The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
In honoring Women’s History Month, two often-cited scenes come vividly to mind from the short stories of feminist poet and writer Grace Paley (1922-2007). The first is the ending of “A Subject of Childhood,” part two of “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life.” It figures Paley’s fictional alter-ego, the brilliantly named Faith Darwin, on the floor of her lower Manhattan apartment. Faith, who cradles her beloved but trouble-prone son in her arms, is transformed at the story’s end into a modern-day Mary. As she gently rocks the suffering son lying across her lap, she is illuminated as sunlight appears from behind the water towers of downtown office buildings and shines a beam through the blinds of their window. As this light from the heavens “suddenly shone white and bright on me,” Faith reflects, she feels her own heart as if lit in black and white stripes. The dark and light nature of her motherhood makes Faith feel akin to a jailed prisoner in Alcatraz; at the same time, she is awash in sanctity.
Faith has a second moment of epiphany in Paley’s later story, “Faith in a Tree” (1967). In this story, Faith is perched high above the fray of the neighborhood park playground, dispassionately observing the havoc of interactions below from her deus ex machina vantage point in the branches of a tree. This is democracy I’m viewing, thinks Faith, as she watches children play and women from the PTA or the school or down the block engage in conversations or sit on park benches. She observes the noisy inter-related and insular community she knows so well, when into their world steps a small set of parents with strollers, carrying protest signs that graphically express the suffering of children napalmed in the Vietnam War. As a disapproving local cop hustles the intruding protesters away, Faith’s outraged son borrows chalk from another child and repeats the slogans from their signs in fifteen-foot-high letters he draws on the playground cement. This act provokes a turning point in Faith’s vision and life choices. She feels called out of the parochial playground milieu to a committed life of international activism. She realizes that the interrelatedness she has witnessed extends from her own child to the children of the world.
Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 and died of breast cancer in Vermont in 2007. She was the unexpected mid-life child of Ukrainian socialist refugees who immigrated to the United States in 1906 and made their way up the social/professional ladder from the penniless Lower East Side to a middle-class Jewish suburb. Her father, Isaac Gutzeit, had been a political prisoner in Siberia; her mother, Manya Ridnyik, was exiled in Germany. Arriving in America under the grace of the upstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty, the couple anglicized their last name. Their third child received the seemingly fictional but real name of Grace Goodside.
Grace studied at Hunter College and Columbia University, but it was a 1940 poetry class she took with W. H. Auden at the New School of Social Research that framed her future. Told by Auden to write with her own voice, young Grace became both a poet and a short story writer. Like Faith in her tree, she focused on the world she knew—initially the messy, noisy, ribald, and chaotic world of Russian-Jewish homes and neighborhoods; then, the world of domestic child raising; and finally, the world in turmoil at large, where mothers in El Salvador held photographs of missing sons and children crying in Gaza.
Paley’s earliest stories are filled with expressive women. There are kvetching mothers, digressing aunts, and wayward life-seeking girls. Part Isaac Bashevis Singer, part Chekhov, part Woody Allen and Philip Roth, Paley’s stories of Jewish family life make readers guffaw out loud while tears of sorrow stream down their faces.
Memorable female characters include Rosie Leiber, who “surely got a build on you!” Rosie becomes a ticket seller at a Yiddish theater, only to find her way into the arms of the married matinee idol actor from the troupe. Other women are deserted by husbands, sons, and lovers. One husband gives his wife a new broom and dustpan to make a clean sweep of things, while informing her he is leaving her for an army in which he never enlists. (She asks him to wait a half hour to go, so she can get groceries for the kids). Young Shirley Abramowitz, who possessed “a particularly loud, clear voice,” is chosen by her school’s theater director to narrate the Christmas play on the life of Jesus. Her Jewish family huddles in the audience, doing their best to appreciate the historical and cultural beliefs of others (“Ho! Ho! My father said. “Christmas.”). Dotty breaks up with her imperfect boyfriend by returning his copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, while a childish lover of single mother Faith decries the existence of her children before leaving his copy of her apartment key at the roots of a potted rubber plant. Little cigarette-smoking Cindy is a Lolita, and Virginia is told she doesn’t measure up as a contestant for “Strike It Rich.” In comparison to people struck by tornadoes or washed away by floods, her “little disturbances of man”—poverty, desertion, single motherhood—do not qualify as suffering.
Paley had difficulty placing her crowded, loud, tragic-comic, ribald, and deeply Jewish stories. She struck it rich, fittingly enough, in the playground, when a fellow parent, the Doubleday publisher/editor Ken McCormick, expressed an interest in what she was writing. He became her champion at his publishing house, first making the hard sell of a book of short stories to the editorial committee, and then further cajoling a small stipend for Paley, to give her a Room of Her Own in which to write (a small studio apartment she could go to away from her kids). In the age of success for the likes of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud, McCormick was convinced that Paley’s gifts for language and storytelling would make for a best-selling novel. He was wrong about both the solitude and the novel, but not about the short story collection or Paley. The Little Disturbance of Man came out from Doubleday in 1959, the same year as Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, and remains in print. It was followed later by Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985).
As time progressed, Paley taught at Sarah Lawrence and other universities. She proved herself to be a cornucopia of pamphlets, reports, articles, and conference speeches as a political activist in the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and women’s liberation movements. She was there at the first National Women’s Year conference in Houston in 1977 and founded Women and Life on Earth in 1979. She also chronicled intimate family moments and international feminism in her poems.
In her poem “Autumn,” both about the time of year and the season of life, Paley describes the long arm of a red and orange maple branch contrasted against a field of green. She thinks of Chekhov, and her father, the Russian transplant to America, and how the maple contrasts with the birches. In “On Mother’s Day,” from Begin Again: The Collected Poems of Grace Paley (2000), the poet-mother takes the ferry to Staten Island and looks back across the water to Manhattan. An excursion to the Hudson River results in a moment of hilarity when she spies a group of cross-dressers who have pillows stuffed in their garments, taking advantage of the free meal for pregnant women special at a local restaurant. The poem “That Country” brings us back to Faith in her tree, as Paley travels on a feminist social justice mission and encounters women who sometimes “spoke in slogans.” “Is it true,” asks the poet, “we are sisters?” “Yes,” the women reply: “we are of one family.”
Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley, editors. A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Audio Recordings of Grace Paley:
As part of Poetry in English at the Library of Congress, Anne Winters reading from her poetry and Grace Paley reading from her short stories and essays in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, April 30, 1998