Grace Paley 1922-
American short story writer, poet, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Paley's career through 1998. See also, Grace Paley Criticism and volume 6.
Grace Paley belongs to a small group of writers who have written comparatively little, yet are celebrated in the world of letters for the singularity of their voice and excellence in their genre. Over four decades Paley has published only forty-five short stories, but these works place her at the forefront of American short story writers. The world of Paley's fiction is intensely local and socially conscious, centering primarily upon a few blocks in Manhattan's Greenwich Village where she lived, raised her children, and participated in various political movements, organizations, and demonstrations during the 1960s and 1970s. Additionally, her stories often focus on the world of liberal, first- or second-generation New York City Jews and illustrate how the Jewish Diaspora is mirrored through their personal lives. Perhaps most important, Paley's fiction vividly chronicles aspects of female experience in the United States from approximately 1950 to 1989. Paley was named the first official New York State writer in 1989. Her book The Collected Stories (1994) was a National Book Award nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
The youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Paley grew up in the Bronx and was surrounded by political discussion in three languages: Russian, Yiddish, and English. Paley's parents had, during their adolescence, participated in the Socialist movement in Russia and were imprisoned for these activities. When freed, they fled to the United States with members of their family. The family worked at menial jobs so that Paley's father could attain the higher education necessary to lift the entire family from poverty. Her father became a physician in the neighborhood and conducted his practice from their home. The confluence of radical politics, ever-present suffering among her father's patients, and her female relatives' sacrifice of their own independence in deference to her father shaped her beliefs, her writing, and her political stance. To her family's dismay, Paley neither completed a college degree nor embarked on any kind of professional career. She spent one year at Hunter College and another at New York University, and studied briefly at the New School for Social Research, where one of her teachers was W. H. Auden. She married Jess Paley, a motion picture cameraman, at age nineteen and relocated to Greenwich Village. She had two children with Paley and spent her time as a mother, housewife, occasional clerical worker, and emerging political activist. In the early 1950s, when Paley's life involved many trips to Washington Square Park with her children, she became interested in two things as she listened to other women talking about their own lives. First she began considering the relationship between men and women and how unhappy many of her acquaintances were in their marriages. Along with this, she began thinking about the often difficult lives of women and children. Yet, as overwhelming as these concerns were to her and her neighbors, she observed little if any serious literature being written about this population. Consequently, she began writing herself, confident that no one could possibly be interested because the topics she explored seemed trivial by the standards of the day. Her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) garnered such critical acclaim that Paley was offered a teaching post at Columbia University. A Guggenheim fellowship in fiction followed in 1961. In 1970 she was awarded two grants, one from the National Council on the Arts and another from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In the years between her publications, she has been active in various movements and organizations, including PEN, where she was instrumental in the establishment of a women's committee within the organization. She also taught at Syracuse University and Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has been honored with the Rea Award for short story writing and the Vermont Governor's award for Excellence in the Arts, both in 1993, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for fiction in 1997. With her second husband, poet and playwright Robert Nichols, Paley divides her time between homes in Vermont and New York City. She remains a member of the affiliate faculty in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.
In her three major collections of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985), Paley explores the vibrant, multiethnic worlds of New York City, including the immigrant-Jewish and African-American population, and in particular the experiences of individual women. Paley has published forty-five stories; among the most admired and representative of her work as a whole are “Goodbye and Good Luck” and “The Loudest Voice.” In “Goodbye and Good Luck,” which first appeared in The Little Disturbances of Man, Paley draws on her Jewish heritage to create the memorable character of Aunt Rose. “The Loudest Voice,” also from her debut collection, speaks to the immigrant experience in public school. In this story Jewish children are selected, to the chagrin of their parents, to play the lead roles in the school's Christmas pageant. The Jewish child chosen to narrate the program explains that she was selected because of her loud voice; Paley, however, leaves no doubt that the child will survive in a new culture, assimilating as necessary but never forgetting her roots. A recurring character in some of the stories is Faith Darwin, her name an example of Paley's ironic voice. Though many critics call Faith the author's alter ego, Paley herself insists that the character is in no way autobiographical. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute contains “Faith in the Afternoon,” “Faith in a Tree,” “A Conversation with My Father,” and “The Long-Distance Runner.” “Faith in the Afternoon” shows the protagonist disconsolate over the departure of her husband for another woman, weeping for her own and other women's losses. The story gives Paley the opportunity to explore the pejorative nature of much of the language used by men to describe women. “Faith in a Tree” depicts the main character looking down on her neighborhood from a tree in a park where she has been playing with her children. She proudly watches her young son use brilliant pink chalk to write an anti-war message on the sidewalk, encouraging a small impromptu protest. Her son's combative reaction to a policeman's breaking up the demonstration leads Faith to a decision to pursue a more activist role in political movements. In the oft-quoted “A Conversation with My Father,” Paley manages to articulate her philosophy of both fiction and life through a request from her dying father, a wish she finds impossible to honor. “The Long-Distance Runner” explores the racism inherent in human interactions. Faith returns to her old neighborhood, where the population has shifted from primarily immigrant-Jewish to African American. In the course of a conversation with one of the residents, Faith learns that she does indeed harbor some racist beliefs and is naïve about Black culture. She notes the many similarities between Jews and African Americans in terms of their minority status, linguistic differences, and problems with assimilation. Paley further explores issues of racism in “Zagrowsky Tells,” a much-noted story from Later the Same Day. Zagrowsky, an elderly pharmacist, has a reputation in the neighborhood for being a bigot. His emotionally unstable daughter produces a son whose father is African American. Zagrowsky assumes responsibility for the care of his grandson, and the love he feels toward him transcends his previous feelings so that his attitude changes entirely. Paley has produced several volumes of poetry, including Learning Forward (1985), New and Collected Poems (1992), and Begin Again (1999), a compilation of all her poems. She has also published poetry and short stories in Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991). Paley's Just As I Thought (1998), a collection of essays, criticism, interviews, and lectures from thirty years of political activism and belief in feminist ideals, functions as her memoir.
Paley is praised for the distinct style, voice, and wit of her short fiction. As many critics note, her fiction possesses an understated humor, warmth, and earnest feminist vision that sets her work apart from that of others. Though she has written comparatively little to hold the place in contemporary literature that she does, her sense of community, made manifest through her language, and her feminist ideals give readers a glimpse into the life she has lived and offer hope in their own lives. Feminist leaders have long averred that “the personal is political,” and this is particularly true for Paley. Her writing and her political life are closely connected; the critical reception of her work often varies depending on the reviewer's political stance. Paley's work is often admired as a chronicle of her personal confrontations with issues of power between men and women, the Jewish immigrant experience, and racism. However, in the eyes of some critics Paley's radical leftist beliefs, currently out of favor, date parts of her work. Her short stories garner universal acclaim for the uniqueness of their voice. Her prose has been compared to that of Donald Barthelme, and the importance of voice in her work likened to the significance of color in the paintings of Mark Rothko. Her stories lack plot in the traditional sense, and some critics view aspects of her fiction as postmodern. In general her stories speak clearly and truly to the life experiences of their characters, particularly those in mid-twentieth-century New York City. Her verse is considered inferior to her short stories, yet some critics consider the poetic voice in her stories essential to their overall tone. Paley is frequently criticized for having written too little and, especially in her later works, for writing repetitive sketches rather than full stories. At the top of her form, Paley is especially admired for the wordplay, irreverence, and classic Jewish overtones of her humor and depiction of her characters' lives. The 1994 publication of The Collected Stories elicited an outpouring of renewed critical admiration for Paley, who continues to be held in high regard.
The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love (short stories) 1959
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (short stories) 1974
Later the Same Day (short stories) 1985
Leaning Forward (poetry) 1985
Long Walks and Intimate Talks: Stories and Poems (poetry and short stories) 1991
New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1992
The Collected Stories (short stories) 1994
Just as I Thought (essays, criticism, interviews, and lectures) 1998
Begin Again: The Collected Poems of Grace Paley (poetry) 1999
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SOURCE: “PW Interviews Grace Paley,” in Publisher's Weekly, April 5, 1985, pp. 71-2.
[In the following interview, Paley comments on her upbringing, her fiction, the rewards of parenthood, and the value of community participation and political action.]
Grace Paley has been a respected name in American letters for years. Her new book of short stories, Later the Same Day, confirms her as an utterly original American writer whose work combines personal, political and philosophical themes in a style quite unlike anyone else’s.
Paley’s characters, women and men who have committed themselves to trying to alleviate some of the world’s...
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SOURCE: “Lox, Lettuce, and Love,” in Washington Post Book World, April 28, 1985, pp. 3, 13.
[In the following review, Taliaferro offers praise for Later the Same Day.]
There aren’t enough books by Grace Paley in the world, so a new one is cause for great rejoicing. In The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), her two previous short story collections, Grace Paley staked out her territory: New York tenement and city block as microcosm, playgrounds aswarm with children, streets jammed with mothers demonstrating for peace, love in the kitchen when the children finally go to bed. She’s our most fearlessly...
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SOURCE: A review of Leaning Forward, in Poetry, Vol. CXLVIII, No. 1, April, 1986, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, Shaw offers a positive assessment of Paley's verse in Leaning Forward, but notes that Paley's fiction is more accomplished.]
I doubt that Grace Paley’s reputation as a poet will supersede her renown as a writer of short fiction. Still, it is good to have this selection of the poetry she has been writing, as Jane Cooper says in an Afterword, “before, during, and after writing her stories.” Without being momentous, [Leaning Forward] is perky, likable work, recognizably in the Paley voice. Some of the tactics that work well in...
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SOURCE: A review of Later the Same Day, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 310-11.
[In the following review, Jacobs offers a positive assessment of Later the Same Day.]
With narrative skill and sharp characterizations, Grace Paley deftly details the phenomena of our everyday lives. Each of the seventeen stories in Later the Same Day leaves the reader with a sense of wonder at the varieties and complementarities of human motivation and action. Her style varies with character and tale, but there are constants in her stories. Old friends, aging, and the varieties of love are portrayed and examined. Who can deny observations such as...
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SOURCE: “Grace Paley's World-Inventing Words,” in Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Emory Elliot, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987, pp. 173-87.
[In the following essay, Wilde argues that Paley's fiction is neither realist nor strictly metafictional. According to Wilde, Paley's “midfictional” style embodies elements of mystery and affirmation that, while acknowledging the disorder and ambiguity of the world, reflect an approach to creativity and experience that is both vivid and adaptive.]
People require strengthening before the acts of life.
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SOURCE: “An Interview with Grace Paley,” in Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine H. Hall, University Press of Mississippi Jackson, 1997, pp. 204-212.
[The following interview was originally conducted with Paley in 1988, and was originally published in The Brick Reader, edited by Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje, 1991. In the interview Paley discusses her characters’ voices, her political interests, and the inspiration for several of her stories.]
[Wachtel:] Why did you start writing short stories?
[Paley:] I’d been writing poems for a number of years—in fact for most of my life. But they...
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SOURCE: “A Perfect Marginality: Public and Private Telling in the Stories of Grace Paley,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 35-43.
[In the following essay, Aarons examines the importance of personal storytelling and oral narrative in Paley's fiction, noting its relationship to Jewish literary tradition. Aarons contends that such shared stories function as a mode of self-discovery, communal solidarity, and affirmation for Paley's characters.]
It was possible that I did owe something to my own family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a...
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SOURCE: “This Narrow Language,” in Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1990, pp. 11-19.
[In the following essay, Taylor examines Paley's shrewd critique of male-dominated language which demeans and dismisses women. Taylor draws attention to deliberately awkward and ironic exchanges between male and female characters in Paley's fiction that illustrate the different uses and meanings of such language.]
Don’t you wish you could rise powerfully above your time and name? I’m sure we all try, but here we are, always slipping and falling down into them, speaking their narrow language....
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SOURCE: “What Is There to Laugh?,” in Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1990, pp. 46-67.
[In the following essay, Taylor discusses cultural stereotypes about women and humor, and examines the use of comic wit in Paley's fiction. Taylor contends that Paley's subversive humor—earthy, optimistic, and distinctly Jewish—serves to expose the absurdity of patriarchal society and to foster a sense of survivalism among marginalized women.]
Naturally it was a joke, only what is there to laugh?
—“Zagrowsky Tells,” Later the Same Day; hereafter cited as...
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SOURCE: “Grace Paley,” in Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine H. Hall, University Press of Mississippi Jackson, 1997, pp. 213-225.
[The following interview was originally conducted in 1991, and was originally published in Broken Silences (1993), edited by Shirley M. Jordan. In the interview, Jordan and Paley discuss Paley's feelings about racial relationships, her methods for writing character and dialogue, and relationships between women.]
[Jordan:] What specific conditions seems to be in place when black and white women become friends?
[Paley:] That’s very hard. … Well, there has to be an...
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SOURCE: “Daring to Be Radical,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 51-2, 54.
[In the following excerpted review, Dame offers a positive assessment of Long Walks and Intimate Talks.]
It is refreshing, in these days of mean-spirited attacks on “political correctness,” to read the works of three women who are unabashedly radical—radical in the sense of examining the world from the perspective of those without power, security, or respect in American society. Two of these books are overtly political. Grace Paley’s Long Walks and Intimate Talks was intended as a statement “against militarists, racists, earth poisoners, women haters, all...
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SOURCE: “The Question of Chronology in Paley's ‘Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 583-86.
[In the following essay, Greiner examines the reversed chronological ordering of the companion stories “The Used-Boy Raisers” and “A Subject of Childhood.” Greiner draws attention to the motif of the Jewish Diaspora in both stories and contends that their backward ordering suggests a return to historical origins, birth, and unity.]
Recent commentaries on the two narratives within Grace Paley’s “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life” offer mere outlines of the curious...
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SOURCE: “Grace Paley: The Art of Fiction CXXXI,” in Paris Review, No. 124, Fall, 1992, pp. 181-209.
[The following interview was conducted by three Paris Review writers. Paley discusses her early transformation as a writer, her fictional style, major influences, personal motivations, and the central themes in her work.]
When Grace Paley visits New York she stays in her old apartment on West Eleventh Street. Her block has for the most part escaped the gentrification that has transformed the West Village since Paley moved there in the forties. The building where Paley lived for most of her adult life and where she raised her two children by her first...
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SOURCE: “Faith and the ‘Black Thing’: Political Action and Self Questioning in Grace Paley's Short Fiction,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 79-89.
[In the following essay, Meyer examines Paley's self-conscious exploration of racism in various forms, particularly the naïve and self-righteous variety displayed by well-meaning white activists. As Meyer notes, through Faith, a white female protagonist, Paley confronts her own concerns and reservations about speaking on behalf of African Americans.]
Grace Paley is almost as well known for her politics as for her short stories. Indeed, she has said that “the three things in my life...
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SOURCE: “A Vent in the Park,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 3, 1994, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Eder offers a positive assessment of Paley's fiction, but notes that the collection contains several unexceptional pieces.]
Anger does for Grace Paley what love did for Dante’s Beatrice; it makes her speak. But Paley’s anger, at its best, is no more a rant or preachment than Beatrice’s love was a burble. A few of these Collected Stories are thinly didactic with only one or two relieving grace notes; a few others are gnomic to the point of clenching and evaporating.
These are slips of a...
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SOURCE: “Amazing Grace,” in New York, Vol. 27, No. 15, April 11, 1994, pp. 64, 67.
[In the following review, Kirn comments favorably on Paley's fiction in The Collected Stories, though he notes that some of her later pieces are overly ideological.]
Grace Paley’s short stories have a tenement noisiness: They make an unholy racket in the air shaft. In her characters' cramped Greenwich Village kitchens, the teakettle is always on, whistling over the screams of colicky babies and personal and political arguments conducted with say-it-don’t-spray-it verbal fury. Outside lies an orderly socialist cosmos of block, neighborhood, city, nation, planet. The city is...
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SOURCE: “Grace Paley: A Listener in the City,” in Washington Post Book World, April 17, 1994, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Baxter offers a positive evaluation of The Collected Stories.]
Grace Paley’s stories have achieved something of a cult or classic status, and with good reason. Since their first appearance in book form in 1959 with The Little Disturbances of Man, they have been notable for their humor and urban grit, their quick-witted sadness, and for their voices. No one else’s stories sound like these. The stories don’t seem literary so much as colloquial socialist-democratic, spoken aloud on a street corner or a front stoop, to...
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SOURCE: “Bookshelf: Life and Love in Greenwich Village,” in Wall Street Journal, April 25, 1994, p. A12.
[In the following review of Paley's Collected Stories, Locke claims that Paley has positively altered American literature.]
In the beginning—40 years ago—Grace Paley found a voice and, listening closely and thinking hard, she wrote the first of her 45 now Collected Stories. That story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” is still a great way to begin: “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh.”
Boastful, competitive, adroitly linking mind and body, liberty and...
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SOURCE: “Sentences of Life,” in Women's Review of Books, July, 1994, pp. 29-30.
[In the following excerpt, Gornick recounts her introduction to and admiration for Paley's fiction, and reviews The Collected Stories.]
I remember the first time I laid eyes on a Paley sentence. The year was 1960, the place a Berkeley bookstore, and I a depressed graduate student, leafing restlessly. I picked up a book of stories by a writer I’d never heard of and read: “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. 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....
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
SOURCE: “Grace Paley's Book of the Ordinary,” in Gettysburg Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 696-702.
[In the essay below, Pinsker evaluates the central themes and distinct style of Paley's fiction as evident in The Collected Stories.]
Grace Paley's The Collected Stories is at once a cause to celebrate one of our country’s premier fictionists and an occasion to reconsider just what it is that makes her work so extraordinary. One could begin by pointing out that Paley is a painstaking writer (forty years of patient work has produced a mere forty-five stories) and then go on to suggest that The Collected Stories (which brings together in one...
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“Grace Paley,” in American Contradictions: Interviews with Nine American Writers, edited by Wolfgang Binder and Helmbrecht Breinig, Wesleyan University Press, 1995, pp. 77-100
[In the following interview, Paley discusses her early life, formative influences, and the feminist and Jewish perspective in her fiction.]
[SO:] You said somewhere that the three important things in your life are writing, politics, and your family. Let’s start with your family. Could you tell us about your parents?
[GP:] Well, my parents were Russian Jews. They were Socialists, and they were radical youngsters when they were kids. At one point or another my...
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, p. 42.
[In the following review, Tompkins offers a positive assessment of The Collected Stories.]
Grace Paley dedicates The Collected Stories to her “colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade,” Sybil Clariborne. In celebrating a friendship spanning over forty years, Paley chooses to remember one of the last questions raised by her friend: namely, “How are we to live our lives?” And this is the question which best encapsulates the moral dilemmas Paley addressed in The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
SOURCE: “Grace Paley,” in The Progressive, Vol. 61, No. 11, November, 1997, pp. 36-9.
[In the following interview, Paley discusses her family and formative influences, and her career as a writer and activist.]
It’s August 6 in Thetford Hill, Vermont, and before the sun has dried the mist on the Green Mountains, Grace Paley is out at a Hiroshima Day vigil. Friends, family, and neighbors are there, too. So are a couple of dozen kids from a nearby camp. The protesters turn handmade peace signs toward passing cars and trucks. Some toot hello while others work hard not to notice. “We used to be very strict and yell at people if they laughed,” Paley tells one of...
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SOURCE: “A Community of Hope,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1998, p. 22.
[In the following review, Cheyette offers a positive evaluation of The Collected Stories.]
The forty-five stories in this remarkable collection [The Collected Stories] have been published over the past four decades. Grace Paley’s three volumes of stories—The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985)—have been, at last, brought together for a British readership (the book was first published in the United States in 1994). Paley has always taken her time, remarking characteristically...
(The entire section is 1763 words.)
SOURCE: “Amazing Grace,” in The Nation, May 11, 1998, pp. 38, 40-42.
[In the following review of Just As I Thought, Leonard praises Paley's life, activism, and moral conviction.]
Never mind how wonderful it is that Grace Paley should have imagined an alter ego named Faith Darwin. One of them is about to undergo an enormous change at the last minute. “Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.” Like a Transcendental angel out of...
(The entire section is 2799 words.)
SOURCE: “The Challenge of Writing as a Form of Social Activism,” in Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1998, p. E6.
[In the following review of Just As I Thought, Linfield commends Paley's remarkable insight, but finds the collection to be of uneven quality.]
A critic once compared Grace Paley’s fiction to that of Isaac Babel—one of her heroes—noting that their “taut prose hits you in the face like seltzer.” Indeed, in her short stories and novellas, Paley is a master (mistress?) of the terse phrase that reveals a world of fiercely contradictory emotion. When the young wife in Paley’s 1959 story “An Interest in Life” states simply, “My husband gave...
(The entire section is 733 words.)
SOURCE: “The Saint,” in The New Republic, June 29, 1998, pp. 35-9.
[In the following negative review of Just As I Thought, Wolfe condemns Paley's “stubborn” activism as hypocritical, dishonest, and, at worst, immoral. As Wolfe concludes, “Paley’s sentimental and sanctimonious book inadvertently exposes what went wrong with the American left.”]
In an interview in 1984, Grace Paley was asked about her youthful experiences with civil disobedience. Recalling how she and her neighbors refused to allow buses through or real estate development around Washington Square Park in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Paley responded: “One of the things I learned...
(The entire section is 4238 words.)
SOURCE: “Practicing the Art of the Possible,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 2, November, 1998, pp. 19-20.
[In the following review, Randall offers a positive evaluation of Just As I Thought.]
Just As I Thought is just the way it was, for Grace Paley and for many others loosely included in her generation. Paley herself describes the book as “a collection of articles, reports, and talks representing about thirty years of political and literary activity, with a couple of occasional glances over my shoulder into disappearing family and childhood.”
Paley is the quintessential storyteller. Her short stories have deepened our...
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