Panthea Reid’s Personal Statement
As a child, I lived in Owensboro, Kentucky, spending most of my days with my father and his family among the fruit trees on the Reid farm just outside of town. After my parents and I left Kentucky for Alabama, my imagination transformed the Reid orchards into a lost, idyllic place.
I received my B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Alabama, my Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I taught English at Virginia Tech, wrote literary criticism under the name “Panthea Reid Broughton,” and wished I could invent plots for stories.
In 1974, when my book on Faulkner appeared from LSU Press, I left Virginia Tech for LSU. Studying the impact of the visual on the verbal arts, I wrote on cubism and Faulkner and began a study of the influence of art critic Roger Fry on Virginia Woolf. Soon I discovered that the story of their relationship called for a biography of Woolf and her relationship with Bloomsbury artists, especially Fry and her sister Vanessa Bell. Since biography prohibits invented plots and requires skills at research and writing, I belatedly realized that writing biography was my métier, as fitted for me as was my maiden name, which I reassumed.
About the time I finished Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf, I was teaching Tillie Olsen’s novella, “Tell Me a Riddle,” which deeply moved my students and me. Olsen’s collection Tell Me a Riddle demonstrates that stories about ordinary people, especially mothers, can be more momentous than tales of violence and conquest. Her Silences helped instigate women’s studies programs, reclaim forgotten women writers, and give voice to formerly silenced women and minorities. Yet, despite such accomplishments, I could find little about Olsen herself, except for snippets of information that idealized her as a feminist hero but offered few concrete details.
My biographical instincts became autobiographical as I turned again to Faulkner and realized that, in his early years, he seems to have appropriated and romanticized my own father’s WWI wound. For my father, there was nothing romantic about being shot in the head in the Argonne Forest, as I explain in a memoir about him and Faulkner I wrote for the Virginia Quarterly’s fall 1998 issue (eighty years after the armistice).
That foray into autobiography, with its reflections on fact and fiction, truth and memory, spurred my impulse to write another biography. I thought it would be fun to write about a living writer, preferably a woman, preferably an American. Tillie Olsen was an ideal candidate. She had written a few powerful stories, was a feminist icon, and seemed a marvelous old woman. Furthermore, with so little known about her, she posed a challenge to the detective in me. She welcomed my attention, and I began traveling to California, visiting her in San Francisco and studying her papers at Stanford. Our relationship began on affectionate terms. In DoubleTake Magazine’s spring 2000 issue, I published “Tillie Olsen: Utterances on the Side of life.” Partly because she insisted on editing my article herself, it came off as hagiography, an idealization of her. I soon discovered that, though she was marvelous, she was also devious. Though fully aware that I had grounded my Woolf biography on facts, she tried to guard her image against the facts I was discovering, an unexpected consequence of writing about a living author. Our relationship continued as a testy hide-and-seek game in which she tried to control, while I tried to uncover, evidence. Tillie Olsen died as 2007 began, just before turning ninety-five. For nearly three more years, I continued digging up details she had tried to bury, finding the documents that established facts, piecing together information, and finally distilling it all into a complex whole, which was, after all, fun to write.
I believe that we understand ourselves and others best through inquiring into the facts, not through romanticizing even our heroes. Shaping all I could find about Tillie Olsen into a narrative that encompasses much of twentieth-century American history, I have made Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles as close to the truth as I can manage.