This sample Grace Paley Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Considered one of the most innovative contemporary American short fiction writers, Grace Paley combines traditional subject matter with postmodern fictional techniques to depict modern urban life in the United States. A feminist and political activist, she addresses many social concerns in her stories, often focusing on female and Jewish protagonists who contend with issues of oppression, community, and cultural heritage. Marked by lively, colloquial prose and a combination of humor and poignancy, Paley’s stories are also characterized by narrative ambiguities and inconclusive endings. Celebrating precarious human relationships in a society, and a world, of dangerous inequalities, Paley s voice is comically appalled, yet positive.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Grace Goodside on December 11, 1922, in New York City, she was the youngest child of Dr. Isaac Goodside, a physician, and his wife, Manya (Ridnyik), a photographer and medical assistant. She lived much of her life in the city, which later provided the setting for many of her short stories. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Europe who supported leftist and Zionist (the political philosophy that follows the idea of a national homeland for the Jewish people) movements. Growing up on stories of discrimination, racism, and exile, in an environment of radicalism, she was sensitive to everyone s shortcomings. Her parents activities influenced Paley s own lifelong political activism. She also grew up in a household where three languages were spoken— Yiddish, Russian, and English. As a writer of fiction, she would pick up on the music of all three tongues, celebrating their rhythms and idioms.
Paley began writing poetry at an early age. When she was sixteen years old, she enrolled at Hunter College, but dropped out in 1939 before receiving a degree. She also attended New York University. By the time she left school, World War II had broken out. The war began when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939, and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead. Although Paley was not directly involved in the war effort, the experience of living through wartime helped to shape her opinions about militarism and steeled her resolve in her antiwar activities later in life.
In 1942, Paley married Jess Paley, a cinematographer. They had two children—Nora and Danny—but separated three years later, although they were not divorced until the 1970s. Many critics believe that Jess Paley is the model for many absent husbands of many of Paley’s characters. Paley also began studying poetry in the early 1940s under acclaimed poet W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research.
Paley wrote poetry exclusively until the age of thirty-three, when she began writing short stories. She published these early short stories in her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love (1959). With this acclaimed collection, Paley established a reputation as a masterful stylist, able to vividly capture the idiomatic speech of native New Yorkers of various ethnicities. Her protagonists in this and later collections are characterized by their vivaciousness and indomitability of spirit, which they maintain in spite of economic difficulties and painful personal relationships.
After founding the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1961, Paley taught at Columbia University and Syracuse University in the 1960s. Also in this time period, Paley became increasingly active in a number of political movements, including opposing the war in Vietnam. She was arrested during antiwar demonstrations. Vietnam had been divided into a Communist North and noncommunist South in the mid-1950s, but Communist efforts to gain control over all of Vietnam continued. In the early 1960s, the United States began to provide military aid to South Vietnam, hoping to stop the spread of communism. At first the aid came in the form of advisors, but after 1964, an ever-increasing number of American troops entered the conflict. Though unpopular, the war in Vietnam continued until the early 1970s. Approximately 58,000 American soldiers and two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the conflict. Paley traveled to Vietnam in 1969, representing the anti-war movement.
During this period, Paley also began writing a novel, an attempt to satisfy others’ expectations. She called the novel a huge mistake, and never finished it. In addition, beginning in 1966, Paley began teaching creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, a position she would hold until 1988. Because of her teaching duties, political activism (including being active in the anti-nuclear war movement), and commitment to raising her children, her literary output remained limited. After finally divorcing Jess Paley in 1972, Paley was married to her second husband, Bob Nichols.
Lauded Short Story Collections
In 1974, Paley published the short story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Beginning with this collection of short stories, she focused increasingly on political and social themes, and began experimenting with different forms of narrative which helped her enhance her reputation as a major postmodernist writer. After being elected to the American Academy of Letters in 1980, Paley began teaching City College of New York in 1983. Two years later, she published both a significant short story collection—Later the Same Day (1985)—and a poetry collection, Leaning Forward (1985).
While continuing to teach, Paley’s literary output increased in the 1990s. In 1991, Paley published Long Walks and Intimate Talks, a collection of poetry and short stories. A year later, she put out more poetry with New and Collected Poems (1992). In 1994, Paley gave the same treatment to her short fiction with Grace Paley: The Collected Stories, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1998, she published the memoir Just As I Thought.
Death from Cancer
By this time, Paley was spending much of the year in Vermont with her second husband, where she served as the state’s poet laureate for a time.
She continued to publish works, including another collection of poetry, Begin Again: Collected Poems (2000). Paley succumbed to breast cancer on August 22, 2007, at her home in Thetford Hill, Vermont, at the age of 84. After her death, a last original collection of poems was published, Fidelity (2008).
Works in Literary Context
Paley’s work celebrates the positive powers of womanhood. Her work reflects her own experience as a child of the Jewish Bronx, a young wife and mother staked out with the kids in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, and an activist involved in many of the important political movements of her time. In her stories, Paley employs techniques that are more commonly associated with experimental, nonrepresentational fiction. Sometimes dubbed an ”experimental realist,” the author draws on the sociology of metafiction, or writing in which the author self-consciously plays with the traditional rules of fiction. As an author, Paley was greatly influenced by her own ethnic background and family, Jewish oral tradition, feminism, postmodernism, political activities, and life in New York City.
The American Female Experience
Throughout Paley’s short stories, the status of women in American society is a predominant theme. Her female protagonists rebel against authority by protesting government actions or asserting their independence in romantic relationships. Frequently, these women are single mothers—abandoned or ”unmarried on principle”—who develop informal, independent communities of support. Several of Paley’s stories feature the recurring character Faith Darwin, a writer who shares a number of biographical characteristics with Paley. Faith, like other Paley heroines, maintains an awareness of the relationship between politics and personal life. She also expresses many of Paley’s principles on the nature of art and the role of the writer in society. For example, in ”A Conversation with My Father,” Faith’s father, hospitalized with heart disease, reproaches her for not writing simple, tragic stories in the vein of Anton Chekhov. Much of Paley’s fiction also compares the value systems of male and female characters. Whereas women in Paley’s stories are generally concerned with establishing communal bonds and finding peace, men pursue wealth and individual honor and frequently abandon their families in order to do so. She outlines these differences in beliefs in such stories as ”An Interest in Life,” in which the female protagonist speculates on the differences between a woman’s idea of happiness and a man’s, noting that women prefer the comfort of a husband and children, while men are obsessed with their own individual fame.
The majority of Paley’s characters are either Jewish immigrants or their descendants who must come to terms with past oppression as well as with contemporary prejudices. The burden of Jewish history is a recurrent theme in Paley’s stories. In the story ”In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All,” victims of the Holocaust are described with bitter humor as those who ”died in the epidemics of Jewishness.” Similarly, in ”Zargrowsky Tells,” a Jewish immigrant charges that an ”American-born girl has some nerve to mention history.” In such stories, Paley faithfully reproduces the cadences of Yiddish speech. In ”Debts,” the narrator, a writer, says that her work is like the oral storytelling of the past—an act necessary to the preservation of the culture and dignity of one’s people and family.
Works in Critical Context
Paley’s combination of traditional oral storytelling aesthetics with a postmodern narrative self-awareness and approach to plot has led critics to hail her as a major renovator of the short story. Critics generally consider the stories featuring Faith Darwin her most successful, and some have speculated that, taken together, these works might comprise a novel. Some reviewers have charged that Paley’s political views overwhelm her later stories, but others argue that while she writes about politically engaged characters, she never aims to preach or argue political issues. While critics sometimes fault Paley for incompletely rendering her subject matter, particularly in her shorter stories, the emotional intensity of her narratives and the fullness of her characters have earned her widespread respect.
The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love
While initial sales of Paley’s first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love, were modest, the collection drew a loyal following and generally good reviews. A reviewer for The New Yorker assesses Paley’s writing in it as ”fresh and vigorous,” noting that ”her view on life is her own.” Discussing the story ”An Interest in Life,” Jonathan Baumbach of the Partisan Review explains how ”the matter-of-fact, ironic voice of the protagonist, Ginny, distances the reader from the conventions of her pathos . . . only to bring us . . . to an awareness of the character as if someone known to us intimately for a long time.” Baumbach concludes, ”Paley’s comic stories deal in exaggerated understatement, disguise their considerable ambition in the modesty of wit.” In the introduction to the Virago edition of the volume, A. S. Byatt states that
we have had a great many artists, more of them women than not, recording the tragedies of repetition, frequency, weariness, and little disturbances. What distinguishes Grace Paley from the mass of these is the interest, and even more, the inventiveness which she brings to her small world.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
Paley’s next collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, was challenging for critics. Writing in the New Republic, Michele Murray comments, ”Even with the glitter of its style … Enormous Changes is a book of losses and failures. It’s not tragedy that weighs down these stories, it’s no more than despair and repetition.” Yet the Nation’s Burton Bendow argues that Paley ”is right to avoid looking tragedy in the face; she knows where her talent lies. It is, if not for comedy exactly, for virtuoso mimicry. In the Village Voice, Vivian Gornick lauds the collection, writing, ”Paley when she is good is so good that she is worth ninety-nine ‘even’ writers, and when one hears that unmistakable Paley voice one feels what can be felt only in the presence of a true writer: safe.” Walter Clemons of Newsweek concludes, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute was well worth the wait.
- Arcana, Judith. Grace Paley’s Life Stories. Champagne, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
- Bach, Gerhard, and Blaine H. Hall. Conversations with Grace Paley. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
- Byatt, A. S. ”Introduction.” The Little Disturbances of Man. London: Virago, 1980.
- Taylor, Jacqueline. Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1990.
- Baba, Minako. ”Faith Darwin as Writer-Heroine: A Study of Grace Paley’s Short Stories.” Studies in Jewish American Literature (Spring 1988): 40-54.
- Baumbach, Jonathan. Review of The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love. Partisan Review (Spring 1975): 303-306.
- Bendow, Burton. ”Voices in the Metropolis.” Nation (March 11, 1974): 597-598.
- Clemons, Walter. Review of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Newsweek (March 11, 1974).
- Gornick, Vivian. Review of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Village Voice (March 14, 1974).
- Murray, Michele. Review of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. New Republic (March 16, 1974).
- Review of The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Women and Men at Love. The New Yorker (June 27, 1959).
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.