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.