Remembering Grace Paley

Earlier this year, when Tillie Olsen passed away, I emailed Alice Mattison, author of the wonderful story collection In Case We’re Separated and asked her to share some thoughts on Olsen — a writer I knew she had affinities with.

Well, last week we lost another wonderful Jewish author associated with the Left: Grace Paley. It’s unfortunate we need to do this twice in a year, but I asked Alice if she’d reflect on Paley’s life and work, too.

From: Alice Mattison
To: Daniel Septimus
Date: August 27, 2007
Subejct: Re: Grace Paley

Dear Daniel,
Here are some thoughts about Grace Paley:

Private life is inevitably political and political events matter because they affect actual persons, so you’d think good art with political conviction might be ordinary. Yet Grace Paley’s fiction is rare in having characters who don’t turn flat and lifeless when their author mentions a public issue, and rare in depicting the way, at a single moment, what matters may simultaneously be intensely personal and internationally significant.

“But really, if you remember:â€? says the narrator of her story, “Wants,â€? “first my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.â€? She’s explaining to her ex-husband why she never invited certain friends to dinner. The sentence is deliciously accurate about the surprising way people actually talk and think, and also about how life at every level — public and private — may interrupt our plans.

Since her death I’ve seen Grace Paley described as a writer who was also an “activist,� as if that combination of traits might be comparable to being an ophthalmologist who is also a cook, and as if “activism� existed apart from the issues one may take action about. Grace Paley was an old secular Jewish lefty, of course (part of a tradition that I hope will not die out with her generation). Her convictions suffuse her work, and though it’s her penetrating language and psychological acumen that give her stories their excellence, what makes them important is their politics.

Reread “Faith In A Tree,â€? a leisurely account of one single mother’s attempt, as she sits on a tree branch in Washington Square Park — watching and quarreling with her children and neighbors — to figure out how to be a good person and how to raise her children to be good people. An informal parade of protesters, carrying signs reading, “Would you burn a child?â€? and “When necessaryâ€? — along with a picture of a napalmed Vietnamese baby — is dispersed by the local cop. When Faith and her friends do not resist, her son Richard’s rage changes her life: “directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains,â€? says Faith, “I thought more and more and every day about the world.â€?

All best to you,

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