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Grace Paley Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Grace Goodside in New York City, 1922. Education: Evander Childs High School, New York; Hunter College, New York, 1938-39. Career: Has taught at Columbia University, New York, and Syracuse University, New York. Since 1966 has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, and since 1983 at City College, New York. New York State Author, 1986-88. Awards: Guggenheim grant, 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; American Academy award, 1970; Edith Wharton award, 1988, 1989; Rea Award for short story, 1993; Vermont Governor's award for Excellence in the Arts, 1993; award for contribution to Jewish culture, National Foundation. Member: American Academy, 1980.

PUBLICATIONS

Short Stories

The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women in Love. New York, Doubleday, 1959; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. New York, Farrar Straus, 1974; London, Deutsch, 1975.

Later the Same Day. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, ViragoPress, 1985.

The Collected Stories. New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994.

Uncollected Short Story

"Two Ways of Telling," in Ms. (New York), November-December1990.

Poetry

Leaning Forward. Penobscot, Maine, Granite Press, 1985.

New and Collected Poems. Maine, Tilbury Press, 1991.

Begin Again: Collected Poems. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Other

365 Reasons Not to Have Another War. Philadelphia and New York, New Society Publications—War Resisters' League, 1989.

Long Walks and Intimate Talks. New York, Feminist Press, 1991.

Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and BlaineH. Hall. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.

Just As I Thought (autobiography). New York, Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 1998.

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Critical Studies:

Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives by Jacqueline Taylor, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990; Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction by Neil Isaacs, Boston, Twayne, 1990.

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The individuality of Grace Paley's voice—warm, comic, defensive, and without illusions—and the sophistication of her technique led to the reissue of her first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, 10 years after it first appeared. Her stories, invariably set in New York and often with a Jewish background, depend especially on her ear for dialogue. Her realism, with a concision sometimes deliberately telescoped into the absurd, admits sudden surrealistic perceptions: "A Subject of Childhood" ends as the sun comes out above a woman being comforted by her child for the desertion of her lover: "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."

According to one character, who has risen above the slums of his childhood, the difficulties of a woman bringing up four children on her own in the New York slums are merely "the little disturbances of man" beside the real cataclysms of existence. All the stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute are set in these slums, but in The Little Disturbances of Man Paley ranges over the wider social strata, probing similar preoccupations of loneliness, lust, and escapism. "An Irrevocable Diameter" relates the forced marriage of Charles C. Charley to a rich teenager, less than half his age, who claimed to have seduced him. "The Pale Pink Roast" swings between farce and lyricism in a picture of a woman going to bed with her ex-husband immediately after her new marriage to a richer man.

Paley's concern in The Little Disturbances of Man with broken and shifting relationships where the women are dominant is even more important in Enormous Changes. For each of the unmarried or separated mothers, it is a question of whether her "capacity for survival has not been overwhelmed by her susceptibility to abuse." There is also a new sense of commitment in Enormous Changes, where the key story is "Faith in a Tree"; when the police break up a tiny demonstration against napalm-bombing in Vietnam, Faith's son defiantly writes up the demonstrators' slogan again. The story concludes: "And I think that is exactly when events turned me around … directed … by my children's heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world."

Earlier in that story, Faith says of some of her neighbors, "our four family units, as people are now called, are doomed to stand culturally still as this society moves on its caterpillar treads from ordinary affluent to absolute empire." These tenants crop up in other stories, some reappearing from The Little Disturbances of Man. "An Interest in Life" in the earlier book is retold from another character's angle as "Distance" in the later one: "There is a long time in me between knowing and telling."

The subject of "Dreamer in a Dead Language" in Later the Same Day, a father-daughter relationship is important in several stories in Enormous Changes, where in an introductory note the author states: "Everyone in this book is imagined into life except the father. No matter what story he has to live in, he's my father…." Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is altogether darker in tone than The Little Disturbances of Man: the interplay of two generations is used to show the long shadow of "the cruel history of Europe" continuing to darken second-generation immigrant lives, while the "last minute" of the title refers to the nuclear threat. As the title suggests, Later the Same Day picks up these concerns where Enormous Changes at the Last Minute left off.

These later stories are set against a backcloth of the grass roots political struggle of the peace movement, although this is never intrusive in the stories but indissolubly meshed, as it must be, with the everyday concerns of semiadult and adult children, aging parents, and the sickness and death of middle-aged friends. The "day" of Later the Same Day is the dangerous contemporary moment in the life of the planet as the "poor, dense, defenseless thing—rolls round and round. Living and dying are fastened to its surface and stuffed into its softer parts" and also in Paley's life as she approaches old age. A striking example of her habitual crisscrossing of perceptions is the story "Zagrowsky Tells," where the first-person narrator, an old Jew, tells Faith how his mentally handicapped daughter came to bear a black baby. Faith, the woman who continues to appear centrally in the stories, often in the first person, in this book is old enough to be "remembering babies, those round, staring, day-in day-out companions of her youth"; now, her son and his stepfather are equal companions, in "Listening." Celebrating precarious human relationships in a society, and a world, of dangerous inequalities, Grace Paley's voice is comically appalled and positive.

Val Warner

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