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
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.
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
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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