Postmodern Mom

Dominique Nabokov
Grace Paley, New York City, April 1985

A decade after Grace Paley’s death, a new collection brings together fifteen of her most famous stories, with nineteen essays and thirty-four poems, all of them dealing with her characteristically large subjects: war, men, marriage, children, life and death. The fiction gathered in A Grace Paley Reader is peopled by lovable and profoundly eloquent characters living mostly in the Bronx, where Paley herself grew up. Her parents had come from Russia, and the family spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English.

Born in 1922, Paley went to public schools in the Bronx and then briefly attended Hunter College and the New School, where she studied with Auden, but without getting a degree. She married twice, had children, and lived the double life of a stay-at-home mother and literary figure at a time when to be both was seen as an almost impossible contradiction. Paley saw it that way herself. She worked odd jobs—secretary, superintendent of a rooming house, teacher.

During all those jobs, once I was married and after I had children, most of the day I was a housewife…. And all during those jobs and all the time I was a housewife, I was a writer. The whole meaning of my life, which was jammed until midnight with fifteen different jobs and places, was writing.

Thus Paley came to represent a category of person only then beginning to be included in the ranks of serious American literary writers—moms.

Among admired women writers of the generation before her there was a reigning intellectual, Mary McCarthy, and a southern beauty, Katherine Anne Porter; but in the late 1950s, when Paley began her career, women were otherwise scarce in the pantheon. (The activist, union organizer, journalist, and writer Tillie Olsen, a decade older, had a background and subjects similar to Paley’s. One of Olsen’s best-known short stories is “I Stand Here Ironing,” but Olsen wrote less, and was less visible, being in the far West.) Nor were McCarthy and Porter associated with vacuuming and coffee klatches and other details of female daily life. Though she was a committed political activist, Paley assumed, or faute de mieux was assigned to, the domestic realm—women’s subjects, as they were thought of. The periodical Saturday Review noted, “Grace Paley’s success should encourage every harassed housewife who harbors writing ambitions…. [She] has a husband, two children under ten, and a walk-up apartment, which she cleans herself.”

Like Paley, the women in her stories are mothers and housewives; the men are uncles, storekeepers, and old guys in the park. By being Jewish and urban, Paley also fit in with the new voices of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Herbert Gold, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, and many others who, with their brilliant talent, access to inherited dialects, store of Yiddish folklore and jokes, local references, and the shadow of the…

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