Feministing Reads: A Grace Paley Reader

It’s hard to strike a balance between the self-possession on which depend first principles—mutual responsibility, self-determination, and other such enduring commitments—with the humility to remain genuinely open to new comrades and new stimuli. Good art and good politics require both, or so Grace Paley helps me imagine.

During her long life and since, Paley has been well appreciated as one of the twentieth century’s most inventive writers of short fiction, though she only published three story collections over a span of twenty-five years. (Paley died in 2007 at the age of 84.) The great gift of the recently published A Grace Paley Reader (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which collects selected stories alongside Paley’s less widely read essays and poems, is to bring into view the full scope of her aesthetic and political vision and the unflagging energy with which she gave it form in the world. Feminist, antiwar and antinuclear activist, mother, neighbor, friend: all find expression in and flower from the same root as her uniquely humane fiction.

The evolving subject of Paley’s stories is what the playwright Alice Childress called “the intellectual poor:” brainy, chatty, self-aware, mostly working-class, mostly (at least in her first collection) Jewish Eastern European immigrants in New York. Her most memorable narrators are women of varying ages, presiding over homes from which men are always coming and going. (“Mostly nobody has fathers,” one child says consolingly to another.) The men are rarely envied or even strongly begrudged this luxury; the women’s ceaseless commentary is the real action of these stories. Paley’s vision of their world is not romantic—the women are often trapped, abandoned, mistreated, “despairing of one solitary minute”—but she worked harder than anyone to capture its texture and spark.

These women and their men are clever enough to recognize the scripts they’ve been slotted into by forces large and small—poverty, displacement, the demands of parents and children—and they play out their antagonisms gamely, with an irony that can be both charming and cruel. (One early narrator’s husband claims to enlist in the army as an excuse for skipping town, kissing his wife goodbye in parody of a lover’s farewell.) But Paley professed the life of women without men to be her greatest motivating interest. “When I came to think as a writer,” she writes in an essay, “it was because I had begun to live among women.” The quality of this life can be largely gleaned from the stories themselves: their most moving and complex relationships are between mothers and daughters or mothers and other mothers.

It’s not until the later stories, however, that Paley’s fiction begins to reflect just how much of her own life among women was built through the shared work of politics. Like most who participated in them, Paley was fascinated by the promises and aftershocks of the liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but her political and intellectual identity was formed in earlier crucibles. Paley was born in 1922, married her first husband at the age of twenty, and had long been a mother by the time her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, was published in 1959. Politics was in the air she breathed from birth—one essay recalls her experience as a nine year old in a socialist youth group!—but Paley had an unrivaled ability to find the new front line and hold it with whomever else she met there, decade after decade. An illegal procedure pre-Roe led her to organize one of the first abortion speak-outs in the country; peace protests in the ’60s sent her to jail, where she befriended other detained women; some of her most moving essays describe the feminist community with whom she engaged in antinuclear activism into the 1980s and ’90s.

The activist-mothers of Paley’s fiction are “ideologically, spiritually, and on puritanical principle against despair.” As the Cold War progressed, however, Paley’s longstanding interest in generational change was shadowed by a growing fear of the world’s imminent end, one that loomed ever larger as the nuclear age stretched on. “We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination,” she wrote in the unity statement for a women’s peace action outside the Pentagon; “we are right to be afraid.” Even here, in her most ostensibly outward-facing writing, Paley confirms the reality of daily life to be the province of the imagination. It is where, through friction and collaboration with others, we become our sharpest, clearest, most generous and responsive selves. It is the site we must occupy in resistance to those powerful men who have vacated it and denied its worth, either by defunding schools and welfare programs or through perpetual war abroad.

The fiction writer George Saunders contributed an introduction to the Reader, which is in many ways a perceptive and moving account of Paley’s gifts. But in his praise Saunders repeatedly risks reducing the remarkable empathy evidenced in her stories to a refusal of discernment, an allergy to judgment. Such an inoffensive model of empathy is in fact anathema to the activist commitments that fed Paley’s creative work. She is not uninflectedly generous; she does not insist by default on the most optimistic analysis. Her sense of accountability to the daily lives of persecuted others brought her into frequent confrontation with police, the FBI, and angry counter demonstrators. In her essays she describes being arrested, yelled at, and nearly run over during protests. She repeatedly broke the law.

To forget the animosity and danger to which Paley subjected herself as an activist is to risk not simply misremembering her life but misreading her work. A Grace Paley Reader reveals the symmetry between her adherence to short forms—story, poem, essay—and this ceaseless political activity: each confirms her tireless pursuit of the most immediately responsive, locally necessary expression of an ambitious and coherent imagination. Paley’s rare combination of persistence and adaptation, empathy and discernment, was an essential model through the tumultuous decades in which she lived. It remains essential now, as we resist acclimation to the ongoing emotional whiplash of Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.

In 2017 the left’s pendulum swings between swift reaction and renewed desires for a positive vision of the world we want, the world we might yet bring into being. Grace Paley makes straddling the two look not only possible, not even only necessary, but enlivening, generative, like the best way to go about building a life. In “Sisters,” my favorite poem in the Reader, Paley honors the women with whom she undertook that work daily:

their courageousness sometimes hilarious

disobediences before the state’s official

servants    their fidelity to the idea that

it is possible with only a little extra anguish

to live in this world    at an absolute minimum

loving brainy sexual energetic redeemed

New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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