[Marxism] Grace Paley, acclaimed short-story writer and activist, dies at 84
walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Aug 24 10:45:52 MDT 2007
(There's a beautiful photo of Paley at today's LA TIMES
Website. Paley is interviewed on today's DEMOCRACY NOW.)
>From the Los Angeles Times
Grace Paley, acclaimed short-story writer and activist, dies at 84
By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 24, 2007
Grace Paley, the activist and writer whose vibrant, Bronx-accented
short stories illuminated the daily trials and boisterous interior
lives of working-class men and women in language that radiated
humanity, intelligence and streetwise humor, has died. She was 84.
Paley died of breast cancer Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill,
Vt., said her husband, playwright Robert Nichols.
During a writing career that began more than 50 years ago, Paley
published only three collections of stories, but those books -- "The
Little Disturbances of Man" (1959), "Enormous Changes at the Last
Minute" (1974) and "Later the Same Day" (1985) -- garnered elaborate
praise from critics, fellow writers and a loyal core of readers. One
noted admirer, novelist Philip Roth, said her stories offered "an
understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is
splendidly comic and unladylike." In 1993 Paley received the $25,000
Rea Award, which has been described as the Pulitzer Prize of
short-story writing. Declaring that Paley's voice was like no other
in American fiction, the judges called her "a pure short-story
writer, a natural to the form in the way that rarely gifted athletes
are said to be naturals."
Some critics found her stories technically uneven, but they did not
consider the flaws fatal.
"Her successes are intermittent, unpredictable, often unshapely and
without wholeness," Vivian Gornick once wrote in the Village Voice.
"On the other hand: Paley when she is good is so good that she is
worth 99 'even' writers, and when one hears that unmistakable Paley
voice one feels what can be felt only in the presence of a true
Paley also wrote prose and poetry -- a volume of new poems will be
published in the coming months by Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- but
these works did not resonate as profoundly as her short stories,
which compressed whole lives into a few pages. Forty-four of them
were reprinted in "The Collected Stories," which was nominated for a
1994 National Book Award.
The stories were viewed as heavily autobiographical because her
characters spend their time much as Paley did -- raising children and
Most of her stories occur in a domestic arena, "a certain place,"
says the protagonist of "The Loudest Voice," "where dumbwaiters boom,
doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding
the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home." The women
are unhappily married or unhappily divorced, challenged by children
and greedy for love. All themes run through Faith Darwin Asbury, a
recurring Paley character who confronts the vicissitudes of life as
the divorced mother of two with wit, irony and political action, a
"pure-thinking English major" in her youth who was "forced by bad
management, the thoughtless begetting of children, and the vengeance
of alimony into low practicality."
Like Faith, Paley was distracted by child-rearing and the need to
make a living. She taught writing for more than two decades, mostly
at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. But she also was an
inveterate street-corner leafleteer and protest marcher who supported
or helped found the Greenwich Village Peace Center, the War Resisters
League, Women's Pentagon Action and the Feminist Press.
Sometimes she consorted with antagonistic foreign powers. During the
Vietnam War she went to Hanoi to arrange for the release of some
American POWs, encouraged draft resistance and was jailed several
times, which she said "seemed like the natural thing to do."
She told Vanity Fair in 1998 that she was so "neurotically
anti-authoritarian" that she couldn't read a simple cookbook
instruction "without the furious response: 'Is that a direct order?'
This instinct for rebellion gave her main characters a fierce
vitality, which Paley could establish in a few terse lines. "My
husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can
tell me it was meant kindly," says an embattled, self-mocking mother
of four, whose husband is about to leave her, at the start of "An
Interest in Life," one of Paley's earliest and best-known stories.
Her inventive narrative technique relied on conversation. She had an
ear finely tuned to the dialects of her native Bronx, which she
distilled into an aural portrait of lives rutted by disappointment
"I am a samovar already," says a lusty older woman turning down
another cup of tea in "Goodbye and Good Luck," Paley's first story.
"It's your little dish of lava," a woman in "The Used-Boy Raisers"
says dismissively to an ex-husband ranting about the Catholic Church.
"Hey! He's not altogether from the white race, what's going on? I'll
tell you what: Life is going on," snaps the retired Jewish pharmacist
and ex-bigot of "Zagrowsky Tells" when he notices someone staring at
his black grandson.
"Her short stories are a kind of New York chamber music in which the
instruments are the voices of the city -- more specifically Greenwich
Village, more specifically 11th Street between Sixth and Seventh,"
wrote David Remnick in the Washington Post in 1985.
Paley's story began Dec. 11, 1922. She was the youngest of three
children of Isaac and Manya Gutseit (later changed to Goodside),
committed socialists who fled czarist Russia in 1906. Her father
taught himself English by reading Dickens and became a successful
doctor in the Bronx. Her mother worked in his office during the early
years of his practice.
The Goodsides were "a typical Jewish family; they were very verbal;
they expected me to be very verbal," Paley told biographer Judith
Arcana in "Grace Paley's Life Stories," published in 1993.
Starting when she was 11, Grace ran a newspaper in Mahopac, N.Y.,
where her parents had a summer home. She was a lackluster student who
was, according to Arcana, "a blooming anarchist and a confirmed
romantic . . . a constant frustration to her surprised and anxious
When she was 19, she took a class at New York's New School for Social
Research taught by poet W.H. Auden, who noticed that she wrote poems
in British English. When he asked her why, it produced a revelation.
"What he did was he pointed a way for me to be myself," Paley told
Oprah magazine this year.
She briefly attended Hunter College and New York University but never
earned a degree. In 1942, she married Jess Paley, a physics graduate
of City College of New York. When he was sent to the Pacific with the
Signal Corps during World War II, she worked as a secretary for
After the war, their two children, Danny and Nora, were born. (They
survive her, along with Nichols and two grandchildren.) Jess, who was
frequently away on assignments as a freelance photographer, was a
reluctant and distant father, Paley told Arcana. Such men often
appeared in Paley's early stories, such as "The Used-Boy Raisers."
Paley exacted some revenge in her naming of the heroine's former and
current husbands: She called them Livid and Pallid.
She began writing short stories in 1954 or 1955 when she was sick and
had sent her children to day care so she could rest. She drew her
material from the many hours she had sat with other mothers watching
their children play at Washington Square Park, a famous Greenwich
Village meeting place. But the cultural milieu of the '50s, when
Hemingway was king and Mailer was ascendant, was not favorable to
someone who wanted to write what Paley called "kitchen dramas,"
stories about the everyday conflicts and losses in the lives of Paley
and her friends.
This was the era that feminist Betty Friedan would dissect in the
1963 bestseller "The Feminine Mystique," which exploded the notion
that women were only fulfilled in the roles of wife and mother. "I
was a woman writing at the early moment when small drops of worried
resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the
second wave of the women's movement," Paley wrote decades later.
But there were distractions.
In the early 1960s, Paley started working in the peace movement and
helped organize the Greenwich Village Peace Center. In 1965, she
began to teach fiction writing, first at Columbia University and
later at City University of New York, Syracuse University and Sarah
Lawrence. At the end of the decade, her first marriage ended.
In 1969, she went to Hanoi and agitated for the end of the war. In
1972, she went to Chile and attended Socialist Party meetings with
Nichols, who later became her second husband. In 1973, she traveled
to Moscow as a delegate to the World Peace Congress. In 1985, when
her third book was published, Time magazine described her as "the
friendly neighborhood radical," who passed out leaflets every
Saturday morning on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street for
Women's Pentagon Action.
When she wasn't on the barricades, she felt "bad," she told Time. "It
comes from my terrible sense about the world. When I'm doing
something about it, I can bear it somehow."
As a result of her compulsion to do "the citizenly thing," her total
output -- three slim volumes of stories over 25 years -- occupied
"less room on a bookshelf than one Robert Ludlum thriller," a San
Francisco Chronicle reviewer once noted.
Some might think it a miracle that she published at all. She was
never a careerist and was haphazard about saving what she wrote. At
the two-room Vermont cabin she shared with Nichols, a Vanity Fair
writer found bits and pieces of stories everywhere, including the
floor, and a cardboard box labeled "Current Writing. Do Not Lose"
where Nichols would deposit the precious scraps. Her phone rang
incessantly with invitations to read, speak, provoke.
She once tried to write a novel but thought it awful and abandoned
the effort. "I could never write a novel," she told The Times in
2007. "I can't see extracting myself from life so much. Bob can go
upstairs and close the door. Not me. I'm extremely interruptable."
Her stories could be read as a novel, bound together by the recurring
Faith, who appears in various stages of life through more than two
dozen stories. The character's personal history, politics and
personality -- she is a smart, opinionated single mother who fights
for her children and wants to change the world -- seem to mirror
Paley's. She is often referred to by critics as an alter ego, but the
author insisted otherwise. "That woman could have existed," Paley
told Arcana, "and she could have been one of my best friends."
Paley's first book was published by chance. The father of one of her
children's schoolmates was Ken McCormick, a Doubleday editor, whose
wife urged him to examine Paley's stories. He read three of them in
Paley's kitchen one day and liked them so much that he told her to
write seven more and Doubleday would publish them.
The result, "The Little Disturbances of Man," received glowing
reviews, including one in the New York Times that said Paley
demonstrated "an all-too-infrequent literary virtue." That collection
was reissued twice by two publishers -- Viking in 1968 and American
Library's Plume Books in 1973 -- which was almost unheard of for a
volume of short stories.
Her next collection, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," brought
darker themes and more overtly political concerns. It also offered
some of her most experimental writing, including "Faith in a Tree," a
surrealistic tale that ends with an epiphany in the park, and "A
Conversation with My Father," in which nothing seems to happen except
for a gentle argument between a dying father and a spirited daughter
who writes unconventional stories.
Her third collection, "Later the Same Day," followed characters from
previous volumes who were older but not always wiser. Faith returns,
perhaps most powerfully in "Dreamer in a Dead Language," which finds
her overwhelmed by age-addled parents. Michiko Kakutani of the New
York Times said some of the stories were marred by ill-defined
characters and "blunt, unnecessary explication," but James Sallis of
the Dallas Morning News commended Paley's ability to "touch so
lightly on things that matter so greatly."
In her ninth decade, she wrote poems that appeared in the New Yorker
and elsewhere. As for the stories, she said, "I've got threads I'm
still following" but wouldn't promise that she'd complete them. As
one of her characters says, "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the
open destiny of life."
elaine.woo at latimes.com
>From the Los Angeles Times
Excerpts from Grace Paley's works
August 24, 2007
"A Conversation With My Father" from Grace Paley's "Enormous Changes
at the Last Minute" (1974).
My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody
motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore. It still
floods his head with brainy light. But it won't let his legs carry
the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this
muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a
potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he
offers last-minute advice and makes a request.
"I would like you to write a simple story just once more," he says,
"the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write.
Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them
I say, "Yes, why not? That's possible." I want to please him, though
I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a
story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman,"
followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've
always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all
hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of
"The Floating Truth" from "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959).
(Lionel, Charley, Marlon and Eddie are names for the same character.)
The day I knocked, all the slats were flat. "Where are you, Lionel?"
I shouted. "In the do-funny?"
"For goodness' sake, be quiet," he said, unlatching the back door.
"I'm the other side of the coin."
I nicked him with my forefinger. "You don't ring right, Charley.
"Come on in and settle," he said. "Keep your hat on. The coat rack's
out of order."
I had visited before. The seats were washable plaid plastic -- easy
to care for -- and underfoot was the usual door-to-door fuzz. In
graceful disarray philodendrons rose and fell from the back window
"How in the world can you see to drive, Marlon?"
"Well, baby, I don't drive it much," he said. "It isn't safe."
He offered me an apple from the glove compartment.
"Nature's toothbrush," I said dreamily. "How've you been, Eddie?"
He sighed. "Things never looked better."
"Living" from "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974).
Two weeks before Christmas, Ellen called me and said, "Faith, I'm
dying." That week I was dying too.
After we talked, I felt worse. I left the kids alone and ran down to
the corner for a quick sip among living creatures. But Julie's and
all the other bars were full of men and women gulping a hot whiskey
before hustling off to make love.
People require strengthening before the acts of life.
I drank a little California Mountain Red at home and thought -- why
not -- wherever you turn someone is shouting give me liberty or I
give you death. Perfectly sensible, thing-owning, Church-fearing
neighbors flop their hands over their ears at the sound of a siren to
keep fallout from taking hold of their internal organs. You have to
be cockeyed to love, and blind in order to look out the window at
your own ice-cold street.
I really was dying. I was bleeding. The doctor said, "You can't bleed
forever. Either you run out of blood or you stop. No one bleeds
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