Grace Paley, Celebrated Writer and Social Activist, Dies at 84

Grace Paley, Thetford Hill, Vermont

Grace Paley (megaphone) and Gloria Steinem (center)

Demonstrating for the Women of Iran, Who Demanded Their Rights in the 1979 Revolution

Margalit Fox reported the death of Grace Paley, renowned writer and social activist, in today’s edition of The New York Times:

“Grace Paley, the celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives, died on Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt. She was 84 and also had an apartment in Manhattan.

Ms. Paley had been ill with breast cancer for some time, her literary agent, Elaine Markson, said yesterday.

Ms. Paley’s output was modest, some four dozen stories in three volumes: “The Little Disturbances of Man” (Doubleday, 1959); “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and “Later the Same Day” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985). But she attracted a devoted following and was widely praised by critics for her pitch-perfect dialogue, which managed at once to be surgically spare and almost unimaginably rich.

Her “Collected Stories,” published by Farrar, Straus in 1994, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (The collection was reissued by Farrar, Straus this year.) From 1986 to 1988, Ms. Paley was New York’s first official state author; she was also a past poet laureate of Vermont.

Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.

To read Ms. Paley’s fiction is to be awash in the shouts and murmurs of secular Yiddishkeit, with its wild onrushing joy and twilight melancholy. For her, cadence and character went hand in hand: her stories are marked by their minute attention to language, with its tonal rise and fall, hairpin rhetorical reversals and capacity for delicious hyperbolic understatement. Her stories, many of which are written in the first person and seem to start in mid-conversation, beg to be read aloud.

Some critics found Ms. Paley’s stories short on plot, and in fact much of what happens is that nothing much happens. Affairs begin, babies are born, affairs end. Mothers gather in the park. But that was the point. In Ms. Paley’s best stories, the language is so immediate, the characters so authentic, that the text is propelled by an innate urgency — the kind that makes readers ask, “And then what happened?

Open Ms. Paley’s first collection, “The Little Disturbances of Man,” to the first story, “Goodbye and Good Luck”:

I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised — change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years. Who’s listening? Papa’s in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind word and thinks — poor Rosie. …

Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.”

Hooked.”

Interested readers can access the full version of The New York Times article here.

The Washington Post published a detailed article today about Grace Paley’s death, which interested readers can access here.

Grace Paley: The 2007 Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture

In the video above, Grace Paley reads from her short fiction and poetry. Paley gave the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture: Celebrating the Legacy of Room 222 in April 2007. In the 1950s, visiting lecturer Robert Lowell taught poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck, among others, in Room 222 at 236 Bay State Road (Boston University). Paley is introduced by Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate.

Paley is known for her short fiction, her poems, and her political activism. She was the author of three books of short fiction: The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day. A compilation of her previously published work, The Collected Stories, was reprinted this spring. She published three books of poetry, Leaning Forward, New and Collected Poems, and Begin Again: Collected Poems, and a book of short stories and poetry, Long Walks and Intimate Talk.

She received the Edith Wharton Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literary Arts. She was a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters and was named New York state’s first official writer.

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