Grace Paley, 1922-2007

Jewish socialism influenced Grace Paley's life and literature.

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Grace Paley is a major writer on seemingly minor themes.  Her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), placed its emphasis on the word “little”; its characters were not roiled by major historical events, but by the events from mundane life.  “She is that rare kind of writer, a natural with a voice like no one else’s--funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute,” Susan Sontag once wrote about Paley.

Paley was a writer whose characters were mostly of a piece: middle-class New York Jews. They are enmeshed in their domestic spheres, their squabbles and their failures reflective of the changes--social, political, intellectual--taking place in the wider society.  Paley was also unashamedly Jewish in her choice of material.  “My first two stories were specifically Jewish,” Paley remembered in a Paris Review interview.  “When I took a class at the New School this teacher said to me, ‘You’ve got to get off that Jewish dime, Grace, they’re wonderful stories, but . . .’  The idiocy of that remark was that he was telling me this just as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and others were getting more generally famous everyday."

Paley’s parents were Russian revolutionaries who fled to the United States to escape the czar.  She was born in New York City in 1922, and was sent by her parents to local public schools.  After attending Hunter College and NYU, Paley married young, had two children, and was quickly divorced.  That milieu--urban divorcees, single mothers raising grace paleychildren--became the centerpoint of Paley’s fiction, which was powerfully committed to daily life.  “I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, ‘People will think this is trivial, nothing,’” she told the Paris Review.  “Then I thought, ‘It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there.

At first, Paley saw herself as a poet (eventually she would publish a number of volumes of poetry), and did not begin writing fiction until the 1950s. The Little Disturbances of Man was unsuccessful on first printing (although Paley won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961), never connecting with an audience, but was reissued nearly a decade later to much acclaim.  As a writer, Paley crafted a style entirely her own, whose unexpected notes of comedy and pathos were offered in distinctly minimalist fashion.  Paley’s characters speak in a Yiddish-inflected manner that owes a distinct debt to the mangled English of Anzia Yezierska and Bernard Malamud, while retaining a humorous edge mostly absent from the former and only occasionally present in the latter. “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose,” writes Paley in her story “The Little Disturbances of Man.”  “I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised--change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years.

Paley also let her political beliefs trickle into those of her characters. Her characters--her female protagonists especially--express the passionate leftist politics she espoused in her own personal life. The author described herself as a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.”  

After the publication of Little Disturbances, Paley grew increasingly involved with protests against the Vietnam War, and the burgeoning feminist movement.  She committed herself to supporting the North Vietnamese and Soviet governments, and grew increasingly critical of what she saw as American imperialist adventurism abroad.  Paley eventually recanted her flirtation with the Soviet Union, but through the 1980s, and her advocacy for Latin American leftist movements, Paley remained outspoken in her leftism.  She was one of the founders, in 1987, of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Paley’s activism meant she was something of an intermittent writer.  It was not until 1974, some 15 years after the publication of Little Disturbances, that Paley published her second book, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.  It would be another 11 years until she put out her third story collection, wryly titled Later the Same Day (1986). Collected Stories, published in 1994, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

She also published a collection of essays and talks, Just As I Thought, in 1998. John Leonard of The Nation said of Just As I Thought, “In Paley, life, literature and politics converge—nonviolently, of course—in a cunning patchwork quilt of radiance and scruple, witness and example, nurture and nag, subversive humor and astonishing art: a Magical Socialism and a Groucho Marxism."

Paley, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, alternately ascribed her relatively small body of work to both laziness and the belief that short stories could do the work of the novel more efficiently and clearly.  She was the progenitor of a new generation of mainly female short-story writers like Alice Munro and Ann Beattie who preferred the shorter form as the ideal model for their work.  Paley was also groundbreaking in her exploration of a certain brand of postwar, urban, politically informed, middle-class Jewish life.  Like Roth, or Bellow, Paley was sketching in the newly formed boundaries of an American Jewish existence only recently released from the confines of deprivation and bias.  Paley’s stories reveal that, for all the wonders of postwar America, her characters are still weighed down by familiar burdens: of family, history, disappointment, and love. 

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.