Charles Olson’s life and work — a chronology

by Peter Grant

Written for this site to supplement chronologies in George F. Butterick's A Guide to The Maximus Poems and Ralph Maud's Charles Olson Selected Letters. Olson’s published works currently in print are listed in the bibliography. First editions, including works published in Butterick's and Maud's scholarly journals and anthologies, are identified here.

Part 1 (of 3)


December 27: Charles John Olson is born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the only surviving child of Mary Theresa Hines, born July 2, 1872 in Worcester of Irish parents, and Karl Joseph Olson, born 1882 in Ôrebro, Sweden.


The Olson family spends the first of many summers in Gloucester, Mass. Beginning about 1923, they rent Oceanwood, a cottage in Barretts Camp, near Stage Fort Park, Gloucester.

Karl, a letter carrier, visits summer week-ends and on his annual two-week holiday.


Charles attends Abbott Street Grammar School, Worcester.


Olson attends Classical High School, Worcester; he graduates an honor student, president of his class, captain of debating; publishes an essay, The Blessèd Spirit, in the school yearbook.


Summer: Olson works at Gorton-Pew Fisheries processing plant in Gloucester.


Olson wins the New England region oratory competition and gains third place in the national contest in Washington, D.C.; the prize is a ten-week tour of Europe. (He publishes reports of his travels in the Worcester Telegram-Gazette; facsimile newspaper clippings are in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #44; his letters home are in #33.)


Olson enters Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, majoring in English. He acts in plays and is a stalwart in the debating society; is an editorial writer for the school newspaper; goalie on the soccer team; candidate for a Rhodes scholarship in his senior year.


Olson returns to Gloucester summers; performs with the Gloucester School of the Little Theatre (1929) and the Moorland Players (1932); works (briefly) in construction at a reservoir (1930) and as a substitute letter carrier (1931-34).


Olsons first-published literary work: “The Fish Weir,” a drama, in The Wesleyan Cardinal (reprinted in Minutes #34).


June: Olson takes B.A. at Wesleyan, an honor student (Phi Beta Kappa).

Fall: Begins graduate studies at Wesleyan, including a course in American literature at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.


Olson receives his M.A. at Wesleyan under the direction of English professor Wilbert Snow; his thesis is The Growth of Herman Melville, Prose Writer and Poetic Thinker.”

He contacts Melvilles granddaughters, one of whom gives him the author’s marked-up copies of Shakespeare’s plays and other books from Melville’s library; supported by research funds from Wesleyan.

He rooms with John Finch in Cambridge, Mass.


Olson secures an Olin Fellowship in Economics to continue the work of reconstructing Melville’s library.

Fall: Begins teaching English as an instructor at Clark University, Worcester.

He gives a lecture on Melvilles library in Pittsfield, Mass.


August 31: Olson’s father dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, age 53, in Worcester. Mary, his widow, moves to Gloucester, living thereafter in Oceanwood summers and during the winter months in a boarding house or with friends in Worcester. Charles usually stays with her when in Gloucester.

He is re-appointed to teach another year at Clark University.

November: He speaks at an anti-war rally at Clark.


July: Olson works aboard the schooner Doris M. Hawes, swordfishing for three weeks on Browns Bank (his journal published in OLSON #7).

August: Meets writer Edward Dahlberg, 36, in Gloucester. Their mercurial 20-year correspondence is collected in In Love, In Sorrow (1990).

September: Enters Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. as a graduate student in English and teaching assistant to William Ellery Sedgwick.

December: In New York City, Dahlberg introduces Olson to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.


March: Olson publishes a book review in the New England Quarterly, his first post-collegiate published work, and the first of several for the periodical.

Summer: He finishes a paper (overdue) on Melville and Shakespeare for F. O. Matthiessen.

September: Returns to Harvard enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in the multidisciplinary American Civilization program and employed as a tutor in John Winthrop House; takes the Westward Movement course from history professor Frederick Merk.

November: Dahlberg introduces him to Dorothy Norman, who is launching a new magazine, Twice A Year; Olsons essay Lear and Moby-Dick appears in the first issue the following October (reprinted in Collected Prose).


July: Olson’s first trip west, hitch-hiking from Kansas City to Seattle and San Francisco; he returns by bus.

Fall: Continues Ph.D. studies at Harvard, working as a counselor in American Civilization.

He leaves Winthrop House for a time to take a room on Charles Street, Boston.


March: Olson is awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for studies in Melville; beginning this fall in Gloucester, he works up a 400-page manuscript on Melville (one chapter published 1976 as In Adullam’s Lair).

Spring: Olson completes the course work for a Ph.D. in American Civilization. He does not submit a dissertation.

October: He submits the essay “Dostoevsky and The Possessed” to Dorothy Norman as a “testament to my own faith” (published in Twice A Year #5/6, 1940).


February: In Gloucester, Olson writes his first poems (those that begin the Collected Poems); then to New York on an extended visit.

April: Olson secures a walk-on part in Bacchanale with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in Boston.

May: In Gloucester, he meets two people of future significance: the artist Corrado Cagli and Constance Wilcock.

October: Olson moves into a cold-water flat at 86 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village; to April 1941.


Olson writes the poem “Tomorrow” (first published in Collected Poems) — “I am Gilgamesh / an Ur world is in me / to inhabit” — beginning his voicing of an archaic sensibility (see “Charles Olsons Archaic Postmodern” on this site).

May: Olson is employed for two months by the American Civil Liberties Union as publicity director.

September: Charles and Connie begin living together common-law.

November: He begins work as chief of the Foreign Language Information Service, Common Council for American Unity, New York; to September 1942.


September: Olson begins working for the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington; becomes Associate Chief, Foreign Language Division.

Meets Ruth Benedict, Adam Kulikowski, Ben Shahn and others. 


Charles and Connie rent an apartment at 217 Randolph Place N.E., Washington, D.C., and maintain it until 1954.

In collaboration with the artist Ben Shahn, Olson produces a 24-page pamphlet, “Spanish Speaking Americans in the War: the Southwest” — his only publication for the U.S. government.


May: resigns from OWI, ostensibly to protest the censorship of war news.

July: Olson works for the Democratic National Committee, first at the national convention in Chicago, then on the Everybody for Roosevelt election rally in Madison Square Garden, finally at the partys winter headquarters in Key West, Florida; to December.


January: Olson decides on a career as a writer; the poem The K celebrates the decision to abandon politics.

April: Charles and Connie return from Florida to Washington, D.C.

April 13: He starts Call Me Ishmael, writing the prologue last, in August, on a boat from Nantucket.

Summer: At Adam Kulikowski’s estate near Charlottesville, Virginia, he writes “Enniscorthy Suite.”

November: Olson finishes This is Yeats Speaking; published in Partisan Review (Winter 1946).

(Olson’s notebooks for this year are transcribed in Minutes #23/24.)


January 4: Olson is the first American poet to visit Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C. He visits Pound, indicted for treason but judged insane, twenty-four times. Pound introduces Olson to Caresse Crosby and New Directions publisher James Laughlin. (Olson’s writings about Pound are collected in Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St Elizabeths, 1975.)

Olson’s first-published poems: “A Lion upon the Floor” (January) and “For K” (February) in Harper’s Bazaar, “Pacific Lament” in Atlantic Monthly (March) and “Lower Field – Enniscorthy” in Harper’s (April). (All are in Collected Poems.)

March-April: With Connie in New York; Olson lobbies for Polish interests at meetings of the United Nations Security Council.

He reconnects with Cagli and writes the poem “La Préface” for the brochure of Cagli’s Chicago art show.

He signs a contract with New York publisher Reynal & Hitchcock for Call Me Ishmael and forms a lasting friendship with his editor, Monroe Engel.

June: Olson begins corresponding on Melville with Jay Leyda, compiler of The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville 1819-1891 (1951).

June 26-29: He lectures at the School of Political Action Techniques, sponsored by the National Citizens Political Action Committee, Washington.



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