Tender Impiety: Grace Paley, 1922-2007

By Rachel Rubin

 Just months before the venerated writer and political activist Grace Paley died of breast cancer at the age of 84, one of the best graduate students I have ever taught spotted her at a sparsely attended antiwar demonstration in Boston. “Don’t worry, honey,” Paley told my student. “We felt just like this in 1964.” Though she wanted to speak to Paley, my student said she held herself back: “I was afraid I might say ‘I love you,’” she confessed. This small moment on a street corner, which because of Paley’s presence, bursts with haimishkeit, wisdom, intergenerational connection, and several different kinds of devotion, indicates, as I reassured my student, that Paley would have remained unflappable and kind in the face of such a declaration.

 Paley’s short stories routinely earned her this sort of reader dedication. She published her first volume of them, The Little Disturbances of Man, in 1959, following it up with Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985). They are difficult to compare with anyone else’s. She achieves a startling richness through the act of paring down. What she called her “short shorts” are so stark that she seems to have worked by identifying and eliminating anything extraneous; yet at the same time they are so resonant that reading one aloud—or hearing Paley read one aloud—drenches one in sensory arousal.

 Paley once declared that she was motivated to write by her desire to “shine a light on the dark lives of women.” She searched out the corners and crevices of the daily lives of ordinary women. There she found a bounty of poetic material: in their longings, their disappointments, their compromises, their dirty kitchen floors. Many of Paley’s stories are written in the first person and glisten with her special attention to voice, which she often indicated was more important to her than plot. In her stories, it is usually women who speak, and the city, usually New York, speaks through them. She ranges from the simultaneous sentimentality and earthiness of Yiddish inflections to the shrugging wryness of self-incrimination. to the acerbic urgency of the street. The many voices she heard in New York’s neighborhoods created for Paley what she dubbed (writing about Russian-Jewish short story master Isaac Babel) the “lucky composting” that inspired her marvelous dialogue and narrations, and led her to call herself a “regional” writer, a label she claimed to prefer to “ethnic.” Paley never credited the role of her own perfect pitch in creating her spectacular tonal accomplishment—not so much out of modesty but because she was too busy being in the world.

 Three interlocking concerns dominated her adult life: her writing, her political activism, and her family. If asked how she managed to attend to all of these, Paley generally responded that each time she did one thing, she was neglecting something else. She began her career as a “combative pacifist” (her term) protesting the Vietnam War with the War Resisters League, the American Friends Service Committee, and other groups, and continued her activism throughout her life, right up to her opposition to the current Iraq war. She traveled quite a bit—to Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, Chile, Sweden, China, and Central America—as part of her peace work. Paley gave public talks following those trips, but never gave up political work at the ground level, continuing to hand out leaflets and attend demonstrations even as she aged and gained critical renown. She was not one to think, for instance, that receiving the Senior Fellowship of the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts or becoming New York’s first State Author meant she no longer needed to hold a banner on the street.

Paley worked to advance feminism, which she envisioned in its broadest political meaning as well as in its implications for the daily life she so illuminated in her fiction. Political work, writing, and mothering were elements of an inseparable whole for Paley, practically and in terms of worldview: she commented that she wrote short pieces partly because of the difficulty, as a mother, of finding long chunks of time in which to write. She often explored the effects of patriarchy’s various edifices on the cultures of both men and women. The contradictory tugs of motherhood find their way powerfully into Paley’s work. In “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life,” a mother imagines herself as imprisoned by her son’s love for her—and hers for him:

He took his thumb out of his mouth and placed his open hand, its fingers stretching wide, across my breast. “I love you, Mama,” he said.

“Love,” I said. “Oh love, Anthony, I know.”

I held him so and rocked him. I cradled him. I closed my eyes and leaned on his dark head. But the sun in its course emerged from among the water towers of downtown office buildings and suddenly shone white and bright on me. Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black-and-white-barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes.

Paley was born Grace Goodside on December 11, 1922, in the Bronx. Her parents were socialist Jews from Ukraine who had been exiled by Tsar Nicholai II. She had two considerably older siblings, and described her childhood, in interviews and in her poetry, as populated by loving, sharp-tongued aunts and loudly arguing socialists and anarchists—a multilingual, multigenerational family, both biological and chosen. Paley’s picture of her childhood is warm and comic, and characteristically dense in terms of emotional complexity, historical weight, and plain old difference of opinion.

Citing her frequent focus on immigrant Jews and their children, critics tend to admire the ways in which Paley wrote about intimate experience. More important, I believe, is her skill at opening up these intimate portraits to reveal her characters’ entanglement in the repressive institutions she committed so much of her life to battling. At once playful and profound, her poem “Song Stanzas of Private Luck, to Be Added to Sometimes and Sometimes to Be Subtracted From as Events Prove One More Wrong than Right,” entwines lines about her own birth, the persecution of older family members in Russia as socialists and as Jews, the invention of the sanitary napkin (“nearly as important as the diaphragm”), and the status of women in Eritrea. Indeed, Paley is one of those rare artists who demonstrates just how much fun high seriousness can be.

Paley dropped out of high school and entered Hunter College, which she attended for a year before being expelled for poor attendance. In her own account, she too easily got caught up in conversation, which prevented her from hurrying upstairs to class. She never lost this deep love of dialogue; late in life, when traveling was somewhat difficult for her but invitations to give readings and talks kept coming from all over, she said to me (a relative stranger with whom she was once again caught up in conversation), “How can I not go, when someone asks? When I might meet a woman there I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and have a real conversation?” These conversations Paley located as part of “a great oral tradition”—even as she punctured the loftiness of the term by adding, “It’s called gossip.”

At the age of 19, in 1942, Grace married the cinematographer Jess Paley. She lived with him for 22 years and they raised two children. The marriage ended in divorce and Paley remarried in 1972 to Robert Nichols, a writer and landscape architect with whom she collaborated on a book of poems and stories (2007), as she had previously with artist Vera Williams (1991). Until she was in her thirties, Paley wrote only poetry; when she turned to short fiction, her cosmopolitan focus on what Raymond Williams called “the miscellany of the metropolis” produced a heightened self-consciousness that led some critics to call her “post-modern.” Like Isaac Babel, Paley was attuned to the intersections among language, ethnicity, history, literary power, and power relations. Her stories are connected (even across published volumes) by figures who reappear and become familiar; in particular, Paley’s character Faith Baldwin seeks her place in the changing familial, sexual, and political landscape as she ages from the single mother of young children to a more tired and battle-scarred woman living alone after her boys have grown and various men have come and gone.

A decade after her first story was published, Paley began teaching creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. There, moving from part-time to full-time status and back again, depending upon financial need, she served as an important mentor for young writers until 1988. She continued generously to give of herself as teacher until the end of her life, returning every year to the public, urban University of Massachusetts Boston campus to conduct summer writers’ workshops for veterans. Writer and National Public Radio columnist Marion Winik praises Paley’s mentorship as “a dream come true”; she likely speaks for many when she says,

For me, Grace Paley is the writer who makes everything possible, the founding mother of my whole generation of women writers, the realest real McCoy there is. Because of Grace Paley, we know it is possible to be earthy and sexy and shocking and funny and feisty and sad and full of humanitarian ideals all at the same time.

Paley made no bones about the fact that time spent teaching was time away from writing. But she loved and felt sustained by the relationships with young people she made through teaching and activism. Paley also loved the words of older people. “When an old person is telling their’s almost always beautiful because they don’t fuck around,” she once commented to an interviewer in what I consider to be her trademark tone of tender impiety. For me, this is perhaps Paley’s most important lesson: don’t fuck around. You might find beauty.

Rachel Rubin is professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her books and edited collections include Jewish Gangsters of Modern Literature (2000), Immigration and American Popular Culture (2006), and Radicalism in the South since Reconstruction (2006).

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