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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, June 27, 2016

A classic feminist manifesto and literary landmark

Tillie Olsen's 1952 (?) story I Stand Here Ironing is a classic feminist story manifesto and literary landmark  (in 100 years of the best american short stories Ed. Lorrie Moore), truly one of the first to give voice and recognition to a working-class american woman and her struggle not only to survive but to raise her children in a smart way and toward fulfillment in a world geared toward a two parent family and toward success and power for men almost exclusively. Part of the greatness of Olsen's story is its economy - the entire story an interior monologue by a mother as she irons clothing, miming the back and forth rhythm of her ironing motions in the oscillation o f her thinking. A note from a teacher ignites the thoughts : the daughter has a special intelligence and the teacher would like to help. The narrator (unnamed) then reflects back on the girl's life and her struggle to raise her child (& 4 others) while working menial jobs (slinging hash in one phrase) and entrusting her at various times to barely adequate child care, watching the beautiful child lose her beauty and self-confidence, then in rough teen years emerging with, showing surprising skills on stage. How much did the mother help? What more could she have done? How could she have done better?  It's not about mothering or parenthood however but about a system of life and culture that is full of obstacles and low expectations for girls, for women. Nobody was writing about femism in this way at that time. The story today does thankfully feel a bit antiquated - but our culture is still as class-bound and unequal as in the 50s,smoke battles won and others on-going. Olsen gave voice to the unheard millions of her day, and her story has been since then a million times imitated. One other striking fact about this story: it was published in a small west coast magazine now long gone I believe. Why not in the New Yorker or the partisan review or some other high- end mag? Why couldn't mainstream editors see the originality and importance of this piece? I think we all can answer that - but props to the editor of best american short stories back in the 1950s who picked this up from obscurity and probably made Olsen's reputation.

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