Grace Paley: An Appreciation

By Judith Mahoney Pasternak

grace Paley’s place in the history books is hers alone, and unlikely ever to be matched. In the canon of U.S. literature, no writer has ever risen so high while compiling such a long and honorable arrest record in the cause of peace; in the history of U.S. resistance, no activist has reaped nearly as many literary honors.

Additionally, few writers or activists have been so widely beloved around the world; the outpouring of grief that greeted the news of her death August 22 reflected a feeling of personal loss among readers and admirers who had never met her as well as among those close to her. Finally—and bearing on all the rest—few activists and fewer writers have spoken so consistently and obstinately in a woman’s unmistakable voice. Indeed, she declared, in what may be her most widely quoted poem, that “it is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman”—even, she insisted, “the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman.”

In the days after her death, the story of her dual career was told in every major newspaper in this country and many beyond it. Most WIN readers probably know about her birth in the Bronx in 1922; her happy childhood as the youngest of three children of Russian immigrants Dr. Isaac Goodside and Manya Ridnyik Goodside; her education, including the study of poetry at The New School with the great W.H. Auden; her early marriage to cinematographer Jess Paley and the birth of their two children, Danny and Nora; her discovery in her 30s of her two vocations, writing and activism; her fame in both fields; and her second, lasting marriage, to landscape architect and writer Robert Nichols.

Her literary output was, as The New York Times noted, “modest”—only three widely acclaimed collections of short stories, mostly about women, and four of poems—but much of it was unforgettable, and all of it was unlike the work of anyone else. New York named her its first State Author in 1986, and more recently she was Vermont’s State Poet for four years. The novelist Philip Roth once said her stories showed “an understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike.” The Guardian in England called her “a female Mark Twain in the Bronx.” Neither description speaks to her particular talent as clearly as does the one she gave this writer in 1985: “What you do when you write is, you try to illuminate what is hidden—you pick up a rock and you shine a light under it, saying, ‘Oh, see this life!’”

As to her activism, in that same 1985 interview, she said she wasn’t an activist—she was only doing her “ordinary, citizenly duty.” It was a concept she repeated often to describe what was clearly her other career, a career she began by demonstrating against the presence of buses in Washington Square. (Her baby daughter was almost hit by a bus there, she said, so how could she not protest?) Not long afterward, she was working against the Vietnam War with the Greenwich Village Peace Center and the War Resisters League; ultimately she was involved in protesting every aspect of militarism and U.S. aggression across the globe. She traveled to Hanoi in 1969; she was arrested at protest after protest, including an anti-nuclear demonstration on the White House lawn in 1978, the Women’s Pentagon Action in 1980, and WRL’s A Day Without the Pentagon in 1998. But she wasn’t “an arrest freak,” she said. She got arrested only “when there’s a good reason to get arrested, to show we’re serious about something, we’re not going to go away, … [or] to actually stop something, like destroying a [missile] nose cone.”

Along with so many others, we at the War Resisters League grieve with her family: her husband, Bob Nichols, her children, Nora and Danny Paley, and her grandchildren. The world is a darker place without her.

Longtime writer and journalist Judith Mahoney Pasternak edited this magazine from 1995 to 2005 and interviewed Grace Paley for it and for the Guardian newsweekly.