I am so sad that Grace Paley has died. She was a great writer –every word as pungent as pumpernickel– with a great subject, the daily lives of women in jewish-immigrant-bohemian-left New York. In her short stories yiddishkeit meets radicalism meets Greenwich Village meets Malamud/Roth/ Leonard Michaels/ maybe even the Isaac Bashevis Singer of “A Friend of Kafka” –except that none of those writers, Singer every once in a while excepted, was particularly interested in what was going on with women.
I knew Grace a bit and surely there was never a kinder, more self-effacing writer of her stature in the history of the world. Sometimes she reminded me of James Merrill’s remark that Elizabeth Bishop engaged in an “instinctive, modest, life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman.” In the early l990s Grace put me up in her house in Vermont when I was snowed in after giving a talk at Dartmouth. We sat at her dining table and talked about children — my daughter, her grandson, the inner-city kids who’d spent summers at the house decades before. We also talked, rather improbably, about agriculture — her husband, Bob Nichols, had taken up the cause of local dairy farmers who were being squeezed by big producers. For all her warmth and unpretension, Grace had her share of reserve, or perhaps I was too shy. And so I did not ask any of the questions that flitted through my mind– about writing, politics, the left, feminism, her life, life. I spent my one evening in her house talking about children and cows.
Grace was a tireless activist. Sometimes, I thought, too tireless. I used to see her at small demonstrations around town in the l980s, and wish someone would chain her to her desk — lots of people can march, I would think to myself ( not that lots of people were doing so) but only Grace can write like Grace. She would have been horrified by such an elitist thought, I know–to her, the movement was life. She often said she liked to be out in the streets. And maybe her writing was as original, compressed, fresh and energetic as it was because it had to fight for attention with stopping the war(s), liberating women, bringing creative writing into the public schools, working for that elusive future where it’s the defense department, and not the daycare center, that has to hold a bake sale.
How far away that world seems now — her Greenwich Village, a warren of walkups inhabited by troublemakers, poets and single mothers (sometimes all three in one person) has become a millionaire’s paradise cum NYU dorm. The aunts and uncles who quarreled over Stalin and Trotsky are dead. As for politics, Nation asssociate editor Richard Kim reminded me that Grace signed a group letter attacking an article I wrote for the magazine way back in 1993, in which I challenged her friend Sara Ruddick’s influential book, “Maternal Thinking,” which argued that bringing up children , by its very nature, connected mothers with peace and progressive politics. I guess I won that argument. But if I’d lost it, we’d be living in a better world. My books are all boxed up at the moment, so I can’t quote from her wonderful stories. But here’s a poem I’ve had up for years on my bulletin board:
The Poet’s Occasional Alternative
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadness I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along
Under the wit and humor and brio, the “unreportable sadness.” Isn’t that always the way?