Grace Paley, 1922-2007

Jewish socialism influenced Grace Paley's life and literature.


Grace Paley is a major writer on seemingly minor themes.  Her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), placed its emphasis on the word “little”; its characters were not roiled by major historical events, but by the events from mundane life.  “She is that rare kind of writer, a natural with a voice like no one else’s–funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute,” Susan Sontag once wrote about Paley.

Paley was a writer whose characters were mostly of a piece: middle-class New York Jews. They are enmeshed in their domestic spheres, their squabbles and their failures reflective of the changes–social, political, intellectual–taking place in the wider society.  Paley was also unashamedly Jewish in her choice of material.  “My first two stories were specifically Jewish,” Paley remembered in a Paris Review interview.  “When I took a class at the New School this teacher said to me, ‘You’ve got to get off that Jewish dime, Grace, they’re wonderful stories, but . . .’  The idiocy of that remark was that he was telling me this just as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and others were getting more generally famous everyday.”

Paley’s parents were Russian revolutionaries who fled to the United States to escape the czar.  She was born in New York City in 1922, and was sent by her parents to local public schools.  After attending Hunter College and NYU, Paley married young, had two children, and was quickly divorced.  That milieu–urban divorcees, single mothers raising children–became the centerpoint of Paley’s fiction, which was powerfully committed to daily life.  “I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, ‘People will think this is trivial, nothing,’” she told the Paris Review.  “Then I thought, ‘It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there.

At first, Paley saw herself as a poet (eventually she would publish a number of volumes of poetry), and did not begin writing fiction until the 1950s. The Little Disturbances of Man was unsuccessful on first printing (although Paley won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961), never connecting with an audience, but was reissued nearly a decade later to much acclaim.  As a writer, Paley crafted a style entirely her own, whose unexpected notes of comedy and pathos were offered in distinctly minimalist fashion.  Paley’s characters speak in a Yiddish-inflected manner that owes a distinct debt to the mangled English of Anzia Yezierska and Bernard Malamud, while retaining a humorous edge mostly absent from the former and only occasionally present in the latter. “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose,” writes Paley in her story “The Little Disturbances of Man.”  “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.

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Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

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