Leora Skolkin-Smith: The “legacy” of Grace Paley

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Leora SkolkinRilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Grace Paley, a much beloved short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist, died in August of 2007. Since then, as the year of memorials ended, tributes began proliferating throughout the country. Two documentary films were made on her life; a special Grace Paley Award For Short Fiction was created at the annual AWP Conference of American creative writing programs; and images and quotes from Grace Paley were splashed onto political banners and posters for a myriad of causes and political organizations. One journalist, Nora Eisenberg, writing in Alternet, came close to describing the Paley charisma, writing that Paley was “small, playful, and adorable but an inimitable powerhouse, whose art, and activism shook up the world of letters and the halls of power. . . . A year of memorials . . . replayed her spirited activism and arrests, her wild and wise stories, and her remarkable face, which maintained into age and infirmity a child’s quick smile and mischievous gaze.”

But many falsehoods, sentimentalizations, idealizations, and distortions have also accrued in the four years since Paley’s death. Why—with the abundant availability and accessibility of biographical information, has there been a need to develop a political and social icon that has outweighed the literary value of her writing? This raises another, perhaps more threatening, question: why, how, and to what consequence do these many “misunderstandings” add up? How did gossip supplant literary biography—and undo the power of literature itself—and what more questions does this raise? That is, does this loose and uncontested portrayal of an important writer reflect, somewhere, the powerlessness and secondary place literary work is now taking in America’s culture of celebrities? Will literature run below the pedestals of manufactured icons, and become an invisible river drying up beneath us?

Consider Disney’s animation studio. A “cel,” short for celluloid, is a transparent sheet on which objects are drawn or painted for traditional, hand-drawn animation. Generally, the characters are drawn on cels and laid over a static background drawing. A storyboard is made. The dialogue is recorded. Cel animation involves drawing a cartoon character’s image against a background and foreground until the sheer repetitiveness of one image begins to be defined, modified only by the background and foreground. The image, reduced to one singular trait or personality exaggerated by simple repetition at the expense of other character traits becomes a caricature that is a cartoon. Grace Paley’s figure, her face twisted into a nearly presidential expression, lecturing a stadium of intent followers, standing high upon a podium, apart from the crowd, has been presented repeatedly these four years since her death. The storyboard was usually the same, too. She is stirring the crowd into a trance-like state against the political system and moral corruption in the country, and doing so much as a shaman would, but clothed in an ordinary woman’s house dress or skirt. A writer’s organization offered a solemn, grandiose photograph of Paley uncharacteristically posing in a photo much as a political leader might—presidential, smile-less and somber—above a quote of her saying: “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” A blog declared its mission as being to “celebrate this amazing woman (Grace Paley) and record nonviolent actions around the world to further her vision of resistance to the empires of war and exploitation.” Quotes from Grace Paley were used on political banners and tee-shirts, regardless of the cause. Various political organizations commemorated Paley’s anti-war ideology to support their positions, though it was often doubtful that Paley’s views were compatible. People told personal stories, often exaggerating their intimacy with Paley. One recounted sitting on her lap like a child and weeping while she mothered her into mental health. A newspaper article alleged that Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme were lovers. (Anyone who actually knew Paley would immediately know such an affair never took place. Her decades-long marriage to poet Robert Nichols, in fact, was the subject of many of her stories and poems, and she poignantly wrote stories about abandoned lovers and the profound bruises suffered from infidelity.)

The repeated visual “cel animation” of Paley became a cel-based caricature. Paley as a cultural phenomenon, an icon, was invented.

The icon, Grace Paley, is a grand Ghandi-like heroine, a political radical making solemn leadership speeches to bands and stadiums full of politically aroused and feverish followers. Yet such self-posturing and self-importance were, in fact, contrary to the real, sometimes fiercely tough, and irascible Grace Paley. They oversimplify the political and activist positions that she took. The words being used, her posture and pose only fit into the frame and context created for effect, and she is not credible against the backgrounds and foregrounds that ultimately trap her into one-dimensionality and dramatic distortions.For Grace Paley, political action had a depth that is similar to and as complex as her literature. Therefore, focusing on such political acts without seeing the broader portrait of the writer, including her literary works, distorts them and her. Simply, Paley was much more than the sum of these dubious parts.

 * * * *

Paley’s first published collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, was far from the political grandstanding these invented iconic images present to us. None of her stories were ever solemn—a vaudevillian, wild humor and narrative chaos at the highest level of playfulness infused the language, situations and characters. They were stories about life’s ordinary and myriad difficulties: divorce, parental loss, rejection, poverty, the absurdity of fate, and they perhaps contained some anger about one’s helplessness in a society growing more capitalistic and dangerous as nuclear weapons and Cold War values began to threaten its communities. The stories were mostly acclaimed for their meta-fictive qualities; ribald humor; fragmented, incomplete plots; and shifting narrative voices.

In sharp distinction to the iconic political radical and prophetess, Paley’s short stories till deeper political soil and ground, and what appears as laughably superficial political action is actually an aspect of a complex, contradictory grasp of humanity. Her literary work, relegated to a secondary position, now calls for illumination.

She was born as Grace Goodside in the Bronx in 1922. Her father, Isaac Goodside, had spent time in prison in Russia as a political dissenter, and her mother, Manya Ridnyik Goodside was sent into exile in the Ukraine. After immigrating to America, Isaac anglicized the family name from Gutseit to Goodside. The family spoke Russian and Yiddish along with English. Paley’s stories brim over with the Yiddish from her socialist immigrant parents, the raw shouts and street conversations of her lower Manhattan neighborhood and the Bronx of her childhood. In short, a melting pot of immigrant gene pools, and their upward and downward social mobility, as if caught in a speeding, giant elevator of social changes, wondering what floor they can get off on. She was the daughter of Eastern European refugees from czarist Russia, her parents coming to America as many Russian Jews had, escaping the pogroms and jailings, surviving the journey on a crowded refugee ship. Her mother went to work in the garment shops of lower Manhattan, and her father taught himself English by reading Dickens, finishing medical in night school and eventually leading her family from working class to middle-class.

In her poem, ”The Nature of This City,” Paley wrote:

Children walking with their grandmothers
Talk foreign languages
That is the nature of this city
And also this country
Talk is cheap but comes in variety
And witnessing dialect
There is a rule for all
And in each sentence a perfect grammar
See Manhattan! I cried: New York!
Even at sunset it doesn’t shine
But stands in fire charcoal to the waist
But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day
I walked west and came to Hudson Street, tricolored flags
Were flying over old oak furniture for sale
Brass bedsteads copper pots and vases
By the pound from India
Suddenly before my eyes twenty two transvestites
In joyous parade stuffed pillows
Under their heavy gowns
And entered a restaurant under a sign which said: “All Mothers Free”

In the early 1940s, studying with W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research, Paley said she had been 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, and eventually she met her husband Robert Nichols, an architect and activist.

As the Vietnam War escalated in the 1960s, Paley joined the War Resisters League, and she 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 her 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 . . . ”

Unlike the iconic Paley on the podium making rallying speeches, Paley poignantly articulated that her sense of “deep politics” would mean “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 writing, Paley’s voice becomes rich with bold humor and irony. The theme of mothers, housewives petitioning as ordinary women in communities while they are belittled is repeated in later stories. In “Faith in a Tree,” Paley has a male passerby stare up at Faith 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—

Paley’s teaching career spanned over sixty years, inspiring hundreds of young women to write. As “feminism” entered the Academy and Ivory Tower in the 1960s and ’70s, Afro-American and immigrant daughters and sons took a prominent place in Paley’s stories, representing, too, the yet unheard voices of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Nonetheless, in her characteristically offhand humor, Paley showed how far she felt from any feminist icon, remarking to one interviewer. “Oh, that’s what I was doing during the women’s movement, writing stories about women . . . ” (Though she was also quick to add: “I think the woman’s movement was the most important movement in the world.” )

Exploring and then discovering her own voice by finding the voice of other women (her own extended family included), Paley gradually had assembled her first collection of short fiction, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) with Doubleday after a number of rejections. The collection features eleven stories of New York life, several of which have since been widely anthologized, and it introduced the semi-autobiographical character “Faith Darwin,” who later appeared in six stories of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and then of Later the Same Day. The Little Disturbances of Man was not widely reviewed, but those who did review it (notably Philip Roth) highly praised it, saying Paley had “an understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike.” Paley, the socio-political icon, had not yet been invented, and Paley’s arrival on the literary scene of the 1960s and 70s was recognized on its purely literary merits. Edmund White noted in The Observer, that her stories were: “full of energy and stunning, quiet innovation . . . it spills over with contempt, raucous humor, sadness and generosity. In it, life and language are synonymous, and there is no higher praise.” Susan Sontag embraced the work critically describing it as: “Largely set within the same small close-knit community in New York’s Lower East Side . . . ultimately what’s at stake for Paley is whether to believe in the comic possibility of continuance or the tragic inevitability of ending. Grace Paley’s is an exceptional voice in contemporary American literature.”

Slowly, Paley’s work gained an underground following strong enough for Viking to republish The Little Disturbances of Man in 1968. Erica Wagoner, writing in The Times brought Paley’s social themes to the critics’ table. “This collection gives us a wondrous thing, ” Wagner wrote, “a vigorous reminder of the unlimited power of the English language to surprise and delight . . . .the rhythms of New York City pulse through her writing . . . she listens to literature and street language, and she blends them perfectly.”

Grace Paley, herself, was never far from feeling like the aunt she portrays in her very first story Good Bye and Good Luck—a woman who wants to sit by the window just to watch the world below her in the neighborhood streets:

“Nowadays,” Aunt Rose tells us in this story,

you could find me any time in a hotel uptown or downtown. Who needs an apartment to live like a maid with a dustrag in the hand sneezing. I’m in very good with the busboy, it’s more interesting than home, all kinds of people, everybody with a reason . . . And my reason, my little Lillie, is a longtime ago I said to the foremast, missus if I can’t sit by the window I can’t sit.

Only a person like your Mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings into the canary’s ear for thirty years. Who’s listening? Papa’s in the shop, you and Seymour’s 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 that 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 . . .

In The Art of the Novel, published in 1986, Milan Kundera wrote: “The more advanced in knowledge, the less clearly could (man) see the world as a whole or his own self, and he plunged into what Husserl’s pupil Heidegger called in a beautiful and magical phrase: ‘the forgetting of being . . . ‘” A Czech writer forced to live in exile in France after his native Prague fell to the Soviet regime in 1968, Milan Kundera was a vital member, with Grace Paley, of the literary canon comprised of Cold War writers, expressing, from both sides of the globe, socio-cultural discontents and rebellions between the Second World War through the Reagan Era, when the Cold War officially ended. The group of literary works that are considered the most important of this particular time period and place established a collection of similar or related works that shared a common anxiety about how one can still see the world as a whole, and one’s self as part of that whole, facing the technological advances of a new age which includes nuclear weaponry and capacities, the split between communist bloc countries and capitalistic societies dominated by American interests. What can one do to combat the “forgetting of being” as the world plunges into a clear division between East and West that does not engage traditional Eastern and Western European cultural values as the world has known them but reinvents them to accommodate the new political landscape and balance of powers. Both Kundera and Paley were writing about the “forgetting of being” against the schism between the East and West, democracy, the foibles of the free world, as most of Eastern Europe surrendered to communism. Kundera and Paley, as male and female voices, seemed to complete rather than compete with each other, pitched forward into the mid- 20th-century world while still grasping on faithfully to the European cultural traditions that once defined literature and the writer. Both, too, were struggling to redefine those values while incorporating them. As an American writer, Paley’s work seemed more hopeful, buoyant, and ultimately more optimistic in regard to human freedom and rights than her Eastern European colleagues. But her work, celebrating of America’s grand possibilities, the rise of immigrant, minority voices—women’s in particular—was no less based in the same imperative and continuity of ideals for literature to find “Truth” in the classical sense, sort it out, write from a driving, internal necessity and personal conscience. She both integrated and reinvented the Eastern European literary tradition, or, as Alexandra, a character in one of Paley’s stories says: ” . . . international generosity started in him (Paley’s father) during the late 19th century by his young mother and father, candle holders inside the dark tyranny of the tzars. It was childhood training. Thoughtfully, he passed it on.”

An icon cannot capture, and can only distort, what Kundera aptly called “the forgetting of being”—a notion that, in it’s resonant ambiguity and imprecision, begins to convey Paley’s literary depth. And, though immensely entertaining, Paley’s playfulness came from such a creative depth and did not sacrifice more layered, complex, and serious social and historical meanings. Though Paley loosely defined herself as a “combative pacifist” and “cooperative anarchist,” I believe she sought to adhere to the Western and once Eastern European “spirituality” 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”; and to hold “the world of life” under a “permanent light.” 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 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. And her work is more scattered than Kundera’s, seeming 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.

For Paley, writing stories from the Western side of the Cold War’s barrier and Wall, the literary task was the opposite of 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. Paley described the urgency of her need to write as “some knowledge (was) creating a real physical pressure, probably in the middle of my chest, maybe just to the right of the heart. I was beginning to suffer the storyteller’s pain: listen I have to tell you something . . . ” In another part of the same foreword she tells us she needed “to remember the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish, accents, a language my early characters knew well, the only language I spoke. Two ears, one for literature, one for home . . . history that happens to you while you’re doing the dishes.”

In all three of Paley’s collections, humor—often wild and ironic—dominates, rarely will Paley allow her narrator to sink into lasting despair, though she also acknowledges, in “Friends”:

though some say you miss a lot by not going down, down, down

Feminism was satirized many times, as in Paley’s title story, Enormous Changes At the Last Minute:

A young man said he wanted to go to bed with Alexandra because she had an interesting mind. He was a cabdriver and she had admired the curly back of his head. Still, she was surprised. He said he would pick her up again in about an hour and a half. Because she was a fair and responsible person, she placed between them a barrier of truthful information. She said, I suppose you don’t know many middle aged women.

You don’t look so middle-aged to me. I mean everyone likes what they like. That is, I’m interested in your point of view, your way of life. Anyway, he said, peering in the mirror, your face is nice and your eyebrows are out of sight . . .

More of her satiric humor operating also as language play and irony is exemplified in her story, “A Gloomy Tune”:

There is a family nearly everybody knows. The children of this family are named Bobo, Bibi, Doody, Dodo, Neddy, Yoyo, Butch, Put Put, and Beep. Some are girls and some are boys.

The girls are mean babysitters for mothers. The boys plan to join the army.

The two oldest mean babysitters go out to parties a lot. Sometimes they jerk people off. They really like.

They are really narrow-minded. They never have an idea but they like to be right. They never listen to anyone’s ideas.

One after another Dodo, Neddy, Yoy, and Put Put, Dodo, Neddy, Yoyo, and Put Put got the sisters at school into a state. The sisters had to give up on them and they got dumped where they belonged for being fresh: Right in the public school.

In another story, “In Time Which Made A Monkey of Us All,” humor spins even out of sexual crisis:

Another night Blanche Spitz took off everything but her drawers and her brassiere and because of a teaspoon of rum in a quart and a half of coke decided to do setting up exercises to the tune of Nutcracker Suite..”Ah Blanchie,” said Carl nearly nauseous with love, “do me a bellydance baby.” “I don’t know what a bellydance is Carl,” she said and to the count of eight went into a deep knee bend. Arnold lassoed her with Rita’s skirt, which he had happened to have in his hand. He dragged Blanchie off to a corner where he slapped her, dressed her, asked her what her fee was and did it include relatives, and before she could answer he slapped her again then took her home. Rita’s skirt flung over one shoulder. This kind of event will turn an entire neighborhood against the most intense chronology of good works. Rita’s skirt hung by a buttonhole, fluttered for two days from the iron cellar railing and was unclaimed. Girls, Shmul editorialized in his little book, live a stone age life in a blown glass cave.

Riotously funny, gregarious, and generous, Paley had a personality so potent many believed they did not have to read her work to know her literary voice. She created a literature of gossipy chatting between friends, spouses, and former spouses, the stories told before and at dinner among family members. The story-hearer and the storyteller, she also became a semi-autobiographical character herself in her stories, Faith Darwin. Clearly Paley recognized some of her own idealism and naivety, but, unlike her icon, Paley was self-critical, through Faith. In a later story, called “Friends” from her last collection, Later The Same Day, Paley wrote from a friend’s point of view, describing Faith:

Here she [Faith] is again with her good-goodies—everything is so groovy, wonderful, far-out terrific. Next thing you’ll say people are darling and the world is nice and Union Carbide will never blow it up.”

[Faith then replies:] “I never said anything as hopeful as that.”

The story ends with a typical Paley (as Faith) summation and moral epiphany:

Meanwhile Anthony’s world—poor dense, defenseless thing—rolls and rolls round and round. Living and dying are fastened to its surface and stuffed into its softer parts. He was right to call my attention to its suffering and danger. He was right to harass my responsible nature. But I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments.

* * * *

In the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera describes how an image of a former Czech politician is simply airbrushed out of a public photo into oblivion, his slight figure cut out from the picture and thereby erased from collective memory. This manipulation of “the forgetting of being” shows us how easily the entire political memory of a country can be subliminally altered. “Once elevated by Descartes to the ‘master and proprietor of nature’, man has now become a mere thing to the forces of technology, of politics, of history that bypass, surpass, possess him . . . ” Kundera warns us in The Art of the Novel. How then, by celebrating Grace Paley, has the media airbrushed her away?

As part of this celebration, a poem Paley wrote at the end of her life was repeated in numbing persistence, against the same background and foreground (Paley standing on podium in front of a mass of followers as in a political rally):

It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no freedom without justice and this means economic justice and love justice . . .

There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue.

Over and over again, the same image, background, and foreground were placed in the press to typify a Paley reading, as well as define Paley, reducing her to the caricatured figure who only ever gives speeches to crowds.

The storyboard was also the same with words like “go forth” and “fear and courage” and “save the world”—that is, staid, Anglican-like words she would never use to replace her hard-won victory to infuse literature with the language of everyday voices, Yiddish intonations and street dialect in particular.

It is the poignant voice of ordinary sorrow that was the true engine of her political activism. “The little disturbances of man”—loss, death, friendship, lovers, and divorcees—which were also the reasons, in human terms, why Paley took the political stands she did against war and nuclear proliferation, 20th-century threats she saw as having the potential to erase human life in its most important, functioning forms: a balancing act between community and intimacy, family and lust, generation, history, and time in its passing.

“Don’t show me the sunset anymore I’m not interested you know that,” she has her father say to her in A Conversation with My Father “she [Paley] had just pointed to a simple sunset happening outside his hospital window. It was a red ball all alone without it’s streak of evening clouds, a red ball falling hopelessly west just missing the Hudson River, Jersey City, Chicago, The Great Plains, The Golden Gate—falling, falling.”

I believe Paley, her real self and voice, is served better by her own words, unaccompanied by images of “tribute”: “It seems right to dedicate this collection to my colleague in the writing and mother trade,” she wrote, as a preface to the entire Collected Stories, encompassing her fifty years of writing, “I visited her fifth floor apartment on Barrow street one day in 1957. There before my very eyes were her two husbands disappointed by the eggs. After that we talked and talked for nearly forty years. Then she died. Three years before that, she said slowly with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, Grace, the real question is how are we to live our lives?


HysteraLeora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Hystera. This essay was first published in Quarterly Conversation in 2011. You can learn more about Leora and her book at our website.

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