Grace Paley (December 11, 1922 – August 22, 2007), best known for her short stories depicting the dailiness of women’s lives, was also a poet, teacher, and political activist. The child of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants (who Americanized their surname, Gutseit, to Goodside), she was born and raised in the Bronx.
It’s somewhat ironic that Paley, who dropped in and out of various schools (including Hunter College and The New School for Social Research) and never received a degree, did a lot of teaching in her career. Despite lack of formal credentials, she taught classes at respected institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College (where she taught writing for a long stretch, from 1966 to 1989), as well as NYU, Columbia, Syracuse, and City College of New York.
Though she never finished a college degree, Paley received other significant honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1961) and a National Endowment for the Arts Award (1966) and was the Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2003 to 2007.
In 1942, at age 19, the former Grace Goodside married filmmaker Jess Paley; with him, she had two children. They divorced in 1972; after which she married Robert Nichols, a family friend and political ally.
It wasn’t until 1959 that her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, was published. Though it was very well received critically, it wasn’t a commercial success. Right around this time, Paley became interested in the political and social activism that was brewing in Greenwich Village, where she and her family lived. She was quite active in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and traveled on private missions to political hotspots around the world in the 70s and 80s.
Paley wasn’t a terribly prolific writer, as she seemed to put family, work, and political activism first. But what she wrote was always highly respected. Her stories (with everyday themes of love, friendship, and family) were infused with wit and irony, as she revealed the inner workings of women’s lives and sometimes, Jewish identity.
Never afraid of controversy, Grace Paley jumped into causes she believed in. For example, she was one of the founders of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Paley died of breast cancer at age 84 at her second home inVermont. In one of her final interviews, she said that her dream for her children and grandchildren would be “a world without militarism and racism and greed – and where women don’t have to fight for their place in the world.”
Major Works (short stories and poems)
- Little Disturbances of Man (1959)
- Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Short Stories (1974)
- Later the Same Day (1985)
- Long Walks and Intimate Talks: Stories, Poems, and Paintings (1991)
- Begin Again: Collected Poems (2000)
- The Collected Stories (2007)
- Fidelity: Poems (2008; posthumous)
Biographies and Autobiographies
- Grace Paley on Wikipedia
- Grace Paley: Collected Shorts (film)
- Grace Paley: The Poetry Foundation
- Grace Paley’s works discussed on Goodreads
- The Grace Paley page on Amazon
Articles, News, Etc.
- Grace Paley, Writer and Activist, Dies
- Grace Paley, The Art of Fiction No. 131 (Interview with author)
- The “Legacy” of Grace Paley
- From the Floor: A Conversation with Grace Paley,
Margaret Atwood, and Norman Mailer
- Celebrating Grace Paley’s Uniquely Feminine Voice
- An Interview with Poet and Fiction Writer Grace Paley
- Green Living: River Inspires Tales, Poems
- The Miniaturist Art of Grace Paley by Joyce Carol Oates
Grace Paley Quotes
“The only thing you should have to do is find work you love to do. And I can’t imagine living without having loved a person. A man, in my case. It could be a woman, but whatever.”
“You become a writer because you need to become a writer — nothing else.”
“Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”
“The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”
“That heartbreaking moment when you finish an amazing book, and you are forced to return to reality.”
“Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”
“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
“The wrong word is like a lie jammed inside the story.”
“There isn’t a story written that isn’t about blood and money. People and their relationship to each other is the blood, the family. And how they live, the money of it.”
“I checked out the two Edith Wharton books I had just returned because I’d read them so long ago and they are more apropos now than ever. They were The House of Mirth and The Children, which is about how life in the United States in New York changed in twenty-seven years fifty years ago.”
“Don’t you wish you could rise powerfully above your time and name? I’m sure we all try, but here we are, always slipping and falling down into them, speaking their narrow language, though the subject, which is how to save the world–and quickly–is immense.” (“The Story Hearer” )
“Writers often write about what they want to read or haven’t seen written … Still, there’s always that first storytelling impulse: I want to tell you something …” (Paris Review interviews)
“It’s helpful to have money. I don’t think writers have to suffer to starve to death. One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead. If you want to live expansively, you’re going to be in trouble because then you have to start thinking very hard about whom you’re writing to, who your audience is, who the editor thinks your audience is, who he wants your audience to be.” (Paris Review interviews)
“I know some people say women writers should not have children. Of course, it was worse for them back then. Years ago just to do the kids’ wash could take the whole day, so if you were poor it was impossible to write. If you were rich, you could hire a maid; it was possible if you were George Sand. But even now we need help. My kids were in day care from the time they were three years old.” (Paris Review interviews)
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