Grace Paley was born Grace Goodside in 1922, and reborn in her fiction in 1959 as Faith Darwin, an alter ego whom she endowed with two siblings, Hope and Charles, and to whom she has returned again and again in her stories. As the improbable names suggest, she and her fictional kin are inclined to a rosy view of things, and yet they’re also naturalists who acknowledge a cruel competition for survival. What the names don’t suggest is that they are Jewish and have no intention of being meek or any expectation of inheriting the earth.
This hybrid temperament has a perfectly recognizable political pedigree. Paley and her character Faith, and many of Faith’s friends, are red (or at any rate pink) diaper babies. They are the radical American progeny of a generation of immigrants who dreamed of and worked for a “sensible, socialist, Zionist world of the future.” While “everyone else in [the] building is on the way up through the affluent society, putting five to ten years into low rent before moving to Jersey or Bridgeport,” this second generation, which has moved from the Bronx tenements of childhood to Greenwich Village apartments, is sticking with city “soot and slime.” They’re activists not just in the PTA but on the streets, picketing and pamphleting, worrying about the world’s end.
The literary and personal genealogy of this provincial “progressive if sometimes reformist disposition” has been less clearly defined—until, that is, Grace Paley began writing her stories. They are notably short, sometimes only two pages and never more than twenty. And there are notably few of them: the moderately sized Collected Stories contains all three of her collections, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985). But their gradual appearance signaled the origin of a new species.
At the heart of Paley’s stories is talk, the cadences of conversation and the sounds of voices speaking “the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish accents,” as she puts it in her introduction. The talk is all about wisdom—or the lack of it—in life and in love, but leavening the urgent gabbing is a self-deprecating, urban wit. Paley’s oral spontaneity also goes hand in hand with self-conscious literariness. The storyteller is always thinking, often out loud in the stories themselves, about the fact and the act of telling stories.
Though this verbal flair may make her sound like at least a relative of “Bellow and Roth and all those guys,” as Paley refers to the roughly contemporaneous second-generation Jewish-American writers whose comic, hyperaware monologue style now constitutes a tradition, in fact her talent is remarkably individual. Aside from her politics, it’s not hard to point to two obvious sources of the distance that separates her from them, one literary and the other personal.
Paley started out as a poet, which shows everywhere in the form of her fiction. Her lyric ease in a “hammock of world-inventing words” and her comfort with fragmentary plot are a stark contrast to the hard-driving prosaic gifts of her much more prolific colleagues. She dares to load on the metaphors and similes, and knows how to balance them. In “A Subject of Childhood” Faith rocks the small son she has just tried unsuccessfully to shoo outside so she can have a moment of peace after a fight with a lover, and the sun abruptly shines in on the two of them: “Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black-and-white-barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes.”
Just as important, Paley is “a woman and that makes a big difference,” as she likes to emphasize. She doesn’t hesitate to say that she feels her sex has given her a great thematic advantage over those male writers:
There’s such a distortion in their writing sometimes, the kind of stuff that gives men a bad name. It really louses them up. I think there’s a lot of contempt for their fathers coming out and it doesn’t do the books, or them, a lot of good. I’m delighted to be a woman.1
In truth, Paley doesn’t disagree all that much with Roth’s message. His obsessive theme, as John Updike has succinctly characterized it, “is what infants men are” in their insatiable demand for gratification as they chafe in their own skins. “The helpless infant in his deep discomfiture limitlessly wants.”2 Paley’s own message can be seen as a kind of antidote inspired by that theme. Many, if not most, of her stories are animated by an appreciation of what mothers women are, instinctive creators and nurturers of bonds beyond the self.
There is a formulaic, even tendentious, way to construe this underlying tenet of Paley’s, to which she herself sometimes succumbs. Outside of her stories, she has been known to adopt the sanctimonious tone of spokeswoman for a sisterhood whose mission, as she and her “three or four best women friends…discuss on the widest deepest and most hopeless level,” is to enlighten a destructive world run by greedy men. For men themselves are afflicted with dumbness, by which “she meant everything dumbness has always meant: silence and stupidity.” These pronouncements come from Paley’s “Midrash on Happiness,” one of the prose pieces collected in Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991), which she prefaced with a particularly smug and sentimental declaration of intent. Describing herself and her collaborator, the painter Vera B. Williams, as “daily movement people and artists,” Paley offered up the illustrated booklet of womanly wisdom in the spirit of agit-prop: “We hoped that our work would, by its happiness and sadness, demonstrate against militarists, racists, earth poisoners, women haters, all those destroyers of days.”3
This kind of saccharine cant, however, is kept at bay in her stories. In her fiction, at its best, Paley resists precisely the doctrinaire equation of the personal and the political, and the propagandistic notion of writing as politics by other means dissolves in the process. Her central, recurring theme is the necessary tension between hopeless idealism about the public world of power and hopeful realism about private worlds of powerlessness. In Paley’s stories, global terrors and troubles must be vigilantly protested, even though in the end the planet will fall apart. At the same time, personal ties and memories have to be tended, even though they often aren’t particularly happy, or all that helpful, and even though they will end, surely before the world does. In each successive collection, she has devoted more stories to Faith Darwin, intermixed with tales of other similar characters from the same locale (as well as some very dissimilar ones, as in “The Little Girl” and “Lavinia: An Old Story,” where Paley tries out monologues in her own version of a black idiom).
Paley’s ironic slant on her characters’ daily crises and their treasured causes usually saves her from the righteousness and rhetorical affectation that such dramas of commitment could invite. And Paley rightly has confidence in her wit, which lets her play deftly with the disparities she sets up. In her domestic life Faith is often made to look disarmingly ridiculous, as worthy principles and more routine pleasures mock each other. She and her husband “talked over the way the SALT treaty looked more like a floor than a ceiling…and then made love.” Or sometimes the sex precedes the sermon, as when Faith slips off for a rendezvous with a lover: “almost at once on rising to tea or coffee, Faith asked, Nick, why do [the Chinese] have such a rotten foreign policy? The question had settled in her mind earlier, resting just under the light inflammation of desire.” In a similar way, little tasks are juxtaposed with big debates. Faith has just defended the Diaspora and expressed disappointment in Israel in an outburst to her husband: “I had resumed my embroidery. I sighed. My needle was now deep in the clouds, which were pearl gray and late afternoon. I am only trying to say [Jews] aren’t meant for geographies but for history. They are not supposed to take up space but to continue in time.”
By the same token, in her literary life Faith is made to feel a little defensive and frivolous, which is what art needs if it is to be free. Anthony, her second son, has become a gloomy teen-ager in a late story called “Friends,” and he chides her for her small-scale stories that despite sad details always hope for happiness:
He was right to call my attention to [the world’s] 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.
Within those “reports,” of course, Paley’s inventions are by no means restricted to navel gazing. On the contrary, she continually attempts a balancing act between sentimental and social realms. And here is where her guiding maternal perspective displays its original power. Where passionate attachment is the classic ingredient of motherly vision, Paley turns out to have unexpected reserves of detachment. What is notably absent from Paley’s stories is the Jewish mother in her caricatured form, possessively exerting control over a claustrophobic clan (unless you count her Irish character, Mrs. Raftery, who appears twice, in an early story called “An Interest in Life” and in a later one, “Distance”: that’s Paley’s kind of joke). As Paley has remarked, her focus is not particularly Freudian. “I’m interested in intergenerations—the young people and the old—because I’m more interested in history than I am in psychology.”4 In her stories that turns out to mean she is less concerned with the wages of guilt and more curious about the workings of fate.
“Everyday life, kitchen life, children life,” Paley says in her introduction, was her imaginative “portion” from the start, and as her first collection showed, she always knew it wasn’t the modest subject matter it seemed. For Faith as a single mother raising two sons, and as a daughter to two parents who have signed themselves into an old age home on Coney Island called Children of Judea, questions about what one generation passes on to the next are a more than practical preoccupation; they jostle up against thoughts about the past and the future, and about freedom. Early on, while Faith is coping with young children and transient husbands and lovers, she seizes on mere moments of clarity about family bonds (as in her sunlit scene rocking her son). The mysteries of child-rearing emerge as more meditated “important things” as Faith ages in the later volumes, particularly in “Friends” and in “The Expensive Moment” from the last collection, two stories that feel like a companionable pair. (Paley’s stories have a way of striking up special associative chords with each other.)
In the first story Faith visits a dying friend, Selena, with whom she has shared a long and muddled past, but it’s the present and future of their children that they need to talk about. Selena’s daughter is already a memory, which still stuns both women; one day Abby “was found in a rooming house in a distant city, dead,” news that gave her mother her “first night’s sleep in two years. I knew where she was.” Faith is almost chagrined to be so much luckier, with one grown son abroad who calls home regularly and eighteen-year-old Anthony at hand, caustic but still communicative. Generational roles are reversed. He knowingly mocks her for her naiveté: everyone saw that his classmate Abby was in trouble, just as the world was a mess in the tumultuous Sixties and still is.
But as Faith reveals in “The Expensive Moment,” she is not so much arrogantly naive about progress and growth as she is humble about unpredictability. This time she is talking with a visiting Chinese woman who has “lived a life beyond foreignness and [has] experienced extreme history” and who also wants to air her confusions about child-rearing. “What is the best way to help them in the real world?” Xie Feng asks. “Was I foolish? I didn’t know in those years how to do it.” Faith answers, “Oh, Xie Feng…. Neither did I.” The public and the private cannot be tamed in smooth tandem. “The world cannot be changed by talking to one child,” Faith has learned, but “it may at least be known.” And she appreciates the corollary: children can and must be changed by talking about the world, but one can never be sure how.
In an earlier Faith story, “A Conversation With My Father,” from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Paley draws literary lessons from this open-ended doubt about character and fate. Here Faith is the child, and the dying person she is visiting is her eighty-six-year-old father, who “offers last-minute advice and makes a request.” He would like her to tell “a simple story,” like Chekhov, which she takes to mean one with a “plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” But she wants to oblige the old, much-loved man. So she tells various versions of a “miserable tale” about a mother who becomes a junkie “in order to maintain her close friendship” with her son, who at fifteen has become a junkie himself. Then the boy pulls himself together and abandons his sick mother in disgust.
But Faith can’t quite tell this story with a straight face, and her father keeps pressing for completeness and closure; he wants to feel pity and fear for the mother, he wants a taste of the tragic. By the end, both stories—of mother and son, and of father and daughter—are playing off each other in ways that are anything but simple. Faith hasn’t abandoned her sick father, and yet she won’t let him win the argument and have his sad tale of parental defeat; she is being cruel and kind at once. Tragedy and comedy have become entwined. And the grip of the past wrestles with the lure of the future, as her father’s Old World wisdom about endings confronts Faith’s American confidence in new beginnings (the mother, she tells him in one last version, becomes “the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village”). Paley has managed to tell a fable about art and life, love and fate, in the specific, ungnomic tones of a provincial family dialogue.
The voice behind all these stories has an exhilarating way of sounding mature and immature at the same time. Paley’s narratives display worldly confidence and idiosyncratic playfulness, a knack for undermining homilies with plenty of anomalies. As becomes clear in two stories in which that presiding voice itself takes cen-ter stage, the challenge of keeping its tone in tune is harder than Paley generally lets on. In the late story “Anxiety,” in which a wise old maternal mouth at a window gives the street below a talking to, Paley succumbs to stagy cuteness. From behind her box of marigolds, the narrator lectures a young father for getting angry with his child, who has just impertinently oinked at him. This “old gray head” playing village scold knows she sounds ridiculous (a “little doomed person,” the all-seeing busybody calls the little girl), but she’s also certain she’s right. All irony evaporates, and as the narrator watches the men shoulder their children at the end, she waxes platitudinous: “I sit…and wonder how to make sure that they gallop safely home through the airy scary dreams of scientists and the bulky dreams of automakers.”
But that late lapse has its companion piece in an early triumph of Paley’s, “The Loudest Voice,” from her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man. The story is about the education of a not at all meek, very American maternal voice that is the opposite of parochial and preachy. Here the staginess is literal: this is the story of young Shirley Abramowitz’s triumphant narration of the Christmans pantomine at her public school, a star role she was assigned thanks to a talent for reading “with lots of expression” and a very loud voice—a voicethat she still has many years later in a neighborhood where “every window is a mother’s mouth.”
Narrated in a childish yet wise first person, the story flirts with cloying cuteness (“I kissed my pinky and looked at God,” Shirley reports when she learns of her good luck), but Paley’s own perfectly pitched performance makes it a comic masterpiece. All the major pantomime parts go to Jewish kids, too, and they obediently practice their motions. It’s the parents who are agitated by their children’s upcoming participation in this holiday event, except for Shirley’s father, who zealously pro-assimilation: “We learn from reading this is a holiday from pagan times also…. So we learn it’s not altogether Christian. So it they think it’s a private holiday, they’re only ignorant, not patriotic. What velongs to history belongs to all men.” Emoldened by his backing (and protected from tonsillitis by her mother’s vigilance), Shirley belts out “a long story and…a sad story” to the audience. It’s the famous one about a father who abandoned his only son:
I carefilly pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood…Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to a famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
In the Abramowitz kitchen later that night, Shirley’s father is predictably pleased about the “beautiful affair,” which introduced them all “to the beliefs of a different culture.” The previously apprehensive mothers, Shirley’s and a friend’s, are no only proud of their stars, but are now feeling a little sorry for all the goyim, who got small parts or none. And happy Shirley boldly prays for everybody—“my talking family, cousins far away, passersby, and all the lonesome Christians”—and, naturally, “expected to be heard. My voice certainly was the loudest.” Far from feeling marginal, she goes to sleep feeling magisterial.
Paley does not pretend that the moment she has dramatized is one of universalist harmony. She’s mocked everybody a little, with the result that the story is the opposite of mawkish. The collision of worlds, she appreciates, is never quiet. Neat unity—between generations, between religions between ideals and daily jumbles—is suspect, a threat to the “open destiny of life” in which Faith and her creator have such faith. But the quest for an untidy sense of connection is well worth the trouble. Paley has always believed that she could speak from and about her small corner of the world an hope to be heard well beyond it. Thirty-five years ago “The Loudest Voice” made readers listen up. Paley’s “remembering tongue” hasn’t spoken very often since then, but its careful choice of occasions may turn out to be one reason it isn’t soon forgotten.
August 11, 1994
David Remnick, “Grace Paley, Voice From the Village,” The Washington Post, April 14, 1985, p.C14. ↩
Review of The Anatomy Lesson, 1983, in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (Knopf, 1991), p.370. ↩
Long Walks and Intimate Talks (The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1991). ↩
Nina Darnton, “Taking Risks: The Writer as Effective Teacher,” The New York Times, April 13, 1986, section 12, p.65. ↩