Paley, Grace (1922—)

views updated

Paley, Grace (1922—)

Distinguished American short-story writer, poet, professor, and prominent peace activist, who established herself as a major voice in 20th-century American literature. Pronunciation: Pay-lee. Born Grace Goodside on December 11, 1922, in New York City; daughter of Isaac Goodside (a physician) and Manya (Ridnyik) Goodside (a photographer and medical assistant); attended Hunter College (1938–39); married Jess Paley, on June 20, 1942 (divorced 1972); married Bob Nichols, in 1972; children: (first marriage) Nora Paley (b. 1949); Danny Paley (b. 1951).

Studied poetry with W.H. Auden (early 1940s); published first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959), to critical acclaim; received a Guggenheim fellowship (1961); participated in the first demonstration by the War Resister's League (1963); taught at Sarah Lawrence College (1966–88); traveled to Vietnam (1969), Chile (1972), Moscow (1973), China (1974); elected to the American Academy of Letters (1980); granted National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1987); recipient of the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit, naming Paley first official state writer of New York (1989); received REA Award for Short Stories (1992); given Vermont Award for Excellence in the Arts (1993).

Selected writings:

The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975); Later the Same Day (Farrar, Straus, 1985); Leaning Forward (Granite Press, 1985); Long Walks and Intimate Talks (Feminist Press at the City of New York, 1991); New and Collected Poems (Tilbury House, 1992); Grace Paley: The Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus, 1994); Just As I Thought (Farrar, Straus, 1998).

"Few other fiction writers in late twentieth-century American letters have had so great an influence as Grace Paley on the basis of so few books in a lifetime of work," notes Charlotte Zoë Walker . A self-described "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist," Paley was born the youngest of three children to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1922. At the time of her birth, her sister Jeanne was 16 and her brother Victor was 14, making Paley the cherished infant in a family of adults. Her father Isaac and mother Manya had immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in 1906, after which they anglicized their last name from Gutseit to Goodside. In America, they lived with Isaac's mother Natasha and his sisters Luba and Mira. By the time of Paley's birth, the hard times of newly arrived immigrants were behind them. Her father had a successful medical practice in the Bronx and was the center of attention in a family of women. His lively personality, more extroverted than his wife's, and his significance as the main breadwinner, contributed to Paley's youthful assessments of where the "interest in life" resided: "When I was a little girl I was a boy—like a lot of little girls who like to get into things and want to be where the action is, which is up the corner someplace, where the boys are." Although she grew up finding men's talk alluring, she would eventually conclude that it was the talk of women which was directly linked to life.

The household offered a haven to newly arrived Russian-Jewish immigrants. Paley's biographer Judith Arcana noted that the Goodsides' friends were "immigrant families in the Jewish Bronx neighborhood—no longer 'socialist' but certainly 'social democrats'—[who] were almost always egalitarian in their ideas, but rarely in their daily lives." Paley was surrounded by lively cultural and political discussions as she absorbed both old and new world flavors. Her parents had been political dissidents in Russia and were sensitive to the repercussions of political involvement. "My family was political," she told Joann Gardner . "It was just their way of thinking about the world." The Russian language, which Paley acquired, was spoken at home, as was Yiddish.

As a bright, energetic teenager in the 1930s, Paley posed a great hope scholastically for her parents, and they were dismayed when her life did not follow the expected course. She was a good student until her studies stopped being easy, later noting, "I thought if I had to do any work it meant I was stupid." Her growing unrest at school and parental expectations combined to steer her away from academic excellence. At 15, she entered Hunter College as a freshman only to drop out after a year. Remarked Paley of her horrified parents to New York Times journalist Nina Darnton : "They didn't know that 25 years later everyone would be doing it." She took a typing course at her father's insistence. Paley's developing sexuality also alarmed the Goodsides, who had a typical European reluctance to deal with such matters openly.

With a love of literature, Paley read voraciously and wrote poems. "I didn't know I was going to Be anything. I knew I was going to write. I think of it more as a verb than a noun," she told Gardner. At age 17, she took a class with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research in New York. She would later recall his influence on her work at the time, telling Wendy Lesser in an interview for the Internet magazine Salon, "When I was very young, I wrote a lot like Auden. It's kind of comical, because after all, I didn't have a British accent…. I didn't yet realize that you have two ears. One ear is that literary ear, and it's a good old ear…. But there was also something else that I had but I didn't know it. I only knew it in my own speech, and that is the ear of the language of home, and the language of your street and your own people."

Responding to an environment of open discussion, Paley had become independent-minded which brought her into greater conflict with her parents. While her family, tied to the past, replayed the Russian Revolution, she was intellectually stimulated by leftist thinking as well as by current affairs in Europe, Africa and the United States.

In 1942, she married Jess Paley, who came from a German Jewish background. Although neither family was especially religious, the Goodsides, unlike the Paleys, were immersed in Jewish culture. Perceiving Grace as opting for the traditional role of wife and mother, her parents thought that she would at least find safety in marriage. The same year they were married, Paley traveled with her husband when he joined the Signal Corps. Her exposure to army camp life during World War II was to influence her views of the military mentality. During their travels in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and New York, she wrote and published poetry in magazines. When Jess was shipped overseas, Grace stayed with friends, finally returning to New York to live in Greenwich Village. She briefly attended New York University in the early 1940s only to find herself once again not responding to studies in an academic setting. Her mother died in 1944, when Paley was 22. Selling his medical practice, Paley's father painted and wrote, living until 1973.

Returning from service, Paley's husband was disoriented and under great stress, common difficulties for veterans. Grace worked at clerical jobs in political organizations such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, earning little money but being exposed to politics. Jess eventually developed a career as a motion-picture cinematographer, which often took him away from home. Their daughter Nora Paley was born in 1949, followed by their son Danny Paley in 1951.

Money was scarce for the family, and Paley was busy with her children and working odd jobs. In 1952, she began writing stories as an extension of her poetry. She told Lesser: "When I started writing stories, I had a kind of a breakthrough…. I suddenly broke into the language that I then continued to write with. That was an important hour in my life. It was a sudden thing. I was sick and had a few weeks off, so I had the time to listen. I was able to use both ears suddenly." In a Ms. article during 1992, Paley remarked, "I love the short story form, because it's as tough as a poem, but also embraces life easily."

In the late 1950s, her early story "A Woman Young and Old" was published by the men's magazine Nugent which changed the title to "Rough Little Customer." Without consulting Paley, the editors also changed the text to suit their readers, infuriating the young author. "Goodbye and Goodluck" and "The Contest" were published in Accent magazine in 1956.

Living in Greenwich Village, Paley made friends in Washington Square Park with other mothers and their children, and she joined the PTA. "For me, going to the park with my children turned out to be one of the luckiest things I ever did," she told Gardner. "That daily experience among other women was the source or drive for a lot of my stories." Initially through neighborhood issues, Paley experienced the difficulties and rewards of challenging governing officials. She and her community PTA won a battle with the city when a fence was put up to reroute traffic around Washington Square Park, making it safe for children to play. Political activism was to take an important role in her life during the following years as she lent her voice to the antiwar, antinuclear, and environmental movements. Her daughter Nora remarked that Paley became politically active as an "outgrowth of motherhood," and Judith Arcana termed her activism "radical compassion."

Through a friend, Paley's stories were given to Ken McCormick at Doubleday, and she was told that if she wrote seven more Doubleday would publish a volume. The Little Disturbances of Man: Women and Men at Love appeared

in 1959 and was highly regarded. Notes Walker: "The jaunty, warm, honest, and ironic voice of the stories in The Little Disturbances of Man: Women and Men at Love speaks truths that women immediately recognized, in a manner that men found amusing rather than threatening. This unusual combination has its roots in her immigrant Jewish background and the neighborhood life of the city." Paley received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1961, the same year that she was a founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

Gaining eloquence as a speaker, and acting as an incisive force in defining the Peace Center's activities, Paley engaged in demonstrations and civil disobedience focused on protesting the Vietnam War, handed out leaflets, and counseled draftees. She was arrested on numerous occasions. In 1966, Paley served a six-day stay in the Woman's House of Detention in New York for participating in a sit-down blocking of the Armed Forces Day Parade. Arcana remarks that Paley, "conscious of the mutual impact of citizen and state," had "developed an analysis of the complicated relationships among capitalism, racism, and imperialism." Paley often took her children with her to demonstrations, and both Nora and Danny have commented on their mother's fearlessness during these events. Jess Paley, however, was not an activist.

Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

—Grace Paley

In the 1960s, Paley taught at Columbia and Syracuse universities before taking a post at Sarah Lawrence College, where she would teach creative writing and literature for 18 years. In 1966, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Little Disturbances of Man was reissued in hardcover by Viking Press (1968) and in paperback by American Library's Plume Books (1973).

In 1967, Paley left her husband. Although she knew Bob Nichols, the man who would become her second husband, as a friend and fellow activist beginning in the days of the Peace Center, they did not become involved with each other until both their marriages had dissolved. She divorced Jess in 1972, marrying Nichols the same year.

Beginning with her trip to Vietnam in 1969, representing the antiwar movement which had played a role in the return of political prisoners, Paley traveled throughout the world "accumulating knowledge and understanding born of going outside the neighborhood and bringing it all back home," notes Arcana. The year they were married, Grace and Bob went to Chile in time to experience the hope for democracy in that country, which was shattered with Salvador Allende's death and the subsequent military takeover. In 1973, Paley went to Russia as a delegate from the War Resister's league to the World Peace Conference. Here, in the country of her parents, she found a sense of familiarity in the language and the people.

Paley's second collection of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, was published in 1974. Fifteen years had passed since her first collection, and the volume reflected her increased social and political awareness. This work also was well received. The same year, she and her husband visited China.

Paley made news in 1978 as a prominent member of what came to be called the Washington Eleven. On Labor Day, the War Resister's League representatives, including Paley, left a White House tour and walked onto the lawn. They distributed leaflets and displayed a banner which read: "No Nuclear Weapon—No Nuclear Power—U.S. or U.S.S.R." Arrested for illegal entry ("stepping on the grass," said Paley), the 11 representatives (including three other writers: Karen Malpede , Glen Pontier, and Van Zwisohn) were put on probation for three years. Much publicity and outcry surrounded the arrests which brought attention to the government's heavy-handed approach to pacifists, particularly in contrast to the manner in which American protesters were dealt with for demonstrating in Russia's Red Square. Wrote Donald Barthelme in The New York Times on February 2, 1979:

Our Government seems to be proceeding in a somewhat ham-handed fashion here. The demonstrators offered no threat whatsoever to the President, to the White House, to America as an idea, or even to the grass—they walked on it, says Grace Paley, "softly and carefully, armed only with paper."… At the same time that the Washington group was making its protest, seven other Americans opened a similar banner, written in Russian, in Moscow's Red Square. This group also distributed leaflets. They were arrested by the Soviet authorities, yelled at for a while, then let go.

Paley's third collection of stories, Later the Same Day, and a poetry collection, Leaning Forward, appeared in 1985. The following year, she became the first recipient of the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit and was named the first state author of New York. She was selected for the award, which was created by the legislature to promote creative writing, by William Kennedy, Raymond Carver, Mary Gordon , and Robert Towers. Said Kennedy of Paley's work: "Her stories dramatize the heady, bittersweet moments of change in our lives and the deep continuity that gives us the gritty strength to survive these social and sexual upheavals."

In 1994, Farrar, Straus and Giroux brought out a volume of Paley's called The Collected Stories, consisting of selected stories from her other books. In his New York Times book review, Robert Pinsky remarked:

"Her distinctive, sure-footed command of the short-story form brings to fictional material a quality that must be called poetry. By this I mean not mere verbal sauce of some rich or creamy kind but the ability of language to dance with playful, lordly authority about the contours of reality, intimate yet somehow aloof."

In the same review, Pinsky also noted that her stories "crystallize brief moments in which whole lives reveal their inner truth."

Restoring "something to the scales," Paley employs women narrators in her stories. She uses dialogue to move her tales forward and to reveal characters who speak with various dialects of New York speech. Her tone is often described as seriocomic. Ivan Gold in Commonweal noted Paley's "quirky, anguished, funny, loving, deep and antic glimpses" into her characters "in a prose as resilient and unpredictable as one imagines the fate of her characters to be."

Paley continues to travel, accepting speaking engagements, conducting workshops and maintaining homes in New York and Vermont. Once asked why she had never written a novel, she replied: "Art is too long and life is too short." On a life dedicated to art, family, teaching, and actively championing the principles she believes in, she remarked in 1997: "I never tried to keep a balance. I just got dragged every which way, pulled and pushed. It's not a bad way to live." She noted to Harriet Shapiro in 1974: "It may be my political feelings, but I think … literature … makes justice in the world."


Arcana, Judith. Grace Paley's Life Stories. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Barthelme, Donald. "Grace Paley Faces Jail with 3 Other Writers," in The New York Times. February 2, 1979.

Baumbach, Jonathan. Partisan Review, 1975.

Darnton, Nina. "Taking Risks: The Writer as Effective Teacher," in The New York Times. April 13, 1986.

Gardner, Joann. American Poetry Review. March–April 1994.

Gold, Ivan. Commonweal, 1968.

"Grace Paley Honored As State Author," in The New York Times. November 14, 1986.

Harris, Robert. The New York Times Book Review, 1985.

Paley, Grace. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974.

——. Later the Same Day. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985.

——. The Little Disturbances of Man. NY: Doubleday, 1959.

——. Ms., 1992.

Pinsky, Robert. The New York Times Book Review, 1994.

Rogovoy, Seth. "Amazing Grace: From Diapers to Demonstrations," in Berkshire Eagle. June 19, 1997.

Shapiro, Harriet. Ms. May 1974, p. 43.

Walker, Charlotte Zoë. "Grace Paley," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 218: American Short-Story Writers Since World War II. 2nd series. Ed. by Patrick Meanor and Gwen Crane. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 1999.

suggested reading:

Mickelson, Anne Z. Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women. Scarecrow Press, 1979.

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

——. Leaning Forward. Granite Press, 1985.

——, and Vera B. Williams. "Three Hundred Sixty-Five Reasons Not to Have Another War: 1989 Peace Calendar," in New Society, 1988.

Penelope Ann Ann , freelance writer, New York City

About this article

Paley, Grace (1922—)

Updated About content Print Article


Paley, Grace (1922—)