The Barnes & Noble Review
Paley-ontology"What I'm saying is that in areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn's raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness."
Grace Paley, from "The Value of Not Understanding Everything," collected in Just as I Thought
Grace Paley taught me to write.
This, even though I did not love her stories at first. What's not to love? I have no idea. Nothing. I was dumb. Her stories are about tough, smart, funny women, told in a wise voice so lyrical with the clipped, wiseass rhythms of second-generation New York Russian Jewishness that they practically seem sung.
Here's an example. Her story "Wants" begins, "I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. He said, What? What life? No life of mine. I said, O.K. I don't argue when there's real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them."
How can you not love that world-weary, vulnerable woman, and the woman who created her?
So, okay. I was a dumb kid when I first read Grace Paley's stories. They were assigned for a class. It was my first good fiction workshop. The book, her first, had the unassuming title of The Little Disturbances of Man, which I took too literally. I was a small-town Ohio boy, raised far from any hotbedsofbrittle irony. I grew up far from anyone who talked like Paley wrote. I was suffused with the solipsistic dumbness that is the province of the college sophomore: I didn't like anything I couldn't "relate to."
When I got to class, I was so dumb that I admitted I couldn't relate to these stories. My professor looked at me like I'd belched or something. He was in love with Paley's stories. He started reading some of them out loud, pieces here and there, and he was really, really into it, and I began to hear what he was feeling, and, boy, did I realize I had a lot to learn.
What I didn't know about books could have filled a shelf full of them. I hoped it someday would.*****
"There's probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what's on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you'll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren't a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language, and left them all for correct usage." Grace Paley, from "Some Notes on Teaching, Probably Spoken," collected in Just as I Thought
When I was in grad school, there was a course called "Visiting Writers." It consisted of two one-week seminars. That semester, one of them would be taught by Grace Paley.
I had by then realized the error of my ways. I was glad for the chance to be in a workshop she taught. She was one of those rare writers whose reputation as a teacher preceded her. The time and passion she invested in her teaching, rumor had it, was why she'd only published three slim books of stories. That, and her political activism, in feminist and antiwar causes. She even put that on her dust-jacket bio. I was beginning to love this woman.
I submitted a story to her workshop. It was pretty bad; she was kind. In her workshop, she has people read their stories aloud. For most teachers, this would be lazy, this would not work. But Paley is such a listener! She closes her eyes as you read, and when you're done she can recite your story's rare good parts! After a while it rubs off. After that week, I was forevermore a better reader and a more attentive listener.
The day she left, I reread all three of her story collections (now conveniently brought together in her Collected Stories), all in one day. As disparate as the stories are, they cohere like a gracefully elliptical novel, recurring characters and all.
The next day, Paley's sardonic voice chiming in my head, I sat down and wrote another story, the first I ever tried from a woman's perspective. It was counterfeit Paley, true, but it was the best story I'd written up to then. Two weeks later I sold it to a national magazine.
Later, I would tap into my own natural grammar. But spending those couple weeks inside Paley's made me grow. Her fictional world geographically small, mostly domestic, mostly New York stories had made mine larger. It could happen to anybody.
Paley is retired from teaching now, maybe even retired from fiction writing (she hasn't published a new story for ten years). I'm a college professor myself now, and a semester doesn't go by without me drawing a little bit on the things she taught me that long-ago week.
So it's with real joy that I read Paley's new book, Just as I Thought, a delightful collection of essays that she wrote over the past 30 years. Many are personal, many are political, and many are about how those are the same things. Many are about teaching, and taught me plenty. For anyone who wonders what else Paley has been up to all these years, the pieces about her political activism provide a vivid answer, a side of her that she only rarely wrote directly about in her fiction.
As I read the book, it made me want to go back to the stories, to read them end-to-end again, to see. "I think you've overrated me somewhat," she writes in the essay "Imagining the Present," "but if there's ever a time in your life when you like to be overrated, it's when you're old. I thank you for doing it."
I have not overrated you, Ms. Paley.
I am the one who should be thanking you.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel The Veracruz Blues.
Marvelous here, not surprisingly, are the tales she tells, in her crabby, generous, unmistakable voice, about her life in art, and her family of women and children (and men), wrangling and in love.
In Paley, life, literature and politics converge-nonviolently, of course-in a cunning patchwork quilt of radiance and scruple, witness and example, nurture and nag, subversive humor and astonishing art: a Magical Socialism and a Groucho Marxism. -- The Nation
It always amuses me when
conservatives denounce the left as "anti-family."
For if ever a group of people acted like a noisy,
multigenerational household, it would be the left's
sprawling cohort of socialists, anarchists, pacifists
and other congenital rebels. It is not, for the most
part, a happy clan. Some members won't speak
to the rest -- except to yell. And at times the
ideological fault lines run right through families in
the ordinary sense. (Allen Ginsberg's father was a
socialist and his mother a communist; so for a
whole epoch of the poet's childhood, Mom
considered Dad a "social fascist.") In recent
years, we've adopted all these postmodernists,
forever "performing an anti-essentialist critique of
late-capitalist patriarchy." Kids these days, with
their crazy lingo -- nobody understands what the
hell they're talking about.
More lucid, by far, is Grace Paley -- the laureate
of radical family values. In her poems and stories,
scenes from ordinary daily life, written in
luminous but plainspoken language, sit
side-by-side with tales of the struggle for a
peaceful, just world. Her new book, Just As I
Thought, assembles a few dozen essays,
speeches and literary odds and ends from
decades past. It is a literary and political
miscellany: a nonfiction companion to recent
editions of Paley's collected poetry and short
There are memoirs of growing up in a socialist
household, getting an abortion in the '50s, going
to Vietnam, meeting dissidents in Moscow,
opposing the Gulf War. There are pages written
in admiration of Isaac Babel and Christa Wolf,
and to mourn the death of her friend Donald
Barthelme. Many of the articles were (so to
speak) written on the way to a demonstration, or
just after. None was composed for posterity. Yet
they are, I think, very much of a piece with the
author's other work -- and not simply at the level
of ideological commitment. Paley is an anarchist
and a pacifist. Her first book, The Little
Disturbances of Man (1959), displayed a
marked feminist sensibility. But neither theory
nor polemic interest her as much as the language
and situations of everyday life; and this comes
across even in the most engaged bits of activist
Some years ago, in an interview with the
Threepenny Review (not reprinted here), Paley
expressed her distaste for the "fiction/nonfiction"
distinction: "I mean you're either a storyteller, an
inventor in language or event ... a poet of
storytelling -- or you're not." She is especially
concerned with the storytelling that takes place --
or should, anyway -- within families. In a set of
lecture notes, she urges young writers to spend
less time on journals ("When you find only
yourself interesting, you're boring") and more on
listening to the tales available if you go looking:
"At Christmas time or Passover supper, extract a
story from the oldest persons, told them by the
oldest persons they remember. That will remind
us of history."
Good advice -- if also somewhat anachronistic in
a consumer society that undermines all sense of
the past, then sells you tickets to Colonial
Williamsburg. But it has worked beautifully for
Grace Paley. Readers of her fiction may recall a
character whose uncle died in pre-revolutionary
Russia, killed in a demonstration while carrying a
banner. One of her essays recalls the origins of
that story in a conversation, years ago, with an
"Darling, she said, I know you want to go to the
May Day parade with your friends, but you know
what? Don't carry the flag. I want you to go. I
didn't say you don't go. But don't carry the flag.
The one who carries the flag is sometimes killed.
The police go crazy when they see that flag.
"I had dreamed of going forth with a flag -- the
American flag on July 4, the red flag of the
workers on May Day. How did the aunt know
this? Because I know you inside out, she said,
since you were born. Aren't you my child, too?" -- Salon
What distinguishes the latest collection from standard political fare is what sets her stories apart as well: Paley's genius for capturing the way people talk to each other across seemingly unbridgeable divides. -- Vanity Fair
A feisty, passionate gathering of writings.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this disappointing miscellany of articles, speeches, interviews, prefaces, transcribed talks and a few scattered poems, Paley only occasionally displays the sharply perceptive sparkle of her memorable short story collections (Later the Same Day, etc.).
The pieces, written from the mid-'60s through the mid-'90s for magazines as diverse as Ms. and Esquire, are often slight, dated or predictable. Among the notable selections are her frank discussion of her two abortions, her 1974 meeting in Moscow with dissident Andrei Sakharov, her loving appreciation of Russian writer Isaac Babel's short stories and an account of how her mother, traveling by bus to Virginia in 1927, insisted on sitting in the section reserved for blacks. Also included are a polemic against the Gulf war, tributes to such writers as Donald Barthelme and Clarice Lispector, on-site war reportage from North Vietnam and autobiographical sketches about growing up radical in the Bronx during the Depression with socialist Russian Jewish migr parents.
One comes away with the impression that Paley's long-time grass-roots involvement in diverse movementsfeminist, antinuclear, environmental, antiwarreflects a unitary struggle for social justice.
Well worth reading, this volume collects essays, prefaces, and talks by peace and feminist activist Paley, born to a socialist Jewish family of Russian migrs in the Bronx in 1922.
Paley writes with disarming frankness and humor, especially when her subjects are women, childrenwhich, as she points out, include menand herself. The reader sees her as child, married woman, housewife, mother, employee (phone answerer, typist, babysitter, secretary, teacher)but through it all, first and foremost, Paley is a writer. She has been arrested more than once for civil disobedience, had an abortion, served in a delegation to Vietnam and, representing the World Peace Congress, to Moscow, taught writing, written poetry, become a grandmother, become an older womanbut she has not become old. In her work Connections, she puts a personal face to war, AIDS, racism. Her words ring true when she writes, "I don't see any reason in being in this world actually if you can't in some ways be better, repair it somehow." Paley's stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly; her poetry includes Leaning Forward (LJ 2/1/86). In 1994 she was the winner of the National Book Award for The Collated Stories (LJ 3/1/94).
--Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Indiana
...Paley is arguing that works of fiction, with their precisions and reticences, are places where once-living people can hide from mortality, if only for a while, and only for a relative handful of readers.
The London Review of Books
The New Yorker
Marvelous here, not surprisingly, are the tales she tells, in her crabby, generous, unmistakable voice, about her life in art, and her family of women and children (and men), wrangling and in love.
She is an outspoken partisan of the daughters' revolution; Just as I Thought includes a vivid account of her illegal abortions and an impassioned defense of abortion rights and sexual freedom. Yet her political and literary sensibilities both draw their primal inspiration from motherhood....Mother, the wellspring of life, is in Paley's vision both powerful and vulnerable....She is neither saint nor victim, merely connected with the juice of daily existence, while the men are forever drifting off into the deathly abstract. -- New York Times Book Review
The inimitable Paley has already given us her Collected Stories (1994); now we get a collection of nonfiction, drawn from the past 30 years.
The 50 essays, articles, interviews, and talks that make up this collection take Paley from her Bronx childhood, as the daughter of Russian-Jewish socialists, in the 1920s and '30s to her current role as an elder stateswoman of the American literary left. Although she claims for the book a strong focus on the dark days of the 1950s (the cloud of the Red Scare hangs in the background of much of the book), it might be argued more convincingly that this is a volume with its feet firmly planted in the 1960s, the decade in which Paley's political activism began its fullest flowering and a decade whose legacy of nonviolent activism is clearly brought to fruition in her subsequent antinuclear, feminist, and antiwar activities. Paley reflects on her life experiences, ranging from work at a series of uninspiring day jobs to abortion, from being arrested at peace marches to sharing thoughts with comrade sisters like Kay Boyle and Barbara Deming, with the same feisty spiritedness and wry, dark humor that characterize her best fiction. She has an unerring ear for the way people speak on the New York streets and a luminous, humane warmth that animates her writing with its generosity. Some of the Vietnam-era political pieces feel a trifle dated, and some might accuse Paley of political naivet‚ but that is a refreshing change from the ugly cynicism of many of her opponents.
A book to be dipped into repeatedly, if not read cover-to-cover, but a fine companion to Paley's memorable fictions.
Read an Excerpt
When I was about nine years old, I was a member of an organization called the Falcons. We were Socialist youths under twelve. We wore blue shirts and red kerchiefs. We met once a week (or was it once a month?). To the tune of "Maryland, My Maryland," we sang:
The workers' flag is deepest red
it shrouded oft our martyred dead.
With the Socialist ending, not the Communist one, we sang the "Internationale." We were warned that we would be tempted to sing the Communist ending, because at our occasional common demonstrations there were more of them singing. They would try, with their sneaky politics, to drown us out.
At our meetings we learned about real suffering, which was due to the Great Depression through which we were living that very year. Of course many of my friends already had this information. Their fathers weren't working. Their mothers had become so grouchy you couldn't ask them for the least little thing. Every day in our neighborhood there were whole apartments, beds, bureaus, kitchen tables out on the street. We understood that this was because of capitalism, which didn't care that working people had no work and no money for rent.
We also studied prejudice--now known as racism. Prejudice was particularly sad, since it meant not liking people for no reason at all, except the color of their skin. That color could happen to anyone if they'd been born to some other parents on another street. We ourselves had known prejudice--well, not us exactly. In Europe, that godforsaken place, our parents and grandparents had known it well. From a photograph over my grandmother's bed, my handsome uncle, killed at seventeen because of prejudice, looked calmly at me when I sought him for reminder's sake. Despite its adherence to capitalism, prejudice, and lynching, my father said we were lucky to be here in this America. We sometimes sang "America the Beautiful" at our meetings. Parents were divided on that.
At each meeting we paid 5 [cts.] or 10 [cts.]--not so much to advance Socialism as to be able to eat cookies at four o'clock. One day at cookie-eating time, our comrade counselor teacher, a young woman about eighteen years old, announced that we were going to do a play. There would be a party, too. It would include singing and maybe dancing. We began to rehearse immediately. She had been thinking about all this for a couple of weeks. The idea had matured into practical action.
Our play was simple, a kind of agitprop in which a father comes home; he says, "Well, Sarah, the shop closed down today. No more work! And without warning!" The mother is in despair. How to feed the children! The children's breakfast bowls are empty. Some boys carry the furniture (lots of chairs from the meeting room) out to the hall. Eviction! In the second act, neighbors meet to drag the furniture back, proving working-class solidarity. They then hold a rally and march to City Hall at the back of the room, singing the "Internationale" all the way. The event would have to take place in the evening after supper in case some father or mother still had a job.
I was one of the little empty-bowl children. Every day after school I worked in the bathroom mirror at the creation of a variety of heartrending expressions. But my sweetest contribution would be the song
One dark night when we were all in bed
Old mother Leary took a candle to the shed
and when the cow tipped it over
she winked her eye and said
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.
This song had been chosen to show we had fun, too; our childhood was being respected.
Before supper that important night, I decided to sing for my mother. When I finished, she said gently, lovingly, "Gracie darling, you can't sing. You know you can't hold the tune. The teacher in school, she even said you were a listener. Try again--a little softer..."
"I can so sing," I said. "I was picked. I wouldn't of been picked if I couldn't sing." I sang the song once more.
"No no," my mother said. "That girl Sophie, Mrs. Greenberg's Sophie? She has no idea. She has no ear. Maybe deaf even. No no, you can't sing. You'll make a fool of yourself. People will laugh. For Sophie maybe, the more laughing the better."
"I don't care. I have to go. I have to go in a half hour. I have two parts."
"What? And I'm supposed to sit in the audience and see how your feelings are hurt when they laugh at you. When Papa hears--well, he wouldn't go anyway. That Sophie, she's just a kid herself."
"But, Mama, I have to go."
"No no," she said. "No. You're not going. Just to be a fool. They'll have to figure out what to do."
Guiltless but full of shame, I never returned to the Falcons. In fact, in sheer spite I gave up my work for Socialism for at least three years.
Fifty years later I told my sister this story. She said, "I can't believe that of Mama--that she would prevent you from singing--especially if you had an obligation. She wasn't like that."
Well, I had developed a kind of class analysis, an explanation which I think is pretty accurate. Our parents, remarkable people, were also a couple of ghetto Jews struggling with hard work and intensive education up the famous American ladder. At a certain rung in that ladder during my childhood they appeared to have climbed right into the professional middle class. At that comfortable rung (probably upholstered), embarrassed panic would be the response to possible exposure.
"Exposure to what? What are you talking about?" my sister asked. "You forget, really. Mama had absolutely perfect pitch. For a person like that, your wandering all over the scale must have been torture. I mean real physical pain. To her, you were just screeching. In fact," my sister said, "although you've improved, you still sound that way to me."
My sister has continued to be fourteen years older than I. Neither of us has recovered from that hierarchical fact. So I said, "Okay, Jeanne."
But she had not--when she was nine--been a political person and she had never been a listener. She took singing lessons, then sang. She and my brother practiced the piano like sensible children. In fact, in their eighties they have as much musical happiness in their fingertips as in their heads.
As for my mother--though I had no ear and clearly could not sing, she thought I might try the piano. After all, we had one. There were notes on paper inside a nice yellow book that said Inventions by Bach on its cover. Since I was a big reader, I might be able to accomplish something. I had no gift. That didn't mean I must be a deprived person. Besides, why had the Enlightenment poured its seductive light all across the European continent right into the poor endangered households of Ukrainian Jews? Probably, my mother thought, so that a child, any child (even a tone-deaf one), could be given a chance despite genetic deficiency to become, in my mother's embarrassed hopeful world, a whole person.