August 23, 2007


David Leavitt

Grace was kind to me the first time I met her, when I was seventeen and afraid of draft registration under Jimmy Carter. She was equally kind to me the last time I met her, when I was forty-three and afraid of...everything. I miss her. Never has it hit struck me so forcefully that a writer's work survives as the purest form of testimony and testament.

Amitava Kumar

She was not academic but this somewhat academic-sounding description from one of her stories--"the bravery of that private inclusive intentional community"--this social form suddenly seems doomed to extinction when someone like Grace Paley passes away.

Amitava Kumar

She was not academic but this somewhat academic-sounding description from one of her stories--"the bravery of that private inclusive intentional community"--this social form suddenly seems doomed to extinction when someone like Grace Paley passes away.

Eric Forbes

Rest in peace, Grace Paley. You will be sorely missed.

paul wilner

A talk with Grace Paley for the Westchester Weekly (!) section of the New York Times, in 1978...

April 30, 1978

Grace Paley: Short Story of Success
or Grace Paley, the author of two critically praised short-story collections, "The Little Disturbances of Man" and "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," the distance between Greenwich Village, her home for the last 30 years and the Bronxville campus of Sarah Lawrence, where she teaches in the English department, bridges years of street savvy, peace activism, occasional writing, child-rearing and survival.

In an essay in the "Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers" anthology (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), "I say something about trying to keep smart kids dumb," said Mrs. Paley in her pleasantly matter-of-fact manner.

"What I mean," she said, "is in a sense looking directly at what they're trying to write about--as though innocent, you know. Not to impose a lot of ideas on it about what it should be or what they want it to be, or a lot of literary notions. Kids will come in with the idea that they want to write symbolically for instance, or else they'll impose a lot of psychology, which they're probably picking up in their own analysis."

She laughs. "That eye with which any artist looks at life is really dumb in a lot of ways. Some people prefer to call it innocent, because that makes it classier, in a little way, but it's really just dumb."

She doesn't encourage students to imitate her own style, which defies prose stereotypes by being at once tough and fanciful, but tries to bring sometimes lofty notions of art back down to earth.

"Usually, students forget how people make a living for instance," she said. "Well, that's just my job--to remind them that's what literature is about, really, how people live. The blood of family and the living of money."

Although "The Little Disturbances of Man," her first collection, was published in 1959, before the women's movement spawned the plethora of novels, stories and first-person accounts of experience now on the literary markets, Mrs. Paley says that she has always "written about the lives of women."

"A lot of women write short stories," she said wryly. "It's sort of a natural thing in a life with kids, in which you're constantly being distracted." Even as she is speaking, the Paley family dog piles into the living room, demanding to be petted with the insistence of life-imitating art.

Her awareness of the ways the real world impinges on imaginative free time does not make Mrs. Paley long to escape it though.

She shrugs off the suggestion that as a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence she might try her hand at an "academic" novel, in the tradition of Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell and Alison Lurie. "That life doesn't interest me," she said. "You have to write about what really bugs or disturbs you--you write from distress, usually, and my pressure points don't come from school."

As a libertarian educator, who doesn't speak in class until all her students have spoken their mind, because "I don't have to prove how smart I am--I'm the boss of the class," Mrs. Paley is unfazed by more conservative movements in American education.

"Although I can't speak for Sarah Lawrence as an institution, I don't think we're destroyed in the spirit by this kind of educational backlash, which says 'Let's go back to the 3 R's,'" she says calmly.

"Naturally, you do have the problems of kids not coming as remarkably prepared as they used to. At one time, all the kids were tremendous readers, and there are fewer now. I think it has to do with the fact that in most families kids look at television from a very early age, and the joys and pleasures of private reading" are less familiar to many students.

To remind them of literature's origins, Mrs. Paley said:

"I have students read everything aloud. I'm an ear believer--I think the ear is smarter than the eye. The experience of reading your work aloud in a class carries you back to that original impulse, 'I want to tell you something.' 'What did you want to tell me? Tell me.'

"When you tell a story, it's your voice telling a story. You really can hear what's wrong with it. People think you can just sort of smear over it, but that's not true.

"What I'm trying to do is to remind students they have two ears. One is the ear that listens to their own ordinary life, their family and the street they live on, and the other is the tradition of English literature."

She began writing short stories, most of which were returned with form rejection letters, in the middle 1950's. Her break came when a Doubleday editor saw some of her work, liked it, "and told me to write another seven or eight stories, and he'd put out a book."

"The Little Disturbances of Man," her first book, while far from finding a mass audience, developed a cult following for Mrs. Paley.

"It came at a time when most of the fiction being published was very dull," one long-time literary observer remembered, "and it was such a relief."

Her second book, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," was published in 1974, when Mrs. Paley--who has made no secret of her support for the peace movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam and her progressive political views--had come to some nonliterary prominence as a member of various demonstrations. Some of the reviews took note of these involvements, and suggested they distracted her from concentrated literary effort, an accusation that irritated Mrs. Paley.

"It was ridiculous," she said. "I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I'm not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life."

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