Grace Paley Serious, © Alan Pogue, 1984
Grace Paley died last night. Alan Pogue sent these three photos in last night saying simply -- I want to get these out into the world. I miss her. I met her in Minneapolis in the early 80s. She and Meridel LeSueur were mentoring younger women writers. O Great Spirit!
Grace Paley, 84, short story writer, activist
Published on: 08/24/07- (Atlanta Journal Constution)
Grace Paley, the celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives, died on Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt. She was 84 and also had an apartment in Manhattan.
Paley had been ill with breast cancer for some time, her literary agent, Elaine Markson, said Thursday.
Grace Paley is shown in her home in Thetford, Vt., April 9, 2003.
Paley's output was modest, about four dozen stories in three volumes: "The Little Disturbances of Man" (Doubleday, 1959); "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and "Later the Same Day" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985). But she attracted a devoted following and was widely praised by critics for her pitch-perfect dialogue, which managed at once to be surgically spare and almost unimaginably rich.
Her "Collected Stories," published by Farrar, Straus in 1994, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (The collection was reissued by Farrar, Straus this year.) From 1986 to 1988, Paley was New York's first official state author; she was also a past poet laureate of Vermont.
Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She often focused on single mothers, whose days were a mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud's men had loved and left behind.
To read Paley's fiction is to be awash in the shouts and murmurs of secular Yiddishkeit, with its wild joy and twilight melancholy. For her, cadence and character went hand in hand: her stories are marked by their minute attention to language, with its tonal rise and fall, hairpin rhetorical reversals and capacity for delicious hyperbolic understatement. Her stories, many of which are written in the first person and seem to start in mid-conversation, beg be read aloud.
Grace Paley Hilarious, © Alan Pogue, 1984
Some critics found Paley's stories short on plot, and much of what happens is that nothing much happens. Affairs begin, babies are born, affairs end. But that was the point. In Paley's best stories, the language is so immediate, the characters so authentic, that the text is propelled by an innate urgency — the kind that makes readers ask, "And then what happened?"
Open Paley's first collection, "The Little Disturbances of Man," to the first story, "Goodbye and Good Luck":
"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. 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. Who's listening? Papa's in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind word and thinks — poor Rosie.
"Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten."
For Paley's immigrant Jews, the push and pull of assimilation is everywhere. Parents live in the East Bronx or Coney Island; their children flee to Greenwich Village. A family agonizes over its daughter's role in her school's Christmas pageant.
Grace Paley Humorous, © Alan Pogue, 1984
Later stories are darker. A girl is raped; children die of drug overdoses. Threading through the books are familiar characters, in particular Faith Darwin, the subject of many stories, grown older and world-wearier.
Though Paley's work also rings with Irish and Italian and black voices, it was for the language of her childhood, a heady blend of Yiddish, Russian and English, that she was best known. Reviewers sometimes called her prose postmodern, but all of it — even her death-defying, almost surreal turns of logic — was already present in Yiddish oral tradition. Consider:
A man meets a friend on the street.
"Nu, how's by you?" the friend asks.
"Ach," the man replies. "My wife left me; the children don't call; business is bad. With life so terrible, it's better never to have been born."
"Yes," his friend says. "But how many are so lucky? Not one in ten thousand."
Grace Goodside was born in the Bronx on Dec. 11, 1922. (The family changed its name from Gutseit on coming to the United States.) Her parents, Isaac and the former Manya Ridnyik, were Ukrainian Jewish Socialists who had been exiled by Czar Nicholas II: Isaac to Siberia, Manya to Germany. In 1906, they were able to leave for New York, where Isaac became a doctor. They had two children, and, approaching middle age, a third, Grace.
Grace's childhood was noisy and warm, and always there was glorious argument. The Communists hollered at the Socialists, the Socialists hollered at the Zionists, and everybody hollered at the anarchists.
Grace spent a year at Hunter College before marrying Jess Paley, a film cameraman, at 19; the marriage later ended in divorce. Hoping to be a poet (she studied briefly with Auden at the New School), she wrote only verse until she was in her 30s. But little by little the narrative speech of the old neighborhood — here, that of young Shirley Abramowitz in Paley's story "The Loudest Voice" — began to assert itself:
"There is a certain place where dumb-waiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.
"There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. 'Mrs. Abramowitz,' he says, 'people should not be afraid of their children.'
"'Ah, Mr. Bialik,' my mother replies, 'if you say to her or her father "Ssh," they say, "In the grave it will be quiet.'""
A self-described "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist," Paley was an advocate of liberal causes. During the Vietnam War she was jailed several times for protests; in later years she lobbied for women's rights, against nuclear proliferation and, most recently, against the war in Iraq. For decades she was a familiar presence on lower Sixth Avenue, near her Greenwich Village home, smiling broadly, leaflets in hand.
Paley, who taught for many years at Sarah Lawrence and the City College of New York, was also a past vice president of the PEN American Center.
Some critics have called Paley's work uneven, but what they really seemed to mean is that it was too even: similar people in similar situations. But the stories that worked — and most did — were so satisfying that the lesser ones scarcely mattered. At her best, Paley collapsed entire worlds into a few perfect paragraphs, as in the opening of "Wants," from "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute":
"I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
"Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
"He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
"I said, OK I don't argue when there's real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
"The librarian said $32 even and you've owed it for eighteen years. I didn't deny anything. Because I don't understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
"My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.
"That's possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began."
Paley is survived by her second husband, Robert Nichols, whom she married in 1972. (They collaborated on "Here and Somewhere Else," which collects poems and stories by each of them, published this year by The Feminist Press.) She is also survived by two children from her first marriage, Nora Paley of East Thetford; and Danny, of Brooklyn; and three grandchildren.
Her other books include a collection of essays, "Just As I Thought" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), and several volumes of poetry, among them "Leaning Forward" (Granite Press, 1985) and "New and Collected Poems" (Tilbury Press, 1991). A film, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," based on three stories and adapted by John Sayles and Susan Rice, was released in 1983.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1978, Paley described the grass-roots sensibility that informed her work.
"I'm not writing a history of famous people," she said. "I am interested in a history of everyday life."
Susan Bright, 2007
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-ninety books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.
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