Today in Literature – January 3

Posted: January 3, 2007 in Literary Passages

Literary Birthday

J.R.R. Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in South Africa.


Best known today for his book The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien was also a professor of philology (the study of the derivation of languages) at Oxford. Tolkien created his own language, Elvish, which he used in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Taking him 12 years to write, Tolkien never had much faith in the ultimate success of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, when the first book of the trilogy was published in 1954 it wasn’t a very big seller. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when American college students fell in love with it, that the books became popular. Shortly after that they became huge, drawing fans to contact the quiet, unassuming Tolkien in droves. Never a fan of the limelight, Tolkien had trouble dealing with the onslaught, considering it a nuisance.

Literary Passings

Tillie Olsen, 1913 – 2007


Tillie Olsen died two days ago, at the age of 94. Most famously, Olsen was the author of the short story “As I Stand Here Ironing.” Her only finished work of fiction, Tell Me a Riddle, is still on the curriculums of some universities today.

Olsen had articles published in The Nation and The Partisan Review, articles detailing the labor strikes and political unrest she saw and participated in. She was on the front lines, fighting injustice and spreading the message about the plight of women. An early member of the feminist movement, she spoke out against injustice when she saw it. Somewhat of a radical, she belonged to the American Communist Party for a short time. Tillie Olsen was an American writer and political activist who worked for what she believed in at a time when it was considered very unfeminine for a woman to speak out at all.

One of her main concerns was working-class women, especially those with aspirations toward the arts. Like Virginia Woolf before her, Olsen felt empathy for the plight of women so caught up in maintaining hearth and home they had no time for themselves, much less time for creative expression. She famously noted that the women who, through the generations, were able to become famous writers either had no children or had housekeepers raising her children. Despite all her hard work, her brief flirtation with communism unfortunately put a taint on her reputation. Some critics were unable to forgive her short association with the communists, unwilling or unable to separate Olsen the radical from Olsen the social reformer.

Tillie Olsen’s death may not immediately set off a shock wave in the literary world, just as her own life didn’t create any huge ripples, but it does resonate. It helps us remember the road we’re on today was paved by hundreds of Tillie Olsens who came before us, fighting battles against prejudice and social injustice in the name of future generations of humanity. We all reap the rewards for her victories, and continue to fight the good fight against the same threats to the weak.

The world could use a lot more Tillie Olsens. She will be missed.


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