Grace Paley, 1922-2007

Jewish socialism influenced Grace Paley's life and literature.

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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.

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Saul Austerlitz

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