When it was first published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences sparked a revolution in the recognition of the importance of the work of women writers in the canon of Western literature and the curriculum of its studies. Olsen attacked the many sources of discrimination that led to women writers representing “one out of twelve” works of mainstream fiction being published in the U.S. during the first three-fourths of the 20th century.
Included as an appendix to book are a set of four reading lists that Olsen published between 1972 and 1974 in Women’s Studies Newsletter, a publication of the Feminist Press. As described in Silences, “The lists represented the fruit of Olsen’s extensive reading and research in public libraries, where she discovered writing by women and working-class authors often out of print and not included in the literature curricula of the day. Olsen’s lists proved influential for the development both of women’s studies and of women’s publishing.”
One measure of this influence is the number of titles on her lists that have subsequently been reissued, often with extensive introductions, commentaries or annotations. Here, for example, are the novels recommended on her first list:
- The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner
- Middlemarch, by George Eliot
- The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
- The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- Cement, by F. Gladkov
- Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley
- The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
- The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow
- Ultima Thule (The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney), by H. H. Richardson
- The Time of Man, by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
- Put Off Thy Shoes, by Ethel Voynich
Over half of these titles were out of print when the list was first published. Now, the only one still out of print is Ethel Voynich’s Put Off Thy Shoes (1945), a historical novel set in late 18th century England featuring a strong heroine.
Particularly impressive is the number of books likely always to be considered minor, even if with the label “minor classic” or “minor masterpiece” (an oxymoron?), that have been much more widely recognized since the publication of Silences and are now in print and easily available. Examples include Katharine Butler Hathaway’s memoir, The Little Locksmith; Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses; Barbara Probst Solomon’s pioneering novel about abortion, The Beat of Life; Growing Pains, Emily Carr’s memoir of struggling to progress as an artist against the workload of daily life; and Jo Sinclair’s novel The Changelings, an early novel of adolescent girls fighting to overcome racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism.
Still, a few titles off Olsen’s lists remain out of print and under-appreciated:
- • From Man to Man, by Olive Schreiner (1926)
- Schreiner considered this novel of two sisters raised on a remote African farm her finest work, though it was unfinished at the time of her death in 1924 and only published posthumously. It was reissued some years ago as a Virago Modern Classic but is out of print once again.
- • Through Dooms of Love, by Maxine Kumin (1965)
- In this first novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, a radicalized college student fights with her father, a pawnbroker she calls the “Merchant of Venice.” The story follows the two through the subsequent weekend, culminating in their coming together again in the father’s hospital room.
- • Southbound, by Barbara Tunnell Anderson (1949)
- A novel about the struggles of the child of a white man and black woman to find opportunities and support for her own growth as an individual and artist. In her review of the book for Saturday Review, Catherine Meredith Brown wrote, “With sensitivity, observation, and embracing understanding, Southbound serves the cause of man’s humanity, and serves it well.”
- • Under Gemini, by Isabel Bolton (1966)
- Back in 2011, I wrote this post about this delicate and heart-breaking memoir by Isabel Bolton of her early childhood and the loss of her identical twin sister in a swimming accident.
- • Grandmother Brown’s Hundred Years, 1827-1927, by Harriet Connor Brown (1929)
- Harriet Connor Brown won the Atlantic Monthly prize for this story of her mother-in-law, who, with her husband, established a homestead in Ft. Madison, Iowa, and raised a family of seven children. Her story is told with recollections, letters, newspaper items, and provides one of the most vivid and personal accounts of life during the settlement and domestication of the Midwest.
- • The Hill is Level, by Lenore Marshall (1959)
- One of the first women to hold a place of influence in an American publishing house, Lenore Marshall helped get Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury published, and was an active campaigner against racism and nuclear weapons. The Saturday Review review of Marshall’s first novel opened with the question, “What would happen if a woman like Anna Karenina decided to stay with her husband and children rather than run off with a lover?”
- • Nerves: A Novel, by Blanche Boyd (1973)
- One of the first novels with an open lesbian romance to be published by a mainstream fiction house.
- • A New England Girlhood, Nancy Hale (1958)
- Hale, whose 1942 novel, The Prodigal Women, was one of the most successful works of serious fiction by a woman to follow Gone with the Wind, was the daughter of two painters with a Bostonian pedigree tracing back to the original Colonists. This memoir is both a fond and skeptical view of growing up in a Brahmin family.
- • Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West (1973)
- Subtitled “A Continuing Journey,” Hide and Seek is a collection of memories and meditations that come to West as she spends a few weeks camped out beside the Colorado River in a trailer (“Alone, alone! For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino”).