Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
Grace Paley was born in the Bronx, New York, on December 11, 1922. Her parents, Isaac and Manya (Ridnyk) Goodside, were Ukrainian-born Jews. As outspoken opponents of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II, they had been sentenced to exile—he to Siberia and she to Germany—before being released from imprisonment and emigrating to New York in 1905. Isaac learned English quickly and became a physician, and the Goodsides lived first on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then in the East Bronx.
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Listening to the stories of the old country and the struggles endured there, told in Russian and Yiddish as well as English, their daughter Grace inherited an interest in political issues, a progressive belief system, and a willingness to speak her mind. A good student, she graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. In 1938, she entered Hunter College in New York City, but she was expelled for poor attendance. She also enrolled at New York University but left without a degree. She loved and wrote poetry on her own, and in the early 1940’s studied with poet W. H. Auden at New York’s New School for Social Research.
In 1942, Grace Goodside married Jess Paley, a motion picture cameraman, with whom she had two children, Nora and Daniel. The Paleys lived in Greenwich Village in New York City, where the young mother did occasional office work and became involved in community activism, including Parent-Teacher Association demonstrations against civil defense and opposition to disruptive redevelopment of Washington Square Park.
Into the mid-1950’s, Paley continued writing poetry, mostly traditional and literary in style, but gradually recognizing the limits of the genre for expression of social and political concerns, she turned to prose. Her first collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, appeared in 1959 to enthusiastic response. Following the book’s success, at the urging of friends and colleagues, Paley set out to write a novel; though never completed, sections of it appeared in The Noble Savage and New American Review.
In the early 1960’s, Paley began teaching courses in writing at Columbia and Syracuse Universities, and in 1966 she became a member of the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, outside New York City, where she taught for eighteen years. Still living in Greenwich Village and writing stories for occasional publication in magazines, Paley gained visibility speaking out on political issues. A fervent opponent of the American war effort in Vietnam, she went in 1968 on a fact-finding mission to visit draft dodgers in France and Sweden and the following year was among a group of pacifists that traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam, for the liberation of three American prisoners of war. Her account of the Asian trip, “Report from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” appeared in WIN, the newspaper of the War Resister’s League.
Having divorced her first husband in the early 1960’s, she married Robert Nichols, a writer and landscape architect, in 1972. Paley’s second volume of stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, was published in 1974, the same year she traveled to Moscow as a delegate of the War Resisters’ League at the World Peace Congress. With the end of the Vietnam conflict, her activism focused on other issues, including women’s rights, prison reform, the environment, and nuclear weapons. Her activities ranged from distributing leaflets on street corners to unfurling an antinuclear banner on the White House lawn in December of 1978, for which she and the other “White House Eleven” were arrested, convicted, fined one hundred dollars, and given six-month suspended jail terms.
In 1980, Paley was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. A film version of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, adapted by filmmaker John Sayles, was shown at the Film Forum in New York in the spring of 1985. Also that year, Paley published her third collection of stories, Later the Same Day, and her first collection of poems, Leaning Forward, and her opposition to American policies in Central America led to a trip to Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Paley lived in Greenwich Village for most of her life, but by the early 1990’s, she was dividing her time between New York and Thetford, Vermont. In her political years, the humanitarian stayed active in social movements that opposed war, that challenged nuclear plant installment and activity, and that perpetuated the feminist movement. Such activism had taken her to the 1961 cofounding of the Greenwich Village Peace Center and to the 1973 World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she challenged the Soviet Union’s silencing of political dissidents.
From 1986 to 1988, Paley was elected New York State Author. In 1987, she was recognized for her lifetime literary contributions and awarded a Senior Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). While supporting the causes most important to her, the author also continued to write. She published her third collection of short stories in 1985, entitled Later the Same Day. By 1998, Paley had crafted seven more works of poetry and short prose. Her collected works have earned nominations for a National Book Award and awards such as the 1983 Edith Wharton Award, the 1993 Rea Award for Short Story, and the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, also in 1993.
In 2003, Paley was the fifth person to be named Vermont’s State Poet. Under unanimous recommendation, she was honored by the State Poet Advisory Panel, composed of former State Poets Ellen Bryant Voigt, Louise Glück, and Galway Kinnell; Peter Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council; and Carol Milkuhn, vice president of the Vermont Poetry Society. In 2007, at the age of 84, Paley died in Thetford Hill, Vermont.
It is clear that, through the decades, as a devoted humanitarian who engaged in everything from membership in the Women’s Pentagon Action to antiwar protests that landed her in jail, Grace Paley showed an awareness of the plights of others and the needs of society as a whole. This attitude informed her teaching, political sensibilities, and writing oeuvre and earned her, besides numerous accolades, a devoted following.