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Grace Paley

Take a poor student.  Imbue her with a great sense of humor.  Give her some creativity.  And call her Grace Paley.  What do you get?  What do you think?  December 11 marks the birthday of a classic American short story writer.  Born in New York City in 1922, she is the youngest daughter of politically active Ukranian-born Jews who had the remarkable courage to openly oppose the Russian czar in their youth.  For their efforts, father Isaac was exiled to Siberia, where he remained until 1904 when the Czar pardoned all prisoners under the age of 21.  Soon after, the Paleys sailed for New York to begin life anew.  They settled in the Bronx.

Paley grew up in a home where Russian and Yiddish were spoken as commonly as English.  She discovered her own voice, she said, by listening to her neighboring New Yorkers.  "When I was little I loved to listen to my parents' stories...I loved to listen and soon I loved to talk and tell."

A bright but easily distracted student, Paley enrolled in Hunter College but was expelled after her first year for missing too many classes.  "I really went to school on poetry," she said.

In the early 1940's, Paley studied with poet W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research.  She married Jess Paley, a movie cameraman, in 1942, and they settled in Greenwich Village, where she began raising their two children.

Paley enjoyed the New Yorkers she met in the parks, playgrounds, and streets of her neighborhood.  She couldn't understand why they had no place in the literature of the day, but she couldn't decide how to bring them to light through her poetry, either; so, she decided to try her hand at writing prose.  She published three stories in magazines before an editor at Doubleday and Company noticed her work.  "Write seven more," he told her, "and you'll have a book."

In 1959, Paley published eleven short stories in her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man.  Author Philip Roth said, "Though no blood sister, she's as funny as Jane Austen."  One of her characters named Faith thinks about her "destiny, which is to be, until my expiration date, laughingly the servant of man."  She puzzles, "What is man that woman lies down to adore him?"

Paley's book was an overnight success, but her next literary efforts did not come easily.  She was involved in politics and social action throughout the Sixties, when she began a novel that she never finished.  Her next book of short stories wasn't published until 1974. 

Paley visited Hanoi and Moscow as a member of several peace delegations.  In 1978, she and ten other demonstrators broke away from a tour group and displayed an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn.  The protestors, nicknamed "The White House Eleven," were fined and given suspended sentences of 180 days in prison. 

Author Donald Barthelme--an extraordinary short-story writer of his own--called Paley "a wonderful writer and troublemaker."  Paley, herself, agreed with him when she summed up her political and literary philosophy: "When you feel a pull, go with it."

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