Grace Paley’s Crowded World

Big Disturbances

For Grace Paley, politics wasn’t separate from domestic life or writing—it was at their center.


I was popular in certain circles,” the narrator asserts in the opening line of Grace Paley’s story “Goodbye and Good Luck.” It’s the perfect combination of confidence and caginess, self-inflation and self-deprecation, and it communicates an entire character in six words. In it, we hear someone who might not be as important as she thinks she is, but who is nonetheless sure to be interesting. We also hear the contrasting sounds of English and Yiddish, the new and old country, the present and the past, all falling together in a kind of compact symmetry.

“Goodbye and Good Luck” is an extended monologue—delivered by Aunt Rose, an older Jewish woman, to her niece—that reflects on the romantic entanglements of Rose’s youth:

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.

Right away, we are in Rose’s world: a world of appetites and aging bodies, of creative insults and idiomatic speech. The voice captured here—chiding, teasing, commanding—was, it comes as no surprise, not entirely made up. “I was popular in certain circles” was something that an aunt once confessed to Paley, and the line stuck in her mind.

At the time she wrote the story, Paley was in her 30s, ill, and thus temporarily freed from responsibilities inside and outside the home. W.H. Auden, her teacher at the New School, had encouraged her to write in her own voice; Paley decided that she would also write in the voices of the many women who populated her world. The story helped launch her into prominence as a fiction writer. An editor at Doubleday liked what he read and told Paley that if she could write seven more stories like it, Doubleday would publish a collection.

The Little Disturbances of Man came out in 1959. Paley was 37 and then mostly unknown in literary circles; the book won her critical praise, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the friendship of Donald Barthelme, and various teaching jobs over the years. Philip Roth praised her language for its “rich emotional subtleties…a kind of back-handed charm and irony all its own.” She quickly became a major new voice in American fiction.

Paley published only two story collections after this: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), which appeared 15 years after her first collection; and Later the Same Day (1985). Most of her stories are set in New York City, where she lived for almost all of her life. In the years between publications, she raised children, organized antiwar protests, and taught at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence. During these years, Paley didn’t write less; she simply refused to confine herself to the short-story form. Throughout her life, she was a committed activist and wrote pamphlets, articles, political reports, poetry—whatever the moment demanded of her. She built up a diverse body of work, not all of it literary—and therefore much of it has been neglected by those who admired her fiction.

Paley’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Gi-roux, set out to correct this oversight, releasing more of her nonfiction every few years. A book collecting many of Paley’s essays was published in 1998, and another collecting her poems in 2000. Now, A Grace Paley Reader tries to bring these writings together with her fiction. With an introduction by George Saunders, the Reader includes stories as well as essays, talks, and poems. The book reminds us that Paley the short-story writer was also Paley the activist, the pamphleteer, the poet, the community organizer, and the committed leftist.

Paley, who died in 2007, devoted much more of her life to politics than to literature. But despite being embroiled in some of the most important social movements of the postwar period, her work isn’t always considered in light of the history that produced it. It’s easy to miss how much of the moment her fiction was. This is one of the hazards of writing short fiction, which can be read almost entirely divorced from its place and time. This is even more true of a Paley story, which can appear like a perfect gem, mined from the muck of history.

A Grace Paley Reader helps to return the writer to her historical moment, to the specific conditions that shaped her life as an artist and activist. The chronology in the back of the book pairs Paley’s literary publications with her political activities. A sampling: “1959: The Little Disturbances of Man published by Doubleday. Joins in organizing antinuclear protests and with protests against air-raid drills in schools.” “1969: Travels to North Vietnam with a small delegation of peace activists to receive three U.S. prisoners of war. ‘Distances’ is awarded O. Henry Award.” “1978: Arrested in antinuclear demonstration on White House lawn, receives six-month suspended sentence. Publishes ‘Somewhere Else’ in The New Yorker.” In Paley’s life, as in her fiction, the boundaries between the personal and the political, the domestic and the worldly, were remarkably porous. Politics entered her fiction as naturally as a familiar neighbor might step across the threshold of her apartment. For quite some time, critics have heralded Paley because of the compact precision, humor, and idiom of her prose. But equally important to our understanding is her deep engagement with the social and political movements of her time—and how this engagement, this passionate worldliness, defined her fiction.

Paley was born Grace Goodside, the youngest of three children, in the Bronx in 1922. Her parents were Ukrainian immigrants and committed socialists who had both lived in exile—her father in Siberia, her mother in Germany—before fleeing together to the United States in 1906. From an early age, Paley absorbed her parents’ political inclinations along with their Russian, Yiddish, and accented English—the tones and rhythms that would later inflect her fiction. Like many Jewish children growing up in political homes in the 1930s, Paley became more radical than her parents. In the essay “Injustice,” written in 1995, she suggests that her parents, “a couple of ghetto Jews struggling with hard work and intensive education up the famous American ladder,” eventually reached “the professional middle class…that comfortable rung (probably upholstered).” Paley, who was deeply involved over the course of her life in the civil-rights, women’s liberation, and antiwar movements, never let herself become comfortable.

The Paley Reader includes writings on each of these movements. Some of these pieces ​have been published before: for example, a controversial essay about Americans adopting Vietnamese children that she published in Ms. magazine in 1975. There are also many pamphlets and essays that never appeared in national magazines, including much of Paley’s writing on gender politics and the political lives of women. Her notes from the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment of 1983 will resonate with any reader who has faced off against hostile law enforcement at a protest, and another essay of note is “The Illegal Days,” an honest and measured account of her attempt to get an abortion when the procedure was still illegal.

But as is true with many politically engaged fiction writers, Paley wrote most compellingly about politics in her stories. “Mother,” drawn from her own life, dramatizes the intergenerational conflict between an immigrant mother and a first-generation daughter that Paley described in some of her more autobiographical essays. The narrator of the story recalls delivering “a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union,” which earns her mother’s admonishment: “Go to sleep for Godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905.” The daughter, growing up in Depression-era America, can never know what terrors her immigrant parents have witnessed, but her parents, likewise, can’t sympathize with their daughter’s political commitments.

The same challenges befall many of Paley’s fictional avatars, including those middle-aged activists and mothers who now worry about their own radicalized teens. In “Ruthy and Edie,” a group of women celebrate a 50th birthday and discuss the whereabouts of a missing daughter. “Where the hell is she?” one asks. “Oh, probably in jail for some stupid little sit-in or something,” another responds. “She’ll get out in five minutes.… You brought her up like that and now you’re surprised.” Political consciousness is passed down from mother to child; the radical children also inherit the worries of their mothers.

For Paley, political activism was coterminous with homemaking and child-rearing. It was precisely because women had children that they needed to care about the world. In an interview with the Boston Review from 1976, Paley argued that it was less important that a mother raise her children perfectly—the right food, the best schools—than that she be politically active. As a mother, “you’re important,” she explained, “but the world is bringing [children] up and insofar as the world is bringing them up…you better pay attention to the world too. It’s all related.” Paley believed that everyone and everything is connected: The chemicals in weapons would soon be in your children’s water; your own son could serve in the cruel war you failed to protest.

The concept of interdependence was both the foundation of Paley’s politics and the organizing principle of her art. No story illustrates this better than “Faith in a Tree,” a story from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Faith, a recurring figure in her fiction, is lounging in a neighborhood park on a Saturday in New York City. It’s a chaotic scene: Children run and play; mothers hector and talk; and “the young Saturday fathers, open-shirted and ambitious,” pester and flirt. Faith climbs a tree and surveys the scene: “What a place in democratic time!” she exclaims. While perched there, she’s visited by a series of friends and neighbors. Chattering to them, Faith also offers judgments and commentary on those present and absent—including her estranged husband Ricardo, who writes to her when he needs cash. An entire neighborhood—which is to say, an entire world—is contained in this park, the province of women and children.

The story ends when an antiwar parade sweeps into the park. The adults carry signs—Would you burn a child?—and push their own children in go-carts through the playground. Faith, who had been daydreaming about a sexual encounter, watches as her son Richard picks up chalk and copies out the protesters’ accusatory question on the nearby blacktop. For Faith, the parade, and Richard’s impulsive participation in it, mark a turning point: “I think that is exactly when events turned me around…. Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.” Politics doesn’t so much interrupt this domestic scene as show itself to be an organic part of it. The playground is already political.

When I came to think as a writer, it was because I had begun to live among women,” Paley argued in a talk from 1986. Once captivated by the “exciting” world of men, she grew disenchanted and turned her attention to the women who surrounded her—“mothers, sisters, and aunts.” To her surprise, she had not given them much thought, nor did she understand them. “I didn’t know them,” Paley said in the talk, “and that, I think, is really where lots of literature comes from.… It comes from what you’re curious about.”

Paley believed that women were predisposed to be curious about the lives of others. They were naturally more empathetic than men and less violent. When she called slaughter “man-made,” as she did in one of her poems, she meant it in the most gender-specific sense: The violence of the world around her appeared distinctly male in its origins. Women were thus charged with “changing the fucking world,” as she once said to Boston Review—through art, through activism, and through raising children. “It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet / It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman,” she announces at the beginning of the poem “Responsibility.” The responsible poet looks much like Paley herself: standing on street corners handing out pamphlets, refusing to pay war taxes, decrying economic injustice. The poem ends with an injunction to the poet to “cry out like Cassandra, but be / listened to this time.”

This connection between living among women and becoming a writer was as much practical as it was philosophical. When her children were young, Paley divided her time between an office on the Upper West Side, where she worked as a typist at Columbia University, and the parks and schools downtown, where she minded her kids. Running after her children, Paley would observe other people’s everyday lives and overhear their vernacular speech. “If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground,” she told an interviewer in 1992, “I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories.” She typed up some of her earliest stories while working at Columbia, but many of the rest were written in a PTA office on 11th Street. Her first collection was the joint product of her professional and domestic lives.

Unlike some of the younger feminists she met in her activist circles, Paley never came to see motherhood as an oppressive institution. She recognized that child-rearing was a form of work—boring, exhausting, thankless work, as so many of her stories demonstrate—and she put her children in day care from the age of 3. Still, she relished the insights and emotions that caring for children produced. In her fiction, she portrayed parenting generously, in all its beauty and banality. Motherhood, for Paley, was a mixed blessing, an experience in which joy and rage and sorrow commingle. It was yet another imperfect but ultimately rewarding way to inhabit the world.

Her stories about Faith express this emotional turmoil beautifully. In “Two Short Sad Stories From a Long and Happy Life,” Faith spends a Saturday afternoon trying to hem an old dress while her two young boys and her current lover roughhouse around her. The scene quickly turns from jubilant to disastrous: The lover, Clifford, ends up injured, bitten on the ankle by the younger boy. The boys, “bruised and tear-stricken,” are sent away to nap. Clifford criticizes Faith for the “rotten job” she’s done as a parent; she retaliates by throwing a glass ashtray at him, tearing off “what is anyways a vestigial earlobe.” “You don’t say things like that to a woman,” she whispers, enraged—especially not a woman who has raised two children with “one hand typing behind my back to earn a living.” Clifford cleans up his own blood and leaves the apartment. Faith looks in on the children and later feeds them a meal. The story ends with her cradling her youngest, Tonto, the culprit in the earlier scene:

I held him so and rocked him. I cradled him. I closed my eyes and leaned on his dark head. But the sun in its course emerged from among the water towers of the downtown office buildings and suddenly shone white and bright on me. Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black-and-white-barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes.

It’s a touching scene, one in which maternal love constricts and confines even as it uplifts and illuminates: the pietà as prison. And it captures perfectly the ambivalence so many women feel about being mothers—perhaps even Paley herself. Another story about Faith, not included in the Reader, ends on a beach with the two boys, now grown older, burying their mother in the sand. Faith’s internment continues.

As frustrating as their domestic lives may be, Paley’s women rarely despair. No matter how bad life gets, they always want more of it. In “Living,” Faith and her friend Ellen are struck by illness simultaneously. They talk on the phone, and Faith tries to reassure Ellen. “Life isn’t that great,” she says. “We’ve had nothing but crummy days and crummy guys and no money and broke all the time and cockroaches and nothing to do on Sunday but take the kids to Central Park and row in that lousy lake.… What’s the big loss? Live a couple more years. See the kids and the whole cruddy thing, every cheese hole in the world go up in heat blast firewaves.” Ellen agrees. She replies, but “I want to see it all.” These women embrace the world in its entirety, cockroaches and lousy lakes included.

It is something of a truism to say that Paley’s fiction validated women’s work and women’s lives. She is often praised as a writer who attended to personal things, to the stuff of everyday life that goes missing from the grand tableaux of history. Paley catered to this interpretation, admitting that when she first started writing, she was anxious about her subject matter. “I was writing stuff that was trivial, stupid, boring, domestic, and not interesting,” she says in her talk “Of Poetry and Women and the World.” But Paley was much more than a domestic writer. Yes, her fiction describes the activities of daily life—shopping, cooking, caretaking, squabbling—with a warmth and sensitivity that renders such familiar activities newly fascinating. But there is no truly domestic space in Paley’s fictional world. Apartments are hardly private: Everyone knows everyone else in the building, and friends, children, lovers, and ex-husbands are constantly dropping by. Families are constantly rearranging themselves, incorporating new members and unexpected guests. In the first of “Two Short Sad Stories,” Faith cooks breakfast for her ex-husband and her new husband as the children swarm around her. Both men are disappointed by the eggs.

Rather than cordoning off the domestic, Paley positioned the family in her fiction within collective life. Many of her stories take place in public or institutional spaces: parks and playgrounds, hospitals and nursing homes. In these settings, privacy is an illusion. Visit a father in the hospital and you’ll field commentary from an unseen patient in the neighboring bed. Visit a mother in the nursing home and another resident will intrude on the reunion. The closest one might come to privacy in Paley’s world is traveling by cab through Manhattan’s congested streets: apart from the city’s crowds, but only temporarily.

Privacy is longed for in almost all of her stories, but it is also almost always suspect. Paley didn’t believe that people could separate themselves from the concerns of those around them, nor did she think they ought to. This was one reason she believed that prisons should be located in cities, as she argued in the essay “Six Days,” about the time she spent in New York’s Women’s House of Detention after she was arrested for protesting against the Vietnam War. Prisons should be “in the neighborhood,” rather than in “distant suburbs,” far from family and conveniently out of public sight. Engaging with “the unlucky and the self-hurters” should be a part of everyone’s daily experience. Paley’s fiction, like her political essays, charge us with moving closer to those we might rather keep at a distance.

And yet a deep, even hopeless sense of loneliness could creep into her fiction. In “Mother,” the narrator pictures her mother standing in various doorways over the years, observing, worrying, chastising. In the story’s last scene, her mother stands in the doorway once again, this time to the living room, while her father sits on the couch listening to Bach. The scene recalls an earlier moment, years ago, when the couple sat in the living room listening to Mozart together and “looked at one another amazed” at the music and at their new lives in America. But that joy has since dissipated. “Talk to me a little,” pleads the mother from the doorway. “We don’t talk so much anymore.” Her husband, a doctor, replies that he’s tired. “I saw maybe thirty people today. All sick, all talk talk talk talk. Listen to the music.” She comes and sits, but they don’t talk. Shortly thereafter, the mother dies, and the story ends. It is a rare moment of silence and unwanted solitude in Paley’s noisy world.

For Paley, there was nothing more tragic than such solitude—nothing sadder than people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, engage with those around them. She made it her project, in her activism and her art, to show how life could and should be lived collectively. Her fiction was more than just empathetic: It not only sought to understand the world from the point of view of others, but also insisted on how integral this sense of connection was to the work of radical politics. Collectivity might not always be pleasant—there might be one too many people in an apartment—but it was, to Paley’s mind, an irrefutable fact of life.

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