Grace Paley, Writer and Activist, Dies

posted 2007-08-23 14:04:32 by DaveM

Grace Paley, the celebrated writer and social activist whose acclaimed short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives, died Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt. She was 84 and lived most of her life in Manhattan before moving to Vermont in 1988.

Her husband, Robert Nichols, told the Associated Press that she had battled breast cancer. The agency did not say whether her death was directly connected to that illness.

Ms. Paley’s output was modest, just 45 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 to be surgically spare and unimaginably rich at the same time.

Her “Collected Stories,” published by Farrar, Straus in 1994, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. From 1986 to 1988, Ms. Paley was New York’s first official state author.

Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailyness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite 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 Ms. Paley’s fiction is to be awash in the shouts and murmurs of secular Yiddishkeit, with its wild onrushing 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, its hairpin rhetorical reversals and its 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.

Some critics found Ms. Paley’s stories short on plot, and in fact much of what happens is that nothing much happens. Affairs begin, babies are born, affairs end. Mothers gather in the park. But that was exactly the point. In Ms. Paley’s best stories, the language is so immediate, the characters so authentic, that they are propelled by an inherent urgency — the kind that makes readers ask, “And then what happened?”

Open Ms. 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 Ms. Paley’s immigrant Jews, the push and pull of assimilation is everywhere. Parents live in the East Bronx or Coney Island; their grown children flee to Greenwich Village. A family agonizes over its lively daughter’s starring role in her school’s Christmas pageant.

Later stories were even darker. Women are raped; children died of drug overdoses. Threading through the books are familiar characters, in particular Faith Darwin, the subject of many of Ms. Paley’s finest stories, grown older and world-wearier.

Though Ms. 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 the death-defying, almost surreal turns of logic that were a stylistic hallmark — was already present in Yiddish oral tradition. For instance:

A man meets a friend on the street.

“So, 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, better not 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 a son and a daughter, and, approaching middle age, a third child, Grace.

Her childhood was noisy and warm. There were stories and singing and good strong tea. Always, there was argument. The Communists hollered at the Socialists, the Socialists hollered at the Zionists, and everybody hollered at the anarchists.

Ms. Paley studied for a year at Hunter College before marrying Jess Paley, a film cameraman, at 19; the marriage ended in divorce in 1972. Hoping to be a poet (she studied briefly with Auden at the New School), she wrote only verse until she was in her 30’s. But little by little, the narrative speech of the old neighborhood — here, that of young Shirley Abramowitz in “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,” Ms. Paley was a lifelong advocate of liberal social causes. During Vietnam, she was jailed several times for antiwar 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, gum cracking, leaflets in hand.

Ms. 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 Ms. Paley’s work uneven, but what they really seemed to mean is that it was too even: similar people in similar situations in similar places. But the stories that worked — and many did — were so blindingly satisfying that the lesser ones scarcely mattered. In her best work, Ms. 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, O.K. 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.”

Her other books include a collection of essays, “Just As I Thought” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), and three volumes of poetry, “Leaning Forward” (Granite Press, 1985); “New and Collected Poems” (Tilbury Press, 1991); and “Long Walks and Intimate Talks” (Feminist Press, 1991). A film, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” based on three stories in the collection and adapted by John Sayles and Susan Rice, was released in 1983.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1978, Ms. Paley put her finger on the grass-roots sensibility that informed her work.

“I’m not writing a history of famous people,” she explained. “I am interested in a history of everyday life.”