The American writer Grace Paley (born 1922) is best known for her three collections of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985). As long as she has been a writer, Paley has also been an activist, supporting various anti-war, anti-nuclear, and feminist movements. In her writing, however, she does not push a political agenda and prefers instead to chronicle the everyday lives of men and women.
Studied Poetry First
Born in the Bronx, New York, Paley was the youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She grew up in a socialist, intellectual household amid a babble of three languages—Yiddish, Russian, and English. As a writer of fiction, Paley would pick up on the music of all three tongues, celebrating their rhythms and idioms.
From an early age, she wrote poetry, and at age 17 she took a course with the British poet W. H. Auden. "When I wrote poetry I was very keenly aware of being influenced," Paley told the online literary magazine Salon. "When I was young, I wrote a lot like Auden. It's kind of comical, because after all, I didn't have a British accent. … I had no sense of my own language yet."
As a student Paley attended Hunter College and New York University. She married early, in 1942, and settled with her husband in Greenwich Village, where they raised two children (the marriage would eventually end in divorce). In this community of artists, intellectuals, and bohemians, Paley became involved in leftist politics. She frequented anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and she became engaged in local issues (opposing, for example, the city's proposed plan to build a road through Washington Square).
Wrote First Short Stories
As a young mother in the mid-1950s, Paley made her initial forays into writing fiction. The urge to tell stories had begun to grow in her, but the responsibilities of motherhood called. Falling ill one day, she arranged for her children to attend an after-school program while she convalesced. Paley was not too ill to sit at a typewriter, however, and the extra hours of quiet and solitude were all she needed to begin writing fiction. Thus was born her first short story, "Goodbye and Good Luck."
Paley then wrote two more stories, "The Contest" and "A Woman, Young and Old." She submitted them to editors, but like most beginning writers without connections in the field, she often received them back with form rejection slips. She did eventually publish her first three stories in little-known journals.
These stories would eventually launch Paley's career. In "Two Ears, Three Lucks," an introductory essay that begins her Collected Stories (1994), she describes her big break: the ex-husband of a friend offered to read her work. A couple of weeks later, Paley recalled, "He asked if I could write seven more stories like the three he'd read. He said he'd publish the book. Doubleday would publish them. He was Ken McCormick, an editor who could say that and it would happen."
And happen it did. Doubleday published Paley's first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, in 1959. The ten quirky tales, most of them in the first-person voices of women, garnered rave reviews. The New York Times called her "a newcomer possessed of an all-too-infrequent literary virtue," but the stories did not attract a mass audience. Rather, they appealed to a narrow literary readership, gaining a kind of cult following. The book remained in print until 1965, but its reputation survived. Meanwhile, Paley continued to publish new stories in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and other reputable magazines. Her readership continued to grow.
Paley's stories explored the everyday lives of her contemporaries, focusing most attentively on the lives of women. The dreams and goals of her female characters— independent, strong-minded, and often idealistic— propelled these narratives forward. She was perhaps the first writer to explore, with gritty realism, the lives and experiences of divorced mothers. Some critics point to her early stories as the beginnings of a feminist literature, written years before the women's movement of the 1970s.
If feminism entered Paley's stories, it did so only indirectly. She strove to capture in her fiction not political discourse but the rhythms of daily life. The spoken word and the power of dialogue fascinated her, and she reveled in the music of her characters' voices, the inflected, lively urban vernacular that she liked to describe as "a mixture of literary and neighborhood sound."
Only three years after it had gone out of print, a reprint of Little Disturbances appeared in 1968. It was with this edition, many critics note, that Paley reached a wide enough audience to establish a place for herself in contemporary American literature.
Became an Outspoken Activist
During the 1960s and 1970s, Paley entered the spotlight not only as a writer but also as an activist. She later classified herself as a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist," a label that stuck, repeated often by writers of articles and books about Paley. Her pacifism led her to help found the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1961, and when the Vietnam War broke out, she became even more active. Vehemently opposed to the war, Paley spent time in jail for her anti-war activities. She also visited Hanoi as a member of a peace delegation.
While Paley the activist drew press coverage, Paley the writer was not forgotten. Those who had read Little Disturbances awaited another book, but it was long in coming. Her involvement with anti-war activism took time away from her writing. She later recalled to the 1997 graduating class of Williams College, "I remember I was writing stories, and a lot of stuff was coming up at the time during Vietnam, and my mind simply went away from what I was doing, and that was all there was to it. I had to wait a couple of months until I could really wander off into that space."
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, her second collection of stories, appeared 15 years after her first, in 1974. The reviews were mixed. Many critics said her new book did not have the dazzling power of her debut collection, and some suggested that Paley's activist involvement had somehow marred her literary pursuits.
"It was ridiculous," Paley told the New York Times a few years later. "I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I'm not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life."
Meanwhile, Paley continued pursuing her activist passions. In the late 1970s she turned her attention to the anti-nuclear movement. Participating in a protest on the White House lawn in February 1979, she carried a banner that read "No Nuclear Weapons—No Nuclear Power—U.S. or U.S.S.R" and distributed leaflets with a similar message. She and two other writers were arrested and fined.
When she was not writing or protesting, Paley was teaching. Like most authors, she needed a source of income to supplement earnings from the occasional publication. Though her original motivation to teach was financial, Paley grew to enjoy the work and even to gain inspiration from it.
As a teacher of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, a women's college in Bronxville, New York, Paley encouraged her students to develop their own particular voices, culled from both family life and literary tradition. "What I'm trying to do," she told the New York Times in 1978, "is to remind students they have two ears. One is the ear that listens to their ordinary life, their family and the street they live on, and the other is the tradition of English literature."
Published Third Short Story Collection
The 1980s brought accolades for Paley, who was elected to the Academy of American Arts and Letters (1980) and was named New York's first state author (1986-88). It also brought the publication of her third collection of stories, Later the Same Day (1985). Critics received the new book with respectful, enthusiastic appraisals. "It's been worth the wait," said a New York Times reviewer, who called it "another collection of remarkable stories."
Many readers mused that Faith, a character who recurred in several stories in Paley's collections, must be an autobiographical rendering of the author. Like Paley, Faith had two children and eventually went through a divorce. But Paley claimed the similarities between her life and her character's ended there. "[I]t's as if [Faith] were one of my friends," she told Andrea Stephens of the New York Times. "I didn't bring up my kids alone; I married a second time. I was always interested in the lives of women and in the idea of a woman alone bringing up two boys." (Paley, unlike Faith, had one son and one daughter.)
The 1990s was an unusually prolific decade for Paley, who had previously published so rarely. Long Walks and Intimate Talks, a compilation of fiction and poetry, came out in 1991. This book, with illustrations by the artist Vera B. Williams, did not attract as much attention as the three previous collections, but it did gain some praise in critical circles. New and Collected Poems came out the following year to mixed reviews. Comparing Paley's poetry to her prose, most critics seemed to prefer the latter.
It was as a fiction writer, and not as a poet, that Paley would be most remembered. Indeed, she had already secured a place for herself in the canon of American fiction, and her works graced the syllabuses of many contemporary American Literature courses. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, women's studies and "political correctness" were hot topics on college campuses, and many professors included Paley among examples of women writers or Jewish American writers. Some readers felt such categorization was too limiting or pigeon-holing. Paley, on the other hand, did not mind. "I feel that everything I am enhances the word 'writer,"' she told the Berkshire Eagle. "It doesn't modify it. I feel being Jewish has been very important to my writing, being a woman has been extremely important to my writing—all those things that I am have made me what I am and what I write about and how I write. … But I think they should start calling them 'male writers.' That would solve the whole problem. Nobody would feel bad, except the men."
In a career milestone, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published The Collected Stories (1994), which included all of the short stories from Paley's first three books. For younger readers unfamiliar with Paley's early work, the book provided a chance to see her fiction in a broader context. The poet Robert Pinksy, reviewing the collection in the New York Times, called the stories "delicious." When Collected Stories came out, the 71-year-old writer had finished teaching regularly, although she gave lectures and led workshops on occasion. Living in Vermont with her second husband, the writer Robert Nichols, Paley continued writing, though she would never produce the novel that many of her fans expected. ("I tried," she told Laurel Graeber of the New York Times. "It didn't come out so good. So why should I?")
It was the short story that Paley had mastered as an art form, and devoted readers hope for more tales of Faith and other characters in the coming years. Late in her life, she remains one of America's most esteemed authors.
Paley, Grace, The Collected Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
Berkshire Eagle, June 19, 1997.
New York Times, April 19, 1959; April 30, 1978; April 14, 1985; April 24, 1994.
"Featured Author: Grace Paley," NYTimes.com, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/19/specials/paley.html . (October 30, 2001).
"Grace Paley," http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/fiction/paley.htm (October 29, 2001).
"Grace Paley: New York State Author, 1986-1988," http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/paley.html (October 30, 2001).
"Writing with Both Ears," Salon, http://www.salon.com/11/departments/litchat1.html . (October 29, 2001).