had a remarkable mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, or some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor, crazed with the torture her gift had put her to.
Rebecca Harding Davis whose work sleeps in the forgotten (herself as a woman of a century ago so close to remaining mute), also guessed about the silent in that time of the twelve-hour-a-day, six-day work week. She writes of the illiterate ironworker in Life in the Iron Mills who sculptured great shapes in the slag: "his fierce thirst for beauty, to know it, to create it, to be something other than he is — a passion of pain"; Margret Howth in the textile mill:
There were things in the world, that like herself, were marred, did not understand, were hungry to know. ... Her eyes quicker to see than ours, delicate or grand lines in the homeliest things. ... Everything she saw or touched, nearer, more human than to you or me. These sights and sounds did not come to her common; she never got used to living as other people do.
She never got used to living as other people do. Was that one of the ways it was?
So some of the silences, incomplete listing of the incomplete, where the need and capacity to create were of a high order.
Now, what is the work of creation and the circumstances it demands for full functioning — as told in the journals, letters, notes, of the practitioners themselves: Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, André Gide, Virginia Woolf; the letters of Flaubert, Rilke, Joseph Conrad; Thomas Wolfe's Story of a Novel, Valéry's Course in Poetics. What do they explain of the silences?
"Constant toil is the law of art, as it is of life," says (and demonstrated) Balzac:
To pass from conception to execution, to produce, to bring the idea to birth, to raise the child laboriously from infancy, to put it nightly to sleep surfeited, to kiss it in the mornings with the hungry heart of a mother, to clean it, to clothe it fifty times over in new garments which it tears and casts away, and yet not revolt against the trials of this agitated life — this unwearying maternal love, this habit of creation — this is execution and its toils.
"Without duties, almost without external communication," Rilke specifies, "unconfined solitude which takes every day like a life, a spaciousness which puts no limit to vision and in the midst of which infinities surround."
Unconfined solitude as Joseph Conrad experienced it:
For twenty months I wrestled with the Lord for my creation ... mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day ... a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me and talked connectedly on suitable occasions, but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life, made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.
So there is a homely underpinning for it all, the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless.
"The terrible law of the artist" — says Henry James — "the law of fructification, of fertilization. The old, old lesson of the art of meditation. To woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation."
"That load, that weight, that gnawing conscience," writes Thomas Mann —
That sea which to drink up, that frightful task ... The will, the discipline and self-control to shape a sentence or follow out a hard train of thought. From the first rhythmical urge of the inward creative force towards the material, towards casting in shape and form, from that to the thought, the image, the word, the line, what a struggle, what Gethsemane.
Does it become very clear what Melville's Pierre so bitterly remarked on, and what literary history bears out — why most of the great works of humanity have come from lives (able to be) wholly surrendered and dedicated? How else sustain the constant toil, the frightful task, the terrible law, the continuity? Full self: this means full time as and when needed for the work. (That time for which Emily Dickinson withdrew from the world.)
But what if there is not that fullness of time, let alone totality of self? What if the writers, as in some of these silences, must work regularly at something besides their own work — as do nearly all in the arts in the United States today.
I know the theory (kin to "starving in the garret makes great art") that it is this very circumstance which feeds creativity. I know, too, that for the beginning young, for some who have such need, the job can be valuable access to life they would not otherwise know. A few (I think of the doctors, the incomparables: Chekhov and William Carlos Williams) for special reasons sometimes manage both. But the actuality testifies: substantial creative work demands time, and with rare exceptions only full-time workers have achieved it. Where the claims of creation cannot be primary, the results are atrophy; unfinished work; minor effort and accomplishment; silences. (Desperation which accounts for the mountains of applications to the foundations for grants — undivided time — in the strange bread-line system we have worked out for our artists.)
Twenty years went by on the writing of Ship of Fools, while Katherine Anne Porter, who needed only two, was "trying to get to that table, to that typewriter, away from my jobs of teaching and trooping this country and of keeping house." "Your subconscious needed that time to grow the layers of pearl," she was told. Perhaps, perhaps, but I doubt it. Subterranean forces can make you wait, but they are very finicky about the kind of waiting it has to be. Before
they will feed the creator back, they must be fed, passionately fed, what needs to be worked on. "We hold up our desire as one places a magnet over a composite dust from which the particle of iron will suddenly jump up," says Paul Valéry. A receptive waiting, that means, not demands which prevent "an undistracted center of being." And when the response comes, availability to work must be immediate. If not used at once, all may vanish as a dream; worse, future creation be endangered — for only the removal and development of the material frees the forces for further work.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Silences"
Copyright © 1978 Tillie Olsen.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: The Lessons Silences Has Taught Us by Shelley Fisher Fishkin,
Silences in Literature—1962,
One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century—1971,
Rebecca Harding Davis—1971, 1972,
PART TWO—Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions,
Silences in Literature—II,
Silences of the Great in Achievement,
The Work of Creation and the Circumstances It Demands for Full Functioning,
Subterranean Forces—And the Work of Creation in Circumstances Enabling Full Function,
When the Claims of Creation Cannot Be Primary,
The Literary Situation (1976),
The Writer-Woman: One Out of Twelve—II,
Blight—Its Earliest Expression,
A Sense of Wrong Voiced,
One Out of Twelve—The Figures,
The Baby; the Girl-Child; the Girl; the Young Writer-Woman,
The Damnation of Women,
The Angel in the House,
Freeing the Essential Angel,
Wives, Mothers, Enablers,
Blight. The Hidden Silencer—Breakdown,
Hidden Blight—Professional Circumstances,
Hidden Blight—Some Effects of Having to Counter and Encounter Harmful Treatment and Circumstances,
Other Obstacles, Balks, Encumbrances in Coming to One's Own Voice, Vision, Circumference,
PART THREE Creativity; Potentiality. First Generation,
Excerpts from Life in the Iron Mills,
Excerpts from My Heart Laid Bare,
Tillie Olsen's Reading Lists,
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Artists and whoever loves the arts, beware: This book may break your heart.
This should be read by every aspiring writer who happens to be a woman.