Diane John­son

A Grace Pa­ley Reader: Sto­ries, Es­says, and Poetry by Grace Pa­ley edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Pa­ley, with an in­tro­duc­tion by Ge­orge Saun­ders

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Diane John­son

A Grace Pa­ley Reader:

Sto­ries, Es­says, and Poetry by Grace Pa­ley, edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Pa­ley, with an in­tro­duc­tion by

Ge­orge Saun­ders.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux,

371 pp., $27.00

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 best­known 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 Holo­caust, had come to have a pre­em­i­nent place in Amer­i­can lit­er­ary writ­ing. Pa­ley, with her spe­cial brio, was a wel­come ad­di­tion to this assem­bly of voices, and her first col­lec­tion in 1959, The Lit­tle Dis­tur­bances of Man, was re­viewed fa­vor­ably by Roth, who praised its comic and un­in­hib­ited “un­der­stand­ing of lone­li­ness, lust, self­ish­ness and fa­tigue... Grace Pa­ley has deep feel­ings, a wild imag­i­na­tion, and a style [of] tough­ness and bumpi­ness.” Also, she had a per­fect ear for the ver­nac­u­lar and ca­dences of her na­tive Bronx; and in that sense she was a re­gional writer as well as, it could be said, an eth­nic one.

McCarthy and Porter were also po­lit­i­cally en­gaged. But this new col­lec­tion re­minds us that Pa­ley, de­spite her view of her­self as writer/house­wife, was not so much a writer who drifted onto po­lit­i­cal sub­jects from time to time; she was a full-time ac­tivist and moral leader who hap­pened to be gifted at writ­ing. Pa­ley’s po­lit­i­cal con­cerns, among them the usual—the bomb, cap­i­tal­ism, Viet­nam, and women’s rights—are made ex­plicit in the es­says printed here. In them she re­counts her par­tic­i­pa­tion in var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal ac­tions and protests, in­clud­ing the Wall Street Ac­tion in 1979 (anti-nu­clear), the Tri­dent nu­clear sub­ma­rine demon­stra­tion the same year, the Women’s Pen­tagon Ac­tion in 1980 on the same sub­ject, the Seneca Women’s Peace En­camp­ment in 1983, the Mo­bi­liza­tion for Women’s Lives in 1989 (or­ga­nized by NOW in be­half of the Equal Rights Amend­ment), and demon­stra­tions against in­ter­ven­tion in the Mid­dle East in 1990.

An es­say called “Cop Tales” ex­em­pli­fies her con­tra­dic­tory stance of ac­tivist/writer—she con­demns the vi­o­lent way po­lice use their power and at the same time sym­pa­thizes with their per­sonal con­cerns. At the Wall Street Ac­tion, she re­mem­bers,

the po­lice were block­ing us . . . . [One] cop from Long Is­land wor­ried a lot about the Shore­ham nu­clear power plant. “Can’t do any­thing about it,” he said. “They’ll build it. I hate it. I live there. What am I go­ing to do?”

Pa­ley re­flects: “That could be a key to the po­lice, I thought. They have no hope . . . . They’re mad at us be­cause we have a lit­tle hope in the midst of our in­formed wor­ries.” Later she de­scribes an incident from the pre­vi­ous year in which a state trooper smacked a “black young­ster, about twelve...on the back of the head” and called him a “lit­tle bas­tard.”

In “The Il­le­gal Days,” she writes with un­am­bigu­ous dis­like about an­tiabor­tion ac­tivists:

These guys who run at the clin­ics . . . are point men who make the noise, and false, hyp­o­crit­i­cal state­ments about hu­man life, which they don’t much care about, re­ally. What they re­ally want to do is take back own­er­ship of women’s bod­ies.

Be­side ac­tiv­i­ties in Amer­ica, Pa­ley’s prin­ci­ples took her to Hanoi, San Sal­vador, Chile, and Nicaragua. When she was ar­rested for some of her po­lit­i­cal protests, she wrote from jail. In 1994 she re­mem­bers a time when she

had been sen­tenced to six days in the Women’s House of De­ten­tion, a four­teen-story prison right in the mid­dle of Green­wich Vil­lage, my own neigh­bor­hood. This hap­pened dur­ing the Amer­i­can war in Viet­nam, I have for­got­ten which im­por­tant year of the fa­mous six­ties.

To reread Pa­ley is to re­ex­pe­ri­ence the ac­tivism and ex­cite­ment of the 1960s, their en­ergy and per­haps naive op­ti­mism; her es­says quiver with indig­na­tion and faith. Many, even most, of the prin­ci­pled stands she takes may seem self-ev­i­dent in hind­sight but were dis­puted at the time she wrote about them, like her op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War, and even the bomb. Yet one can’t help think­ing that more time writ­ing might have been a bet­ter em­ploy­ment of her talent.

Her fic­tion was cer­tainly a means to ex­press her po­lit­i­cal views. Some­times these were un­ex­pected. She was early to con­demn Ger­ald Ford’s de­ci­sion, in 1975, to au­tho­rize the mass evac­u­a­tion of Viet­namese chil­dren to the US and other coun­tries, where they were sub­se­quently adopted by new fam­i­lies. Over ten thou­sand Viet­namese or­phans and aban­doned chil­dren were loaded on planes (one of which crashed, killing seventy-eight kids). Pa­ley called Oper­a­tion Babylift a “cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion by the Ford ad­min­is­tra­tion” and by self-in­ter­ested par­ties—adop­tion agen­cies and air­lines and peo­ple car­ried by im­pul­sive sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Along with Pa­ley’s es­say on the sub­ject, “Other Peo­ple’s Chil­dren,” the book prints a de­fense of the babylift by a reader of Ms. mag­a­zine, where Pa­ley’s es­say ap­peared, who had adopted four Viet­namese or­phans, and a fur­ther re­join­der by Pa­ley. Some will find Pa­ley on the los­ing side of this ex­change, which does ex­pose the oc­ca­sional hard­heart­ed­ness of the prin­ci­pled. Of course in one way, Pa­ley’s ac­tivism and her writ­ing about it may seem a bit dated. She might as well be en­cour­ag­ing votes for women or re­peal of the Vol­stead Act, which en­forced pro­hi­bi­tion. In the 1960s, peo­ple be­lieved we could change things. The coun­try has moved on; we have new wars now, a new fin­ger on the but­ton. Yet many of the con­cerns un­der­ly­ing the is­sues Pa­ley so en­er­get­i­cally, pas­sion­ately, and wit­tily de­plores and protests—the bomb, prison con­di­tions, the

op­pres­sion of women—are still present today. To look on the bright side, among the many plea­sures of Pa­ley’s work is the re­as­sur­ance it of­fers that, just as we sur­vived the events of those years, by anal­ogy, we may yet sur­vive the things that men­ace us now.

In his long, in­ter­est­ing in­tro­duc­tion to the new col­lec­tion, the writer Ge­orge Saun­ders makes a case for Grace Pa­ley as avant-garde: “I’d al­ways thought of Pa­ley as a re­al­ist, but im­mers­ing my­self again in her work I find that she is ac­tu­ally a thrilling post­mod­ernist,” he writes:

What I mean by this is that, as you read a Pa­ley story, you will find that it is, yes, set in our world (New York City, most of­ten) and that, O.K., it seems con­cerned with nor­mal enough things (love, di­vorce, pol­i­tics, a day at the park) but then you will start to no­tice that the lan­guage is...un­com­mon. Not quite of this world.

Some read­ers will be re­minded in­stead of the avant-garde of the 1930s— think of the wise­crack­ing films and the stylis­tic man­ner­ism of John Dos Pas­sos, say, with his cap­i­tal­ized let­ters and ital­ics and his po­lit­i­cal themes. Pa­ley has an en­ter­tain­ing and wise es­say about writ­ing it­self. Num­ber thir­teen of her writ­ing max­ims (there are fif­teen) says:

Don’t go through life with­out read­ing the au­to­bi­ogra­phies of

Emma Gold­man

Prince Kropotkin

Mal­colm X

Among her other rules:

1. Lit­er­a­ture has some­thing to do with lan­guage. There’s prob­a­bly a nat­u­ral gram­mar at the tip of your tongue. You may not be­lieve it, but if you say what’s on your mind in the lan­guage that comes to you from your par­ents and your street and friends, you’ll prob­a­bly say some­thing beau­ti­ful.

Her char­ac­ters have lots to say— won­der­ful lingo and plenty of joie de vivre de­spite their rough lives and poverty. They are rowdy, ar­gu­men­ta­tive, and funny, mak­ing us laugh with an un­ex­pected word or sur­pris­ing re­ac­tion. In “An In­ter­est in Life,” her char­ac­ter Vir­ginia’s hus­band is join­ing the army. Vir­ginia, telling the story, quotes her neigh­bor Mrs. Raftery:

“If that’s the case, tell the Wel­fare right away,” she said. “He’s a bum, leav­ing you just be­fore Christ­mas. Tell the cops,” she said. “They’ll pro­vide toys for the lit­tle kids gladly . . . . ”

She saw that sad­ness was stretched world­wide across my face.

The im­age of sad­ness stretched world­wide across a face re­sem­bles, in Pa­ley’s writ­ing, a smile.

Her poetry too is most of­ten about the world. In her es­say “Of Poetry and Women and the World,” Pa­ley dis­cusses a sub­ject that par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ests her: the chasm be­tween writ­ing by men on “manly” sub­jects like war and writ­ing by women on “wom­anly” sub­jects like house­keep­ing—the dif­fer­ence in the way they are val­ued, the way male sub­jects are con­sid­ered im­por­tant, the def­i­ni­tion of art, while the sub­jects about which women were ex­pected to write are de­meaned with terms like “chick­lit” or “women’s fic­tion.” She goes a bit far­ther, to de­plore and at­tack the things men have been “taught to be ex­cited and thrilled” by:

There’s a lot of dif­fer­ence be­tween my life, there’s a lot of dif­fer­ence be­tween my ideas, be­tween my feel­ings, be­tween what thrills, what ex­cites me, what nau­se­ates me, what dis­gusts me, what re­pels me, and what many, many male chil­dren and men grownups have been taught to be ex­cited and thrilled and adrenalined by.

She might also have been talk­ing about con­tem­po­rary cin­ema, much of which ap­pears to be aimed at boys of four­teen. Pa­ley brings up the sub­ject of male vi­o­lence in her poetry, too, as in “Is There a Dif­fer­ence Be­tween Men and Women”:

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

By which she means made by men, not women. Her tone is im­pa­tient, the lan­guage di­rect, of­ten mov­ing, in its univer­sal con­cerns. Her poetry may be less well known than her prose, but it is pre­oc­cu­pied with the same is­sues, as here, death:

One day one of us will be lost to the other

Many of the peo­ple in Pa­ley’s sto­ries are fa­mil­iar from sit­com and stage. Only a few of them are me­morable in them­selves, and only a few in­volve us in their per­sonal sto­ries, for ex­am­ple Iz Za­growsky, the phar­ma­cist in “Za­growsky Tells,” whom Saun­ders de­scribes in his in­tro­duc­tion as “in­ter­mit­tently racist.” Za­growsky’s mad daugh­ter has a “lit­tle brown baby. An in­ter­me­di­ate color. A per­fect stranger,” whom he first re­sists but even­tu­ally loves. A prin­ci­pal charm of Pa­ley’s char­ac­ters lies in their clean and hon­est but col­or­ful use of lan­guage, and their will­ing­ness to en­act her views and max­ims, for in­stance, in “The LongDis­tance Run­ner”: “It’s one of my be­liefs that chil­dren do not have flaws, even the worst do not.”

For all the lin­guis­tic fire­works of their voices, some of Pa­ley’s char­ac­ters have a cer­tain generic qual­ity. One ex­cep­tion to this is her me­morable al­ter ego, Faith Dar­win, who ap­peared in each of her three col­lec­tions and is usu­ally taken to be au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. A writer’s per­sonal qual­i­ties al­ways shine through her lit­er­ary sur­ro­gates, and it’s Pa­ley her­self we love above all, the more so in that she doesn’t dis­guise her­self very much, and we so ad­mire the tough, funny, re­signed, and philo­soph­i­cal wo­man we feel her to be. Faith might wear a new hat or change hus­bands, but Pa­ley, be­hind her, stays the same in all her work. The present vol­ume has a num­ber of Faith sto­ries, which ex­press views that are pre­sum­ably Pa­ley’s:

I’m against Is­rael on tech­ni­cal grounds. I’m very dis­ap­pointed that they de­cided to be­come a na­tion in my life­time. I be­lieve in the Di­as­pora. Af­ter all, they are the cho­sen peo­ple. Don’t laugh. They re­ally are. But once they’re hud­dled in one lit­tle cor­ner of a desert, they’re like any­one else.

In the same story, “The Used-Boy Rais­ers,” Faith’s hus­band and ex­hus­band, Livid and Pal­lid, are

as­ton­ished at my out­burst, since I rarely ex­press my opinion on any se­ri­ous mat­ter but only live out my destiny, which is to be, un­til my ex­pi­ra­tion date, laugh­ingly the ser­vant of man.

This makes us laugh—opin­ion­ated Grace, so point­edly a lot more than that. It’s hard to think of an­other writer who has been ad­mired for her vir­tu­ous, cheer­ful, and pos­i­tive char­ac­ter as much as for her work. How sad not to hear Grace Pa­ley’s voice today on all the many new devel­op­ments that would en­rage and pro­voke her.

Grace Pa­ley, New York City, April 1985; pho­to­graph by Do­minique Nabokov

Grace Pa­ley at a protest against the Viet­nam War dur­ing which she and 181 oth­ers were ar­rested, New York City, March 1970

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.