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," NYTimes.com,http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/19/specials/paley.html. (October 30, 2001).
"Grace Paley," http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/fiction/paley.htm (October 29, 2001).
"Grace Paley: New York State Author, 1986-1988," http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/paley.html (October 30, 2001).
"Writing with Both Ears," Salon,http://www.salon.com/11/departments/litchat1.html. (October 29, 2001). □
Daughter of Isaac and Mary Ridnyik Goodside; married Jess Paley, 1942; Robert Nichols; children: two
Reared in New York City, Grace Paley studied at Hunter College (1938-39) and New York University. Paley was active in radical, nonviolent anti-Vietnam war organizations and has taught at Columbia and Syracuse University and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Portraying the "irremediableness of modern life," Paley nevertheless writes with the ironic vision of the joy and dirty diapers that an irrepressible tomorrow will bring. Her language leaps and somersaults, linking lofty abstractions with the colloquial, as in the titles of her two collections of short stories: The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974).
Paley often uses ethnic first-person narrators who reveal the pathos or courage of their lives, often with unconscious and unsentimental hilarity. "Goodbye and Good Luck" describes the 30-year affair of the warmhearted Rose Lieber with Vlashkin, the Valentino of the Yiddish theater. Traditional Jewish sexual mores clash with Rosie's decision to "live for love" until Vlashkin's wife divorces him and the fiftyish Rosie insists on marriage. In "The Loudest Voice," a young Jewish girl happily participates in the school Christmas play while her parents argue about religious freedom and assimilation. "An Interest in Life" and "Distance" tell about Mrs. Raftery and her married son John's affair with his old girlfriend Ginny (now deserted with her four children). In the former, Ginny finally takes John as her lover to keep him around helping her raise her family, although she dreams passionately of the (unlikely) return of her husband. In "Distance," Mrs. Raftery's monologue shows how she, wild and passionate in her youth like Ginny, pushed John toward respectability and away from Ginny, only to encourage the later liaison as a way of seeing her respectable suburbanite son. In such stories, Paley achieves the goal articulated in "Debts": to tell stories "in order…to save a few lives."
In many of the stories about Faith, the plot is less important than Paley's insight into the emotional nature of women. Husbands and lovers are the transients—to be loved, tended, and mourned—but children are the comforters and inspirers. In "A Subject of Childhood," Faith's younger son comforts her after her lover leaves; her elder son's "heartfelt brains" and gesture of revolt guide Faith out of a child-infested, man-hunting playground into political activism in "Faith in a Tree."
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute epitomizes Paley's strengths and weaknesses. The author has protested in the autobiographical "A Conversation with My Father" against the well-plotted story: "because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." The aesthetic result of this theory, however, is abrupt, unlikely, and unsatisfying endings, as in "Enormous Changes." But the heart of the story is the characterization of Alexandra, a middle-aged, childless social worker caught between love for her ailing socialist-intellectual Jewish father and for Dennis, a young rock lyricist who gets her pregnant. The characters' reactions to Alexandra's pregnancy contradict their supposed credos but reveal their humanity. With a tremendous capacity for vulnerability, Paley's characters endure the glacial weight of "little disturbances," armed with love, humor, and acceptance.
Since Enormous Changes Paley continued publishing stories, as well as poetry, at her own laconic pace, still experimenting with structure. Her often-quoted protest against the well-plotted story (in "Conversations with My Father") remains the literary philosophy she follows. In Later the Same Day (1985), characters from earlier stories—most noticeably Faith—reappear, establishing a continuity that produces some of the best stories in the collection. Faith, considered to be Paley's alter ego, is now middle-aged, giving Paley the opportunity to explore all the attending issues of that period of life. Her children have grown, and she must also face the death of her mother and her own aging.
In "Friends," Faith deals with middle age and mortality through the experience of visiting a seriously ill friend, Selena: "People do want to be young and beautiful. When they meet in the street, male or female, if they're getting older they look at each other's face a little ashamed. It's clear they want to say, Excuse me, I didn't mean to draw attention to mortality and gravity all at once."
To climb out of these depths, Faith says, requires a certain amount of strength; it is possible, but difficult. Other people offer assistance, and so Paley fills her stories with new characters: Chinese tourists; the parents of kidnapped children; Cissy who is slipping into insanity and her father who gives up comfort in old age to save her; Ruthy who holds too tightly to her granddaughter Letty. Another way to climb out of the depths is global awareness, and especially, as Paley herself has consistently done, acting on that awareness. In "Listening," Faith passes out leaflets calling for the U.S. to honor the Geneva Agreements. It is common for many of the characters to be at, or on their way to, or coming from some kind of political gathering or rally. Later the Same Day is not only a continuation of Paley's stories of life from youth to middle age, but also a reaffirmation to all the reasons to go on with life.
In her afterword to Leaning Forward (1985), a book of poems, Jane Cooper reminds readers that Paley wrote nothing but poetry until the age of thirty and recommends the poems be read as preparation for the stories. Indeed, the poems clearly outline the stages of life on both a personal and global level in a journal style of free association. "Middle Age Poem," "Note to Grandparents," "Old Age Porch," "The Sad Children's Song," and "Illegal Aliens," among others, reassert Paley's interest in how the everyday problems of life mirror on a smaller scale the cataclysms of world politics. New and Collected Poems (1991) offers more of the same economic style of observational poetry with the most clearly focused works dealing with Paley's experiences in El Salvador and Hanoi.
Paley's political activism inspired Long Walks and Intimate Talks: Stories and Poems (1991), which also contains drawings by Vera Williams. In this collection, Paley moves away from her characteristic mixture of the global and the personal for works that are entirely issue-oriented: the Vietnam War draft, the nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, Mothers of the Disappeared in El Salvador, patriarchal government. The poems dealing with political problems have a sharp edge; but the stories are hardly fiction, more essays or sketches.
Living most of the time in Vermont, Paley continues her political activism. It remains as much of a career and a way of life as her writing does. In terms of publication, the 1990s were a decade of summation for Paley. Perhaps prematurely—Paley in her late 70s is an active, vital woman. The Collected Stories (1994), nominated for a National Book Award, gave critics an occasion to consider the full body of her short fiction (45 stories in total) and her place in history. Many spoke of the lasting impression her work had made on them as writers. Some, like Francine Prose, reminded readers of the stark originality of Paley's work; she was among the first to stake out as her realm what Paley refers to in her introduction as "everyday life, kitchen life, children life." And she is perhaps unique in the way her tales are animated with what Prose calls "a bracing, unsentimental, celebratory populism."
Just as I Thought (1998) is a miscellany, a memoir by collage, bringing together over 30 years of poems, articles, talks, book prefaces, reminiscences, and position papers. Together they reveal the breadth of Paley's passions and make manifest the way the roles of writer/activist have been inseparable for her. The book was criticized for being strident, for being as stubborn as its title implies; many preferred the equivocality and lightness of her stories, the way, for example, the character Faith is able to question herself and even appear foolish at times. Others such as Maxine Hong Kingston and John Leonard value her perseverance and integrity. Kingston points out that the book is, among other things, an important chronicle of the peace movement. Leonard calls Paley's work, "a cunning patchwork of radiance and scruple, witness and example, nurture and nag, subversive humor and astonishing art: a Magical Socialism and a Groucho Marxism."
Considering these volumes of poetry, fiction, and other writing, it is clear Paley has spent a career blurring boundaries between genres—poems pulled from journals, fiction with the brevity and spareness of poetry. Paley has always been impatient with interviewers who want to tie her down with these distinctions. She has said, "I mean you're either a storyteller, an inventor in language or event…or you're not." With her collected works, Paley's reputation as a storyteller has been cemented.
Paley was the 1993 winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story, and in 1997 she received the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Writer's Award.
365 Reason Not to Have Another War (1989). Conversations with Grace Paley (1997).
Arcana, J., Grace Paley's Life Stories: A Literary Biography (1993). Bach, G. and B. Hall, eds, Conversations with Grace Paley (1997). Taylor, J., Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives (1990). Wisse, R., The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971).
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1991). CA 15-28 (1977). CANR 13 (1984). CLC 4 (1975), 6 (1976), 37 (1986). CN (1991). DLB 28 (1984). FC (1990). MTCW (1991). Modern American Women Writers (1991).
Commentary (Aug. 1985). Commonweal (25 Oct. 1968, 5 May 1994). Esquire (Nov. 1970). Forward (15 April 1994). Genesis West (Fall 1963). LAT (9 July 1998). Ms. (May 1974). Nation (11 May 1974, 11 May 1998). New Criterion (Sept. 1994). NR (29 Apr. 1985, 29 June 1998). NYT (19 April 1959, 10 Apr. 1985). NYTBR (14 April 1985, 15 Aug. 1985, 22 Sept. 1991, 19 April 1992, 3 May 1994, 11 Aug. 1994, 19 Apr. 1998, 21 June 1998). PW (28 June 1991, interview, Oct. 1991). Studies in Short Fiction (Winter 1994). Progressive (1 Nov. 1997). TLS (14 Feb. 1975). VVLS (June 1985). WRB (Nov. 1991, Nov. 1998).
—HELEN J. SCHWARTZ
AND LINDA BERUBE,
UPDATED BY VALERIE VOGRIN
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.
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 Publications—War Resisters' League, 1989.
Long Walks and Intimate Talks. New York, Feminist Press, 1991.
Just As I Thought (autobiography). New York, Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 1998.*
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 voice—warm, comic, defensive, and without illusions—and 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 thing—rolls 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.
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 and landscape architect Robert Nichols in 1972. Career: Has taught at Columbia University, New York, and Syracuse University, New York; taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, and at City College, New York, 1983-86. New York State Author, 1986-88. Lives in Vermont. Awards: Guggenheim grant, 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; American Academy award, 1970; Edith Wharton award, 1988, 1989; Rea award, 1993. Member: American Academy.
The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love. 1959.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. 1974.
Later the Same Day. 1985.
The Collected Stories. n.d.
Leaning Forward. 1985.
New and Collected Poems. 1992.
365 Reasons Not to Have Another War. 1989.
Long Walks and Intimate Talks (stories and poems). 1991.
Just as I Thought. 1998.*
"Grace Paley" by Ruth Perry, in Women Writers Talking edited by Janet Todd, 1983; Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives by Jacqueline Taylor, 1990; Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction by Neil Isaacs, 1990; "Truth in Mothering: Grace Paley's Stories" by Judith Arcana, in Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities edited by Brenda Daly, 1991.* * *
Grace Paley's collected short fiction amounts to 45 stories in three volumes. Many had been published before, in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic, and a host of other periodicals. The Little Disturbances of Man, with 11 stories, appeared in 1959, followed by Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (17 stories) in 1974, and Later the Same Day (17 stories) in 1985.
From first to last, from the Aunt Rose of "Goodbye and Good Luck," the first volume's first story, to the Faith Darwin of "Listening," the last volume's close, it is talk that wells up from Paley's pages, distinctive voices raised in a spiffy demotic language spanning life's wide octaves, the whole scale from pianissimo comfort to forte vituperation. Most usually the voices are varieties of female, from young Shirley Abramowitz ("The Loudest Voice"), star of a wonderful Christmas pageant staged mostly by Jewish schoolchildren, to old, black Mrs. Grimble ("Lavinia: An Old Story"), crying out her disappointment over a bright favorite daughter too "busy and broad" with babies to ever "be a lady preacher, a nurse, something great and have a name."
Shirley's loud voice is full of hope. "I was happy," she says in closing; "I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passersby, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard." Mrs. Grimble's is a darker voice, chastened and dismayed, ending on a low note: "Then I let out a curse, Lord never heard me do in this long life. I cry out loud as my throat was made to do, Damn you Lavinia—for my heart is busted in a minute—damn you Lavinia, ain't nothing gonna come of you neither."
But talking, even hard talking, is living on, is holding free from despair, which would seem to be a fundamental Paley credo. "Tell!" says Zagrowsky ("Zagrowsky Tells"). "That opens up the congestion a little—the lungs are for breathing, not secrets." Only the very darkest story, a story featuring chosen death, centers upon a title character who at the end has nothing to say, employing the voice of a narrator who at one point has heard too much: "I said, All right, Hector. Shut up. Don't speak" ("The Little Girl").
There are occasional male voices too. Zagrowsky ("Zagrowsky Tells") is the most voluble, but there is also Charlie ("The Little Girl") and Vicente ("A Man Told Me the Story of His Life"). But there are not many males. In Paley's world mostly women are talking, men are mostly walking, and much of the talking is about the walking. "A man can't talk," says sour Mrs. Grimble, nailing male conversation and sexual performance in one deft shot—"That little minute in his mind most the time." Virginia, the proto-Faith Darwin protagonist of "An Interest in Life," goes on more gently in the same vein: "A woman counts her children and acts snotty, like she invented life, but men must do well in the world."
Faith Darwin, Paley's greatest character, makes her debut, however pseudonymously, in this story. After one more run as Virginia ("Distance"), she resurfaces in "Faith in the Afternoon" with the gone husband christened Ricardo, Virginia's four children reduced to two boys, Richard and Anthony (Tonto), and her parents in the Children of Judea retirement home. In Faith and her friends, in the details of their personal and political concerns (all are left-sprawling activists, especially in the Later the Same Day stories), Paley finds her fictional center.
Time passes. Richard goes from visiting grandparents to calling collect from Paris. Faith and her friends—Selena Retelof, Ruth Larsen, Ann Reyer, Edie Seiden—go from tending young babies in the park to being grandparents themselves. Parents die (Faith's mother in "Friends"), friends die (Ellen in "Living" and Selena in "Friends"), and sometimes children die (Samuel in "Samuel," Juniper in "The Little Girl," and Selena's daughter Abby in "Friends").
Lovers and husbands come and go, Ricardo, for example, being succeeded by at least John, Clifford, Philip, Jack, and Nick (also Pallid the husband and Livid the ex-husband in "The Used Boy Raisers"). "You still have him-itis," Faith tells Susan, "the dread disease of females." "Yeah?" Susan replies; "And you don't?" In "Listening," the final story of Later the Same Day, Faith, even as she is upbraided by her lesbian friend Cassie for leaving her out of her stories (the character Faith and the author Paley merging here), has just been moved by the sight of a man "in the absolute prime of life" to wonder "why have you slipped out of my sentimental and carnal grasp?" The man, appropriately enough, is walking.
At last, in a dazzling move that unites the stories with the deep motives of their telling, Paley celebrates the brassy talk of Faith and her friends and offers her own preservation of that talk as an act of moral witness, a right thing. Ruth's bravery toward mounted police at a draft board protest demonstration, as reported by Ann in "Ruthy and Edie," is verbal at its heart: "You should have been trampled to death. And you grabbed the captain by his gold buttons and you hollered, You bastard! Get your goddamn cavalry out of here." Talk saves the day, here loudly and with drama, elsewhere quietly, as when a grandchild is loved for "her new shoes and her newest sentence, which was Remember dat?" For Paley as a writer this child's interrogative shifts to imperative. By memories preserved in talk and writing, "the lifelong past is invented, which, as we know, thickens the present and gives all kinds of advice to the future." The direct affirmative statement at the end of "Friends" is quiet enough but certainly firm, and it is surely clear, an endorsement of all of the little human disturbances as worthy of loving attention: "But I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments."
—Robert B. Cochran
PALEY, GRACE (1922– ), U.S. short story writer and poet as well as cultural and political figure. Born in the Bronx, n.y., in 1922, daughter of revolutionary Russian Jewish immigrants, Paley became Poet Laureate of Vermont, where she made her home. Her first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love, was published in 1959. Other publications include Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), Later the same Day (1985), Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991), The Collected Stories (1994), Just as I Thought (1998), and Begin Again: Collected Poems (2000). Most of her works have been translated into several languages.
Among her many honors, Paley was a Guggenheim Fellow, winner of a National Institute of Art and Letters award, and senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts for her lifetime contribution to literature.
A pacifist, feminist, ecologist, secular Jew, and member of the War Resisters' League, Paley was always politically active. Growing up on stories of discrimination, racism, and exile, in an environment of radicalism, she was sensitive to everyone's shortcomings: "Some feminists were sometimes racists, some African Americans were sometimes misogynist, some Jews did sometimes act as though they were in charge of human suffering."
Differences of race, religion, class, gender, and age coexist in her narrative world, and human rights are the crucial question. The fear and inability to acknowledge these differences and accept anyone different from us can cause an "intersection of oppressions." Through her poetics and in her life Paley suggested the best way to find one's own identity was by expressing one's subjectivity while acknowledging differences and welcoming the "other."
Paley also addressed the pain of the historical experiences of different groups – the Holocaust, slavery, dictatorships, and wars – with wit and irony. She described racism as "the most severe inherited illness of the United States." Her humor and her matter-of-factness were among her most Jewish characteristics, clearly evident in her use of a colloquial but precise language, rich in oblique biblical references.
A gender perspective is at the core of Paley's work. Most of her stories are set in a New York populated by women friends, mothers, and their children, shouldering the day-to-day problems of life from the safety of the block. Mothers have also to face the most demanding job: negotiating their personal needs, being daughters themselves, and carrying out their roles as mothers caring for children.
The complexity of her writing comes from mixing techniques, forms, and genres with a wide breadth of subjects. Paley shares with her narrators and characters a "dislike" for plot, "the absolute line between two points," "not for literary reasons," they explain, but because it limits hope: "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."
J. Arcane, Grace Paley's Life Stories. A Literary Biography (1993); G. Bach and H.H. Blaine, Conversations with Grace Paley (1997); N. Batt, Grace Paley (1998); N. Isaac, Grace Paley. A Study of the Short Fiction (1990); J. Taylor, Grace Paley. Illuminating the Dark Lives (1990); Monographic Journals, in: Delta, 14 (1982)
[Annalucia Accardo (2nd ed.)]
PALEY, Grace. American, b. 1922. Genres: Novellas/Short stories, Poetry, Essays. Career: Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, professor, 1966-; City College of New York, professor, 1983-. Publications: SHORT STORIES: The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love, 1959; Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974; Later the Same Day, 1985; Leaning Forward, 1985; The Collected Stories, 1994; Just as I Thought, 1998. POETRY: Leaning Forward, 1985; New and Collected Poems, 1991; Begin Again: New and Collected Poems, 1992; Begin Again: Collected Poems, 2000. OTHER: 365 Reasons Not to Have Another War, 1989; Long Walks and Intimate Talks, 1991; Conversations with Grace Paley, 1997. Address: Box 620, Thetford Hill, VT 05074-0620, U.S.A.