Our Times of Political Turmoil and Upheaval Call for Grace Paley's Astute Criticism

by Christopher John Stephens

18 July 2017

A Grace Paley Reader is a powerful, captivating, and extremely relevant survey of Paley’s work from the field. It's a fine example of the personal as political.
 
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A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry

Grace Paley

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
US: Apr 2017

Consider being a woman coming of age in America in the late ‘30s.

The difficulty inherent with the compilation of any Reader is balancing the message and creating a theme. A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry is a rich and generous representation of work from the sometimes strident but always compelling writer. As opposed to a “Collected Stories” or “Complete Stories”, a Reader aims to assemble a balanced sampling of a writer’s perspective. Additionally, a Reader is usually more academic, meant to stimulate the analytical skills of college freshmen literature students. Editors Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley pulled stories from three volumes, essays from two, and a third section of varied, undated poems. While not consistently great, this Reader should propel those so inclined to dig deeper into the work of a dedicated writer/ activist/ teacher.

Certainly the timing of this volume cannot be more fortuitous. Halfway through the first year of a Trump Administration, the days of reckoning are demanding more from the cultural scene. Where are the protest songs? Who will stage the agit-prop theater productions? The problem with polemical writing is that while it is necessary and vital as a means to stir movement among the masses, to “speak truth to power”, sometimes it can be dated and cloying. The political nature of the essays work less successfully as writing than historical testimony, and that’s fine. Nevertheless, while they might prove intrusive compared to the beautiful and sometimes sublime flow of her fiction, they align themselves better with a more immediate adage: the political is personal. From “Women’s Pentagon Action Unity Statement”:

We want health care which respects and understands our bodies… We want an education for our children which tells the true story of our women’s lives… We want to have the right or not to have children…

In “Jobs”, published in the mid-‘60s when she was in her 40s, Paley plainly writes about the jobs she’s held over the prior 30 years. She worked in sales, answered phones, worked as a secretary at various places, and eventually got a position as an English Instructor at Columbia. “But during all those jobs,” she writes, “once I was married and after I had children, most of the day I was a housewife. That is the poorest paying job a woman can hold.” It’s when she pulls closer into her own orbit that she proves the political, and even the politicizing of some writing, which falls hard from the branch after its burst wide open, that her essays are strongest.  It’s this act of pulling closer into her own orbit that proves the political, and even the politicizing of some writing, falls hard from the branch after it has burst wide open. 

Paley’s 1991 essay “Illegal Days” is definitely the strongest of this Reader’s non-fiction section. Consider being a woman coming of age in America in the late ‘30s. Birth control existed, but it was nearly impossible to acquire. “I grew up in the Bronx in a puritanical, socialist, Jewish family,” she writes, setting the stage for this discussion of empowerment and accountability. With age comes a greater resonance, and the late essays in this Reader are the strongest. She writes plainly and unapologetically about her abortion, and about her right to personal accountability. From the personal, she expands to the universal:

“These things are not talked about a lot, this kind of criminalization of the medical profession, the danger these doctors were in… Your life, a woman’s life, was simply not the first thing that hospital had in mind at all.”

The short stories in this Reader, understandably, are the strongest representation of Paley’s work. George Saunders provides the appropriate context through which a new audience can understand Paley’s approach. “[She makes] a dazzling verbal surface that doesn’t so much linearly represent the world as remind us of its dazzle.” For Saunders, Paley was a post-modernist in the mode of her contemporary Donald Barthelme. He also provides a Walt Whitman allusion when he notes that while you definitely also hear America singing in Paley’s stories, they also “…protest, explain, beg to differ.” Paley’s people, mainly women, were active and socially aware New Yorkers in the ‘50’s-‘70s, sophisticated urbanites trying to deal with pain and disconnection and the impossibilities of flawless family communication.

“…[S]he loves what she sees, just as it is, and is in favor of it being even more itself.”

The stories here truly are remarkable, even after all these years. While Paley’s best essays are about the personal politics rather than national, and therefore can sometimes weigh down the overall impact of this Reader, the stories are a singular vision. Think of “An Interest in Life”, a husband deserts his wife and four children. “My husband gave me a broom one Christmas,” the story begins. “This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.” Later, when with a returning suitor, the narrator reflects about the balance between sadness and happiness. Here, she recalls the last time she was truly happy: “It was like trying to move back into the dry mouth of a nightmare…”

In “Living”, a three-paged jewel of a story, a woman recounts a conversation with a dying friend. “That week I was dying too,” the woman notes. Rather than focusing on the tragedy of Ellen (the dying woman), the narrator (Faith) brings herself into the story. Where this might seem selfish in other hands, Paley’s characters are always real, always trying to connect with and understand immediate feelings. Later, while at Ellen’s funeral, Faith comforts her late friend’s son:

“‘…I just love you, Billy. You’re the most wonderful boy. Ellen must be so proud of you.’”

It’s a simple line of condolence, but then Paley has Billy answer with the cold truth that makes her stories so strong:

“He stepped away and said, ‘She’s not anything of anything, Faith.’ Then he went to Springfield. I don’t think I’ll see him again.”

In “Faith In a Tree”, the title character, who appears in many Paley stories, sits in a tree in a New York neighborhood park. Her sons Richard and Tonto are with her, but it’s Faith’s observations that tell this story. She sees “…the young Saturday fathers, open-shirted and ambitious. By and large they are trying to get somewhere and have to go to a lot of parties. Faith is bored, disenchanted with her role as a mother, the expectations of society, so she seeks distance and detachment in the tree. “What a place in democratic time!” she observes. She answers questions of those passing by, jumps down at one point to flirt with a man she deems worthy, but otherwise she is linked to this hiding place.

It’s this escape she needs to recharge her batteries, to find a reason to believe in anything and connect with anybody. Paley is enormously skillful here with a focused, deliberate real-time story, but it’s the end that stuns the reader. Faith is turned around by events she witnesses in the park, events that reflect the days of rage that were embodied in the late ‘60s protest movement. Quickly, her life moves into overdrive:

“Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.”

While the poems are the least strong elements in “A Grace Paley Reader”, the section still contains some highlights. “Connections: Vermont Vietnam” (I and II) are stronger political statements than many of her essays, as well as “In San Salvador”. More impressive, though, are the personal elements reflected in her poetry. “Anti-Love Poem” is plain, direct, and powerful (“Sometimes you don’t want to love the person you love.”) Paley’s “Is there a Difference Between Men and Women” might seem strident to the point of being self-defeating, but it leaves the reader with no uncertain feelings:

oh the slave trade
the trade in the bodies of women
the worldwide unending arms trade
everywhere man-made slaughter

In her afterword, Paley’s daughter Nora provides some strong personal context about Grace and the work represented in A Grace Paley Reader. “As a young kid I recognized her open water intelligence but there was always a shark swimming through it,” Nora writes. Take this volume in order. Read Saunders’ introduction, all the material, then Nora’s afterword (or, as she puts it, an “afterward”). The material is strong and sometimes challenging. Nora Paley seems to understand this, and her reflections on life in New York City in the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s make the reader want more. “The segmentalization of life, now talked about in terms of balancing, was something my mother was incapable of, so luckily did not believe in it,” Nora writes. Reflecting on her passing, she provides a line that would probably have made her mother proud:

“Her dying was not like her, but she knew everyone else did it.”

If there is a consistent power and strength to Paley’s writing, it definitely rests in her stories. Some of the essays and poems in A Grace Paley Reader could easily have been replaced with others or removed altogether to make this collection even stronger. Overall, though, this is a powerful, captivating, and extremely relevant survey of Paley’s work from the field. Times of political turmoil and upheaval, especially when the lives and rights of women are marginalized from the nation’s top office down, demand the voice of Grace Paley.

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