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Grace Paley

Grace Paley

The American writer Grace Paley (born 1922) is best known for her three collections of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985). As long as she has been a writer, Paley has also been an activist, supporting various anti-war, anti-nuclear, and feminist movements. In her writing, however, she does not push a political agenda and prefers instead to chronicle the everyday lives of men and women.

Studied Poetry First

Born in the Bronx, New York, Paley was the youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She grew up in a socialist, intellectual household amid a babble of three languages—Yiddish, Russian, and English. As a writer of fiction, Paley would pick up on the music of all three tongues, celebrating their rhythms and idioms.

From an early age, she wrote poetry, and at age 17 she took a course with the British poet W. H. Auden. "When I wrote poetry I was very keenly aware of being influenced," Paley told the online literary magazine Salon. "When I was young, I wrote a lot like Auden. It's kind of comical, because after all, I didn't have a British accent. … I had no sense of my own language yet."

As a student Paley attended Hunter College and New York University. She married early, in 1942, and settled with her husband in Greenwich Village, where they raised two children (the marriage would eventually end in divorce). In this community of artists, intellectuals, and bohemians, Paley became involved in leftist politics. She frequented anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and she became engaged in local issues (opposing, for example, the city's proposed plan to build a road through Washington Square).

Wrote First Short Stories

As a young mother in the mid-1950s, Paley made her initial forays into writing fiction. The urge to tell stories had begun to grow in her, but the responsibilities of motherhood called. Falling ill one day, she arranged for her children to attend an after-school program while she convalesced. Paley was not too ill to sit at a typewriter, however, and the extra hours of quiet and solitude were all she needed to begin writing fiction. Thus was born her first short story, "Goodbye and Good Luck."

Paley then wrote two more stories, "The Contest" and "A Woman, Young and Old." She submitted them to editors, but like most beginning writers without connections in the field, she often received them back with form rejection slips. She did eventually publish her first three stories in little-known journals.

These stories would eventually launch Paley's career. In "Two Ears, Three Lucks," an introductory essay that begins her Collected Stories (1994), she describes her big break: the ex-husband of a friend offered to read her work. A couple of weeks later, Paley recalled, "He asked if I could write seven more stories like the three he'd read. He said he'd publish the book. Doubleday would publish them. He was Ken McCormick, an editor who could say that and it would happen."

And happen it did. Doubleday published Paley's first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, in 1959. The ten quirky tales, most of them in the first-person voices of women, garnered rave reviews. The New York Times called her "a newcomer possessed of an all-too-infrequent literary virtue," but the stories did not attract a mass audience. Rather, they appealed to a narrow literary readership, gaining a kind of cult following. The book remained in print until 1965, but its reputation survived. Meanwhile, Paley continued to publish new stories in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and other reputable magazines. Her readership continued to grow.

Paley's stories explored the everyday lives of her contemporaries, focusing most attentively on the lives of women. The dreams and goals of her female characters— independent, strong-minded, and often idealistic— propelled these narratives forward. She was perhaps the first writer to explore, with gritty realism, the lives and experiences of divorced mothers. Some critics point to her early stories as the beginnings of a feminist literature, written years before the women's movement of the 1970s.

If feminism entered Paley's stories, it did so only indirectly. She strove to capture in her fiction not political discourse but the rhythms of daily life. The spoken word and the power of dialogue fascinated her, and she reveled in the music of her characters' voices, the inflected, lively urban vernacular that she liked to describe as "a mixture of literary and neighborhood sound."

Only three years after it had gone out of print, a reprint of Little Disturbances appeared in 1968. It was with this edition, many critics note, that Paley reached a wide enough audience to establish a place for herself in contemporary American literature.

Became an Outspoken Activist

During the 1960s and 1970s, Paley entered the spotlight not only as a writer but also as an activist. She later classified herself as a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist," a label that stuck, repeated often by writers of articles and books about Paley. Her pacifism led her to help found the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1961, and when the Vietnam War broke out, she became even more active. Vehemently opposed to the war, Paley spent time in jail for her anti-war activities. She also visited Hanoi as a member of a peace delegation.

While Paley the activist drew press coverage, Paley the writer was not forgotten. Those who had read Little Disturbances awaited another book, but it was long in coming. Her involvement with anti-war activism took time away from her writing. She later recalled to the 1997 graduating class of Williams College, "I remember I was writing stories, and a lot of stuff was coming up at the time during Vietnam, and my mind simply went away from what I was doing, and that was all there was to it. I had to wait a couple of months until I could really wander off into that space."

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, her second collection of stories, appeared 15 years after her first, in 1974. The reviews were mixed. Many critics said her new book did not have the dazzling power of her debut collection, and some suggested that Paley's activist involvement had somehow marred her literary pursuits.

"It was ridiculous," Paley told the New York Times a few years later. "I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I'm not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life."

Meanwhile, Paley continued pursuing her activist passions. In the late 1970s she turned her attention to the anti-nuclear movement. Participating in a protest on the White House lawn in February 1979, she carried a banner that read "No Nuclear Weapons—No Nuclear Power—U.S. or U.S.S.R" and distributed leaflets with a similar message. She and two other writers were arrested and fined.

When she was not writing or protesting, Paley was teaching. Like most authors, she needed a source of income to supplement earnings from the occasional publication. Though her original motivation to teach was financial, Paley grew to enjoy the work and even to gain inspiration from it.

As a teacher of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, a women's college in Bronxville, New York, Paley encouraged her students to develop their own particular voices, culled from both family life and literary tradition. "What I'm trying to do," she told the New York Times in 1978, "is to remind students they have two ears. One is the ear that listens to their ordinary life, their family and the street they live on, and the other is the tradition of English literature."

Published Third Short Story Collection

The 1980s brought accolades for Paley, who was elected to the Academy of American Arts and Letters (1980) and was named New York's first state author (1986-88). It also brought the publication of her third collection of stories, Later the Same Day (1985). Critics received the new book with respectful, enthusiastic appraisals. "It's been worth the wait," said a New York Times reviewer, who called it "another collection of remarkable stories."

Many readers mused that Faith, a character who recurred in several stories in Paley's collections, must be an autobiographical rendering of the author. Like Paley, Faith had two children and eventually went through a divorce. But Paley claimed the similarities between her life and her character's ended there. "[I]t's as if [Faith] were one of my friends," she told Andrea Stephens of the New York Times. "I didn't bring up my kids alone; I married a second time. I was always interested in the lives of women and in the idea of a woman alone bringing up two boys." (Paley, unlike Faith, had one son and one daughter.)

The 1990s was an unusually prolific decade for Paley, who had previously published so rarely. Long Walks and Intimate Talks, a compilation of fiction and poetry, came out in 1991. This book, with illustrations by the artist Vera B. Williams, did not attract as much attention as the three previous collections, but it did gain some praise in critical circles. New and Collected Poems came out the following year to mixed reviews. Comparing Paley's poetry to her prose, most critics seemed to prefer the latter.

It was as a fiction writer, and not as a poet, that Paley would be most remembered. Indeed, she had already secured a place for herself in the canon of American fiction, and her works graced the syllabuses of many contemporary American Literature courses. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, women's studies and "political correctness" were hot topics on college campuses, and many professors included Paley among examples of women writers or Jewish American writers. Some readers felt such categorization was too limiting or pigeon-holing. Paley, on the other hand, did not mind. "I feel that everything I am enhances the word 'writer,"' she told the Berkshire Eagle. "It doesn't modify it. I feel being Jewish has been very important to my writing, being a woman has been extremely important to my writing—all those things that I am have made me what I am and what I write about and how I write. … But I think they should start calling them 'male writers.' That would solve the whole problem. Nobody would feel bad, except the men."

In a career milestone, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published The Collected Stories (1994), which included all of the short stories from Paley's first three books. For younger readers unfamiliar with Paley's early work, the book provided a chance to see her fiction in a broader context. The poet Robert Pinksy, reviewing the collection in the New York Times, called the stories "delicious." When Collected Stories came out, the 71-year-old writer had finished teaching regularly, although she gave lectures and led workshops on occasion. Living in Vermont with her second husband, the writer Robert Nichols, Paley continued writing, though she would never produce the novel that many of her fans expected. ("I tried," she told Laurel Graeber of the New York Times. "It didn't come out so good. So why should I?")

It was the short story that Paley had mastered as an art form, and devoted readers hope for more tales of Faith and other characters in the coming years. Late in her life, she remains one of America's most esteemed authors.


Paley, Grace, The Collected Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.


Berkshire Eagle, June 19, 1997.

New York Times, April 19, 1959; April 30, 1978; April 14, 1985; April 24, 1994.


"Featured Author: Grace Paley,", (October 30, 2001).

"Grace Paley," (October 29, 2001).

"Grace Paley: New York State Author, 1986-1988," (October 30, 2001).

"Writing with Both Ears," Salon, (October 29, 2001). □

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Paley, Grace

PALEY, Grace

Nationality: American. Born: Grace Goodside in New York City, 11 December 1922. Education: Evander Childs High School, New York; Hunter College, New York, 1938-39. Family: Married 1) Jess Paley in 1942, one daughter and one son; 2) the playwright Robert Nichols in 1972. Career: Has taught at Columbia University, New York, and Syracuse University, New York. Since 1966 has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, and since 1983 at City College, New York. New York State Author, 1986-88. Awards: Guggenheim grant, 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; American Academy award, 1970; Edith Wharton award, 1988, 1989; Rea Award for short story, 1993; Vermont Governor's award for Excellence in the Arts, 1993; award for contribution to Jewish culture, National Foundation. Member: American Academy, 1980. Address: Box 620, Thetford Hill, Vermont 05074, U.S.A.


Short Stories

The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women in Love. New York, Doubleday, 1959; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. New York, Farrar Straus, 1974; London, Deutsch, 1975.

Later the Same Day. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, ViragoPress, 1985.

The Collected Stories. New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994.

Uncollected Short Story

"Two Ways of Telling," in Ms. (New York), November-December1990.


Leaning Forward. Penobscot, Maine, Granite Press, 1985.

New and Collected Poems. Maine, Tilbury Press, 1991.

Begin Again: Collected Poems. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.


365 Reasons Not to Have Another War. Philadelphia and New York, New Society PublicationsWar Resisters' League, 1989.

Long Walks and Intimate Talks. New York, Feminist Press, 1991.

Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and BlaineH. Hall. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.

Just As I Thought (autobiography). New York, Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 1998.


Critical Studies:

Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives by Jacqueline Taylor, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990; Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction by Neil Isaacs, Boston, Twayne, 1990.

* * *

The individuality of Grace Paley's voicewarm, comic, defensive, and without illusionsand the sophistication of her technique led to the reissue of her first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, 10 years after it first appeared. Her stories, invariably set in New York and often with a Jewish background, depend especially on her ear for dialogue. Her realism, with a concision sometimes deliberately telescoped into the absurd, admits sudden surrealistic perceptions: "A Subject of Childhood" ends as the sun comes out above a woman being comforted by her child for the desertion of her lover: "Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black and white barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes."

According to one character, who has risen above the slums of his childhood, the difficulties of a woman bringing up four children on her own in the New York slums are merely "the little disturbances of man" beside the real cataclysms of existence. All the stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute are set in these slums, but in The Little Disturbances of Man Paley ranges over the wider social strata, probing similar preoccupations of loneliness, lust, and escapism. "An Irrevocable Diameter" relates the forced marriage of Charles C. Charley to a rich teenager, less than half his age, who claimed to have seduced him. "The Pale Pink Roast" swings between farce and lyricism in a picture of a woman going to bed with her ex-husband immediately after her new marriage to a richer man.

Paley's concern in The Little Disturbances of Man with broken and shifting relationships where the women are dominant is even more important in Enormous Changes. For each of the unmarried or separated mothers, it is a question of whether her "capacity for survival has not been overwhelmed by her susceptibility to abuse." There is also a new sense of commitment in Enormous Changes, where the key story is "Faith in a Tree"; when the police break up a tiny demonstration against napalm-bombing in Vietnam, Faith's son defiantly writes up the demonstrators' slogan again. The story concludes: "And I think that is exactly when events turned me around directed by my children's heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world."

Earlier in that story, Faith says of some of her neighbors, "our four family units, as people are now called, are doomed to stand culturally still as this society moves on its caterpillar treads from ordinary affluent to absolute empire." These tenants crop up in other stories, some reappearing from The Little Disturbances of Man. "An Interest in Life" in the earlier book is retold from another character's angle as "Distance" in the later one: "There is a long time in me between knowing and telling."

The subject of "Dreamer in a Dead Language" in Later the Same Day, a father-daughter relationship is important in several stories in Enormous Changes, where in an introductory note the author states: "Everyone in this book is imagined into life except the father. No matter what story he has to live in, he's my father." Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is altogether darker in tone than The Little Disturbances of Man: the interplay of two generations is used to show the long shadow of "the cruel history of Europe" continuing to darken second-generation immigrant lives, while the "last minute" of the title refers to the nuclear threat. As the title suggests, Later the Same Day picks up these concerns where Enormous Changes at the Last Minute left off.

These later stories are set against a backcloth of the grass roots political struggle of the peace movement, although this is never intrusive in the stories but indissolubly meshed, as it must be, with the everyday concerns of semiadult and adult children, aging parents, and the sickness and death of middle-aged friends. The "day" of Later the Same Day is the dangerous contemporary moment in the life of the planet as the "poor, dense, defenseless thingrolls round and round. Living and dying are fastened to its surface and stuffed into its softer parts" and also in Paley's life as she approaches old age. A striking example of her habitual crisscrossing of perceptions is the story "Zagrowsky Tells," where the first-person narrator, an old Jew, tells Faith how his mentally handicapped daughter came to bear a black baby. Faith, the woman who continues to appear centrally in the stories, often in the first person, in this book is old enough to be "remembering babies, those round, staring, day-in day-out companions of her youth"; now, her son and his stepfather are equal companions, in "Listening." Celebrating precarious human relationships in a society, and a world, of dangerous inequalities, Grace Paley's voice is comically appalled and positive.

Val Warner

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