Grace Paley, 1922-2007

Jewish socialism influenced Grace Paley's life and literature.

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Paley’s activism meant she was something of an intermittent writer.  It was not until 1974, some 15 years after the publication of Little Disturbances, that Paley published her second book, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.  It would be another 11 years until she put out her third story collection, wryly titled Later the Same Day (1986). Collected Stories, published in 1994, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

She also published a collection of essays and talks, Just As I Thought, in 1998. John Leonard of The Nation said of Just As I Thought, “In Paley, life, literature and politics converge—nonviolently, of course—in a cunning patchwork quilt of radiance and scruple, witness and example, nurture and nag, subversive humor and astonishing art: a Magical Socialism and a Groucho Marxism."

Paley, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, alternately ascribed her relatively small body of work to both laziness and the belief that short stories could do the work of the novel more efficiently and clearly.  She was the progenitor of a new generation of mainly female short-story writers like Alice Munro and Ann Beattie who preferred the shorter form as the ideal model for their work.  Paley was also groundbreaking in her exploration of a certain brand of postwar, urban, politically informed, middle-class Jewish life.  Like Roth, or Bellow, Paley was sketching in the newly formed boundaries of an American Jewish existence only recently released from the confines of deprivation and bias.  Paley’s stories reveal that, for all the wonders of postwar America, her characters are still weighed down by familiar burdens: of family, history, disappointment, and love. 

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Saul Austerlitz

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