Grace Paley (December 11, 1922 – 2007) was an American short story writer, poet, and political activist whose work has won a number of awards.
Grace Paley was born Grace Goodside on December 11, 1922, in the Bronx. Her Jewish parents, Isaac and Manya Ridnyik Goodside, had Anglicizied the family name from “Gutseit” on immigrating from Ukraine at the age of 21, and spoke Russian and Yiddish in the home along with English. By far the youngest of the three Goodside children (sixteen and fourteen years younger than brothers Thomas and Victor, respectively), Paley was something of a tomboy as a child, allowing her to investigate the conflicts and struggles of her immigrant neighborhood; these issues would later form the raw material for much of her fiction.
In 1938 and 1939, Paley attended Hunter College, then, briefly New York University, but she never received a degree. In the early 1940s, Paley studied with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research; his social concern and his heavy use of irony is often cited as an important influence on her early work, particularly her poetry.
On June 20, 1942, Grace Paley married Jess Paley, a motion-picture cameraman, and soon after had two children, Nora and Danny. Though Paley separated from her husband not long after the birth of her children, they would not be legally divorced until her 1972 marriage to landscape architect and author Robert Nichols.
Having spent several years as a typist and housewife, Paley turned her attention back to writing in the mid 1950s. After a number of rejections, Paley published her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) with Doubleday. The collection features eleven stories of New York life, several of which have since been widely anthologized, particularly “Goodbye and Good Luck” and “The Used-Boy Raisers”. The collection also introduces the semi-autobiographical character Faith Darwin (in “The Used-Boy Raisers” and “A Subject of Childhood”), who later appears in six stories of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and ten of Later the Same Day.
Though as a story collection by an unknown author, the book was not widely reviewed, those that did review it (including Philip Roth and the New Yorker book page) tended to rate the stories highly. Despite this initial lack of publicity, The Little Disturbances of Man went on to build a sufficient following to be reissued by Viking Press in 1968, at the time almost unprecedented for a short story collection. The book’s success allowed Paley to start a teaching career which would eventually include Columbia University, Syracuse, City College of New York, and Sarah Lawrence College; she also won a 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction.
Simultaneous with Paley’s burgeoning fiction career, she began what would become a life-long commitment to political activism, particularly anti-militarization efforts. In the 1950s, Paley joined friends in protesting nuclear proliferation and American militarization; she also worked with the American Friends Service Committee to establish neighborhood peace groups, through which she met husband Robert Nichols.
With the escalation of the Vietnam War, Paley’s activism reached a new level. Paley joined the War Resisters League and came to national prominence as an activist when she accompanied a 1969 peace mission to Hanoi to negotiate the release of prisoners of war. She also served as a delegate to the 1974 World Peace Conference in Moscow and in 1978, was arrested as one of “The White House Eleven” for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn.
Following the success of Little Disturbances of Man, Paley’s publisher encouraged her to write a novel. However, after several years of tinkering with drafts, Paley abandoned the project and turned back to short fiction.
Instead, with the aid of friend and neighbor Donald Barthelme, a famous author in his own right, Paley assembled a second collection of fiction in 1974, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. This collection of seventeen stories features several recurring characters from Little Disturbances of Man (most notably the narrator “Faith,” but also including Johnny Raferty and his mother), while continuing Paley’s exploration of racial, gender, and class issues. The long story “Faith in a Tree,” positioned roughly at the center of the collection, brings together a number of characters and themes from the stories together in a Saturday afternoon at the park. Faith, the narrator, climbs a tree to get a broader perspective on both her neighbors and the “man-wide world,” and after encountering several war protestors, declares a new social and political commitment. The collection’s shifting narrative voice, metafictive qualities, and fragmented, incomplete plots have led most critics to classify it as a postmodernist work.
Paley continues the stories of Faith and her neighbors in the collection Later the Same Day (1985). All three volumes were gathered in her 1994 Collected Stories, nominated for a National Book Award. Paley’s other honors include the Edith Wharton Award (1983), the Rea Award for the Short Story (1993) the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (1993), and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literary Arts (1994). In 1980, she was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1989, Governor Mario Cuomo made her the first official New York State Writer.