Grace Paley was a known pacifist and, also, a famous short story-writer. She enjoyed being referred to as a “combative pacifist and a cooperative anarchist”.
Grace Paley was not extreme in either her pacifism or her sense of government as reliably unreliable in the governing of the “Little Disturbances of Man” (the title of her most famous short story collection). She lived within the law, gracefully and with moral direction, though she protested and therefore refused to pay war taxes at times.
Grace Paley was a member of the War Resisters League, a pacifist organization, from the 1950s to her death in August, 2007. Started in the 1920’s, The War Resisters League is one of the oldest antiwar organizations in the country, and is renowned for its conscientious and peaceful protests. The declaration of the War Resisters League “affirms that all war is a crime against humanity. We are determined not to support any kind of war, international or civil, and to strive nonviolently for the removal of all causes of war, including racism, sexism, and all forms of exploitation.” These words describe Grace Paley’s pacifism as well.
The journalist Judith Mahoney Pasternak wrote about Paley in her tribute after the author’s death:
“Grace Paley’s place in the history books is hers alone, and unlikely ever to be matched. In the canon of U.S. literature, no writer has ever risen so high while compiling such a long and honorable arrest record in the cause of peace; in the history of U.S. resistance, no activist has reaped nearly as many literary honors.”
Interviewed in 1985, Paley said she wasn’t an activist—she was only doing her “ordinary, citizenly duty.” It was a concept she repeated often to describe what was clearly her other career, a career of virulent, persistent non-violence she began by demonstrating against the presence of buses in Washington Square. (Her baby daughter was almost hit by a bus there, she said, so how could she not protest?) Not long afterward, she began working against the Vietnam War with the Greenwich Village Peace Center and the War Resisters League. Ultimately, she was involved in protesting every aspect of militarism and U.S. aggression across the globe.
Paley traveled to Hanoi in 1969; she was arrested at protest after protest, including an anti-nuclear demonstration on the White House lawn in 1978, the Women’s Pentagon Action in 1980, and War Resisters League’s “A Day Without the Pentagon” in 1998. But she wasn’t “an arrest freak,” Paley said. She got arrested only “when there’s a good reason to get arrested, to show we’re serious about something, we’re not going to go away … [or] to actually stop something, like destroying a [missile] nose cone.”
It’s fascinating to explore the ways Grace Paley’s background helps to define her enigmatic, charismatic personality. Her father, Isaac Goodside, had spent time in prison in Russia as a political dissenter, and her mother, Manya Ridnyik Goodside, had been sent into exile in the Ukraine. Her parents came to America as many Russian Jews did, escaping the pogroms and jailing, surviving the journey on crowded refugee ships. Paley’s mother went to work in the garment shops of lower Manhattan, and her father taught himself English by reading Charles Dickens, finishing medical in night school and eventually leading her family from working class to middle-class. After settling in America, Isaac anglicized the family name from Gutseit to Goodside. The author and pacifist was born to these parents as Grace Goodside in the Bronx in 1922.
Her family spoke Russian and Yiddish along with English, which is why Paley’s later stories brim over with the Yiddish of socialist immigrant New York City, the raw shouts and street conversations of her lower Manhattan neighborhood and the Bronx of her childhood. Her writing was a melting pot of immigrant gene pools, swirling with upward and downward social mobility, as if her characters were caught in a speeding, giant elevator of social changes, wondering what floor they can get off on.
In 1942, Grace married Jesse Paley. They had two children: Nora, born in 1949, and Danny, born in 1951. Grace and Jesse separated in the late 1960s and divorced in 1972, and later that year she married Robert Nichols, a family friend and political ally. Grace Paley’s life as a pacifist and political activist, was a role that began, as it might have for many of the characters she has created in her stories, as an extension of PTA activities in her children’s school. She also studied in these early years with W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research in the 1940s, and later spoke of being influenced by Auden’s social concern and sense of conscience in his poetry.
By the 1950s, Paley had joined protests against nuclear proliferation and American militarization across the globe. She also worked with the American Friends Service Committee to establish neighborhood peace groups. The combination of neighborhood and, increasingly, global concerns led her to a prominent role in the peace movement of the 1960s and a series of often controversial trips to some of the world’s most troubled nations, among them North Vietnam in 1969, and Chile in 1972. Her famous essay, “The Man in an Airplane in the Sky is a Killer” was an early literary protest against the Vietnam War.
Grace Paley demonstrated regularly in New York’s Washington Square and in Washington D.C against the Vietnam War, and particularly against the napalming of children in South Vietnam. Besides being a pioneer for the War Resisters League and the eco-feminist group Women’s Pentagon Action, she was also an early yarn-bomber. Kjerstin Johnson, a fellow member of Paley’s anti-war/feminist group, wrote an essay called “Adventure in Feministory: Grace Paley” that includes this intriguing memory: “One of the ways the WPA protested the arms race was to weave the doors of the Pentagon shut.”
Paley gained national recognition as an activist when she accompanied a 1969 peace mission to Hanoi to negotiate the release of prisoners of war. By the time her second short story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute was published in 1974, Paley was serving as a delegate to the 1974 World Peace Conference in Moscow. She was arrested 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 1978. When, many years later, she published poems and stories illustrated by a long-time friend from childhood who also had joined the War Resister’s League, Paley wrote: “Vera and I came from the same neighborhood in the Bronx, separated by two elevators (a linguistic trick but a fact). We have worked together in and out of War Resister’s League, Women’s Pentagon Action, women’s affinity groups, mobilization, Central American actions. I had heard of her and never forgotten her Liberation magazine cover designs—the Vietnamese child’s head that rolled across our conscience, a marble of pain …”
Grace’s literary works poignantly articulated a sense of “deep politics”, an interest in “the daily life of black, white, brown children in the grown-up world”. This cannot be reduced to a political icon’s missive or slogan, and in her fiction Paley’s voice is rich with bold humor and irony. The theme of mothers and housewives petitioning as ordinary women in communities and being belittled for their actions is abundantly present in her stories. In “Faith in a Tree”, Paley has a male passerby stare up at a woman named Faith who is stuck in a tree in the middle of Washington Square Park:
The ladies of the PTA
Wear baggies in their blouses
They talk on telephones all day.
In another story, called “Politics,” Paley wrote:
A group of mothers from our neighborhood went downtown to the board estimate hearing and sang a song. They had contributed the facts and the tunes but the idea for that kind of political action came from the clever head of a media man floating on the ebb tide of our Lower West Side culture because of the housing shortage. He was from the far middle plains and loved our well-known tribal organization. He said it was the coming thing. Oh! How he loved our old moldy pot New York!
He was also clean-cut and attractive. For that reason, the first mother stood up straight when the clerk called her name. She smiled, said excuse me, jammed past the knees of her neighbors, and walked proudly down the aisle of the hearing room. Then she sang, according to some sad melody learned in her mother’s kitchen, the following lament requesting better playground facilities:
Oh oh oh
Will someone please put a high fence up
Around the children’s playground
They are playing a game and have only one more year of childhood
Won’t the city come
Or their daddies to keep the bums and the tramps out of the yard
They are too little now to have the old men wagging their
Crocker pricks at them or feeling their
Knees and saying to them
Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart,
Can’t the cardinal keep all these creeps out—
Though immensely entertaining, Paley’s playfulness came from a place of creative depth and never sacrificed layered, complex, and serious social and historical meanings. She loosely defined herself as a “combative pacifist” and “cooperative anarchist”. I believe she sought to adhere to the kind of Western and once Eastern European “spirituality” that Milan Kundera describes in his Art of the Novel as being, for the writer: “the passion to know”; to “scrutinize man’s concrete life” and “protect it against the forgetting of being”, to hold “the world of life” under a “permanent light”.
For Paley, writing stories from the Western side of the Cold War’s barriers and walls, the literary task was the opposite of Milan Kundera’s. Paley’s writing involved not a rescue of who was lost and unremembered as time buried them, but a recognition of marginalized communities whom she felt compelled to put on the literary stage, as is for the first time.
Her characters were more organically swept up and absorbed in the chaotic swirl of events and political protests during the Cold War and its aftermath than those of her colleagues on both sides of the globe. They are resonant with the “screaming rhetoric” from groups begging for visibility for the first time in a classist but potentially socially mobile America, the voices and stories of the marginalized “other” on New York City street corners, minorities, single mothers, women and men sitting on city stoops or walking through the park with their baby carriages, sharing pieces of their lives, gossiping, living urban lives.
I had the gift of studying with Grace Paley as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence and later as a graduate student. She emphasized as a teacher rite of passage that built the inner strength a writer needs. Grace was the master of telling stories about the marginalized, so that for me “marginalized” became for me not an awful word, but a special place of privilege.
At times Grace Paley’s work feels to me like sometimes to be flown in from a storm far away in the sky, fragments of tales depicting lives filled with life’s interruptions and desertions, its marital heartbreaks, illicit lusts and itches, and Paley’s inimitable offhanded but brilliant remarks, true to the dialect of her own family’s Yiddish and a medley of other ethnic tongues; her wild one-sentence wordplays with their breath-taking twists of irony and absurdity.
My own mother was born as a Jew in Palestine as were my grandmother and great mother in the 1920’s. The news about Israel and the war there was constant throughout my lifetime, but after the first Infatida in the 1980s, bombings and death were graphically shown on TV in monotonous, bloody, relentless, and repeated reportage. Grace Paley was always interested in Israel. By this time I was phoning her daily, telling her stories, sharing the intimate scenes of sitting around the dinner table in 1963, in early Jerusalem when my mother took me there to visit as a child. These stories seemed to illuminate a forgotten Jerusalem, not so besieged and terrifying.
On September 11th, 1991, Grace Paley wrote on my behalf to the United Nations. Through her support, I was able to meet and interview the UN Mandate representative of Palestine. From there, the chaotic birth of my first novel Edges, O Israel, O Palestine began.
In the last conversation I had with Grace before she died, I told her that my novel had been optioned for feature film, to be shot on location in my mother’s native city, a now- divided Jerusalem, Grace and I decided that what we wanted to do with some of the proceeds was start an archive at the Jerusalem museum of first person accounts from other families, Arabs and Jews, whose lives, like mine, were full of erased stories of friendship and affinity. It was my greatest privilege to dedicate this book to her, my literary mother, mentor, and friend who will, for me and so many other continue to teach us that our ears are smarter than we think, and our eyes can forever embrace the light she left glowing for us in the dark. It is now my hope that her unique sense of pacifism will serve as a vital model for the times we live in now, as more and more ordinary lives are pulled into the gun violence that now dominates our culture. She gifted us with an antidote and with solutions through action. Her voice has been a special privilege and responsibility. She brought the very large word “pacifism” into the realm of community activism and family. I think she still has much to tell and teach us.