Grace Paley, American short story writer, Died at 84

  Dead Famous

Grace Paley died on August 22, 2007, at the age of 84; she was an American short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist.

Born in New York to Isaac and Manya Ridnyik Goodside on December 11, 1922, who anglicized the family name from Gutseit on immigrating from Ukraine.

Her father was a doctor.

In the early 1940s, Paley studied with W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research. Auden’s social concern and his heavy use of irony is often cited as an important influence on her early work, particularly her poetry.

On June 20, 1942, Grace Goodside married cinematographer Jess Paley, and had two children, Nora (1949- ) and Danny (1951-). They later divorced.

In 1972 Paley married fellow poet (and author of the Nghsi-Altai series) Robert Nichols. Paley was known for pacifism and for political activism.

She wrote about the complexities of women’s and men’s lives and advocated for what she said was the betterment of life for everyone.

In the 1950s, Paley joined friends in protesting nuclear proliferation and American militarization.

She also worked with the American Friends Service Committee to establish neighborhood peace groups, through which she met her second husband Robert Nichols.

The collection features eleven stories of New York life, several of which have since been widely anthologized, particularly “Goodbye and Good Luck” and “The Used-Boy Raisers.”

The collection introduces the semi-autobiographical character “Faith Darwin” (in “The Used-Boy Raisers” and “A Subject of Childhood”), who later appears in six stories of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and ten of Later the Same Day.

Though as a story collection by an unknown author the book was not widely reviewed, those who did review it (including Philip Roth and The New Yorker book page) tended to rate the stories highly.

Despite its initial lack of publicity, The Little Disturbances of Man went on to build a sufficient following for it to be reissued by Viking Press in 1968.

After several years of tinkering with drafts, Paley went back to short fiction.

With the aid of Donald Barthelme, she assembled a second collection of fiction in 1974, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

This collection of seventeen stories features several recurring characters from Little Disturbances of Man (most notably the narrator “Faith,” but also including Johnny Raferty and his mother), while continuing Paley’s exploration of racial, gender, and class issues.

The long story, “Faith in a Tree,” positioned roughly at the center of the collection, brings a number of characters and themes from the stories together on a Saturday afternoon at the park.

Some critics found Ms. Paley’s stories short on plot, and in fact much of what happens is that nothing much happens.

Affairs begin, babies are born, affairs end.

Mothers gather in the park. But that was the point. In Ms. Paley’s best stories, the language is so immediate, the characters so authentic, that the text is propelled by an innate urgency — the kind that makes readers ask, “And then what happened?”