Tillie Olsen: A Heart in Action. Directed by Ann Hershey. New York: Women Make Movies, 2007.

Reviewed by Sonali Perera

“Reader, it was not to have ended here,” reads the postscript to Yonnondio, Tillie Olsen’s classic working-class novel from the 1930s.1 We cannot help but register “here” as a deixis, marking the place of a provisional ending (to her book), but also pointing to “here,” as in “this place,” “this time”— the brief decade of 1930s U.S. radicalism. Filmmaker Ann Hershey’s Tillie Olsen: A Heart in Action, her homage to writer, labor organizer, feminist activist, and teacher Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) is uncannily timely considering the current economic conjuncture: the biggest global trade and currency crisis since the 1929 stock market crash. Even as the specter of the 1930s and “depression economics” casts a long shadow, Hershey’s film recalls us to the hope and resilience of the decade’s working-class movement.2

In fact, Olsen’s life and work bridges the seeming disconnect between two discrete but sometimes intersecting moments in the political culture of the U.S. left—the moment of proletarian literature and the (largely masculinist) working-class writing of the 1930s, and the feminist movement of the 1970s. In Hershey’s A Heart in Action the viewer sees this articulation illuminated in the chronology and process of Olsen’s writing. As we learn, only the first chapter of Yonnondio (which will come to be recognized as the hallmark text of the1930s) can be published in 1934. The remaining parts must await the push of feminist “recovery” projects of the 1970s. Decades of hard work, paid and unpaid, in the home and outside, transpire in the interim. In Olsen’s writing, delay, deferral, time lag, and interruption are not just neat postmodern stylistic devices: they are the conditions and constraints that produce the working-class writer. And yet, the incredible artist in Olsen manages to wrest a vision of politics and aesthetics from the periodic breaks opened up in the working-class writer’s working day.

Hershey’s biography documents the itinerary of such breaks and resumptions, telling the story of Olsen’s dreams deferred and hard-won gains. Through interviews with family, documentary stills, and snippets of testimony from fellow labor activists and cultural workers—Nellie Wong and Wanda Coleman, for example—we form a picture of Tillie Olsen’s life, including her involvement in the YCL (Young Communist League), her arrest during the 1934 San Francisco general strike, and her later years as a wife, mother, and grandmother who remained ardently active in community-based organizing; as well as of contemporary antiwar and counterglobalist struggles.

A Heart in Action is, without a doubt, a gift to educators who are invested in trying to train students to develop a historical and political imagination. It restores Olsen to the thirties milieu that formed her political sensibilities while simultaneously insisting upon her currency for ongoing projects of cultural studies and feminist activism within the present. Educators interested in using Hershey’s film might place it in conversation with works of feminist theory and cultural studies, including Constance Coiner’s Better Red, Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor & Desire, Barbara Foley’s Radical Representations, and Michael Denning’s Culture in the Age of Three Worlds.3

1 Tillie Olsen, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

2 Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (New York: Norton, 2009).

3 Constance Coiner, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Paula Rabinowitz, Labor & Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993); Michael Denning, Culture in the Age of Three World (London, Verso, 2004).

Sonali Perera is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University. She is currently completing final revisions to her forthcoming book, All That is Present and Moving: Working-Class Writing in the Age of Globalization. She pays homage to Tillie Olsen in her article, “Rethinking Working-Class Literature: Feminism, Globalization, and Socialist Ethics,” Differences 19, no. 1 (2008): 1-31.