Grace Paley authored three acclaimed collections of short stories, which were compiled in the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist The Collected Stories in 1994. Her stories hone in on the everyday conflicts and heartbreaks of city life, informed by her childhood in the Bronx.
Beyond her work as an author and university professor, Paley was a feminist and anti-war activist, who described herself as a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist." But she was also a poet who in her later years was selected as Poet Laureate of Vermont in 2003.
She was born Grace Goodside on December 11, 1922, in the Bronx, to Jewish parents, Isaac Goodside and the former Manya Ridnyik, immigrants from Ukraine, and socialists. It was a secular family with her father refusing to attend temple services. She later described herself as a bigger believer in the Jewish diaspora than in Jewish nationhood—“I was never a Zionist."
The youngest of three children by several years she reveled in the intellectual debates around the family table and she was a member of the Falcons, a socialist youth group. An independent spirit she dropped out of high school at 16. She attended Hunter College in 1938-’39 and later briefly studied poetry with W. H. Auden at the New School, when she was 17.
Grace Goodside at 17 by her future husband Jess Paley.
She married film cameraman, Jess Paley, when she was 19 in 1942. For the next several years writing to a back seat to raising her two children Nora and Danny and her commitment to activism in the early second wave feminist movement and pacifist causes.
What writing she did do collected more rejection slips than acceptances. It was not until 1959 that Doubleday published her first short story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man which included several tales now considered classics. Two subsequent collection published at lengthy intervals, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1979 and Later the Same Day in 1985 continued with characters from the first book but with expanded social justice vision and inclusion of more Black and lesbian characters.Paley with daughter Nora in Greenwich Village in 1954,
Paley also published several volumes of poetry including Leaning Forward in 1985, New and Collected Poems in 1992, and Begin Again: Collected Poems in 2001 which assembled work from throughout her life.
Meanwhile Paley was also heavily involved in activism. Paley was known for pacifism and for political activism. The FBI categorized her as a communist and kept a file on her for thirty years. Beginning in the 1950s, Paley joined friends in protesting nuclear proliferation and American militarization. She also worked with the American Friends Service Committee to establish neighborhood peace groups helping found the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1961. She met her second husband, Robert Nichols, through the anti-Vietnam War peace movement.
With the escalation of the Vietnam War, Paley joined the War Resisters League. She was arrested on a number of occasions, including spending a week in the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. In 1968, she signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the War. In 1969 accompanied a peace mission to Hanoi to negotiate the release of prisoners of war. She served as a delegate to the 1973 World Peace Conference in Moscow. Paley and was arrested in 1978 as one of the White House Eleven for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner that read “No Nuclear Weapons—No Nuclear Power—USA and USSR” on the White House lawn. In the 1980s Paley supported efforts to improve human rights and resist U.S. military intervention in Central America and she continued to speak out in her final years against the Iraq War.
Paley under arrest again on the steps of the Capitol.
Among Paley’s many other causes was abortion rights, part of her broader feminist work. She organized one of the first abortion speak-outs in the 1960s after having an abortion herself in the 1950s and then struggling to obtain a second one a few years later.
Despite her lack of any degree Paley also had an academic career. She began taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College from to 1966 1989) and helped to found the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York in the late 1960s. Later she served on the faculty at City College and taught courses at Columbia University. She also taught at Syracuse University and served as vice president of the PEN American Center, an organization she had worked to diversify in the 1980s.
Paley's honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the Edith Wharton Award Certification of Merit, an O’Henry Award in 1969 for her story Distance. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1980 and went on to receive the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award. She received an honorary degree from Dartmouth University.
She also received the Robert Creeley Award in 2004, the Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature, and at Dartmouth’s annual Social Justice Awards ceremony in 2006 the Lester B. Granger ‘18 Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The Grace Paley Prize, a literary award, is now presented by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in her honor.
Paley was a decades-long resident of West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, where she raised her children. After an amicable divorce from Jess Paley she began spending summers in Thetford, Vermont, with her second husband Robert Nichols the 1970s and couple settled there permanently in the early ‘90s.Paley in maturity surrounded by young admirers.
Paley died at the age of 84 on August 27, 2007 in her adopted Vermont home town breast cancer.
Like her short stories, much of Paley’s poetry settled on the experiences of ordinary urban Jewish women. As one editor who worked with her wrote, ‘Her characters are people who smell of onions, yell at each other, mourn in darkened kitchens.” She explained that she wrote what she knew—“I couldn’t help the fact that I had not gone to war, and I had not done the male things. I had lived a woman’s life and that’s what I wrote about.”
In the Bus
Somewhere between Greenfield and Holyoke
snow became rain
and a child passed through me
as a person moves through mist
as the moon moves through
a dense cloud at night
as though I were cloud or mist
a child passed through me
On the highway that lies
across miles of stubble
and tobacco barns our bus speeding
speeding disordered the slanty rain
and a girl with no name naked
wearing the last nakedness of
childhood breathed in me
once two breaths
a sigh she whispered Hey you
again again you'll see
it's easy begin again long ago
In later life her poems reflected her relentless activism like this work from Long Walks and Intimate Talks by Grace Paley and Vera B. Williams from 1991 about a peace mission to Nicaragua.
The Dance in Jinotega
In Jinotega women greeted us
with thousands of flowers roses
it was hard to tell the petals
on our faces and arms falling
then embraces and the Spanish language
which is a little like a descent of
petals pink and orange
Suddenly out of the hallway our
gathering place AMNLAE the
Asociación de Mujeres women
came running seat yourselves dear
guests from the north we announce
a play a dance a play the women
their faces mountain river Indian
European Spanish dark-haired
dance in gray-green
fatigues they dance the Contra who
circles the village waiting
for the young teacher the health worker
(these are the strategies) the farmer
in the high village walks out into the
morning toward the front which is a
circle of terror
the work of women and men they dance
the plowing of the fields they kneel
to the harrowing with the machetes they
dance the sowing of seed (which is always
a dance) and the ripening of corn the
flowers of grain they dance the harvest
they raise their machetes for
the harvest the machetes are high
out of the hallway in green and gray
come those who dance the stealth
of the Contra cruelly they
dance the ambush the slaughter of
the farmer they are the death dancers
who found the schoolteacher they caught
the boy who dancing brought seeds in
his hat all the way from Matagalpa they
dance the death of the mother the
father the rape of the daughter they
dance the child murdered the seeds
spilled and trampled they dance
they dance the
search for the Contra and the defeat
they dance a comic dance they make a
joke of the puppetry of the Contra of
Uncle Sam who is the handler of puppets
they dance rage and revenge they place
the dead child (the real sleeping baby)
on two chairs which is the bier for
the little actor they dance prayer
bereavement sorrow they mourn
Is there applause for such theater?
Silence then come let us dance
together now you know the usual
dance of couples Spanish or North
American let us dance in twos and
threes let us make little circles let us
dance as though at a festival or in peace-
time together and alone whirling stamping
our feet bowing to one another
gather petals from the floor to throw
at our knees we dance the children
too banging into us into each other and
one small boy dances alone pulling
at our skirts wait he screams stop!
he tugs at the strap of our camera Stop!
stop dancing I’m Carlos take a picture
of me No! Now! Right now! because
soon Look! See Pepe! even tomorrow
I could be dead like him
catches its breath the music
jumping in the guitar and phonograph holds
still and waits no no we say Carlos
not you we put our fingers on his little
shoulder we touch his hair but one of
us is afraid for god’s sake take his
picture so we lift him up we photo-
graph him we pass him from one to
another we photograph him again and
again with each of us crying or
laughing with him in our arms