Grace Paley: An Appreciation

Grace Paley

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.

Erika Weihs, Virginia Eggleston, Grace Paley, Molly Wilson and Sybil Claibourne at the weekly Greenwich Village Peace Center vigil. Photo by Ruth Sondak
Erika Weihs, Virginia Eggleston, Grace Paley, Molly Wilson and Sybil Claibourne at the weekly Greenwich Village Peace Center vigil. Photo by Ruth Sondak.

It is amazing how she paid attention to so much and most particularly to each and every word, comma, and space (but not one extra) needed to tell, to warn, and to praise. This attention to the necessity and the pleasure of the just-right word, phrasing, and rhythm too went into leaflets as well as poems and stories.

A real masterpiece of political writing is Grace’s Unity Statement for the Women’s Pentagon Action. It was also a feat of patience rooted in her faith in a democratic process that invited suggestion and com- ment from women up and down the East Coast. Most of us would have despaired, but Grace worked all the contributions into a piece that has both power and beauty and could make you cry. Grace and I and many other women were arrested reciting our Unity Statement while blocking entrances to the Pentagon.
 — Vera Williams, artist, activist, and Grace’s close friend

Grace came to the last evening of YouthPeace Week in 1997 with Vera Williams and Sally Marx. Eighteen youths from ages 14 to 19 had spent a week together learning about nonviolence, counter-recruitment, and activist skills. This was an evening with their elders. Grace talked about how she learned politics from her family. Then Grace, the storyteller, asked the young people to tell the story of the role their families played in their political development. How carefully she listened, leaning forward toward them and asking encouraging questions, helping them understand their own journey. As my son Patrick, who was 15 at the time, told his story, he said, “I always knew I was the child of activists, now I’m an activist too.”
 — Joanne Sheehan, WRL New England staffer and former War Resisters’ International Chair

Grace was bustling around the WRL street fair, making sure enough rummage was being sold, when I grabbed her to meet my parents. She knew that they were not pleased about any of my life choices. Smiling that trademark impish grin, and looking directly into their eyes but nodding occasionally in my direction, she spoke at length in Yiddish. My father immediately started beaming, and my mother smiled widely when my father whispered a translation. I have no idea what Grace said about me, but my parents and I had a better relationship for a while thereafter. World peace may have been beyond Grace’s reach, but she did negotiate a truce in the Schwartz family, and that was no small accomplishment.
 — Wendy Schwartz, activist and staffer at WRL and the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute

In 1967, as a key figure in the Greenwich Village Peace Center, Grace Paley was part of the organizing group for a sit-down at the Whitehall Induction Center. I had known Grace as an activist, unaware that she was already a well- known writer. We met at the lower tip of Manhattan in the chill dawn, shortly before five a.m.

I suggested that Grace and I take our groups to the rear of the induction center, leaving the front entrance to the “celebrities” (including Dr. Benjamin Spock and poet Allen Ginsberg) who were going to sit down. My own group was soon picked up by the police, but Grace’s group, as I found out later (she was slightly out of my view, just around the corner), was charged by police on horseback. Grace, furious, took on the cop in charge, shaking him by the col- lar, demanding he pull his men back and stop the charge. Stunned by this confrontation with a not-very-tall matron, the cop pulled his men back.

When I saw Grace after we were all released from jail and I heard the account, I said, “Grace, I knew you were Irish, but I didn’t know you had such a temper.”
“David,” she said, “I’m not Irish—I’m Jewish.”
 — David McReynolds, longtime WRL staffer

Grace Paley was a bad-ass old lady. While I knew Grace from a very young age as a nice friend of my parents, I got to know her a lot better at the YouthPeace Week in 1997 as an activist and a trouble-maker. Through being radical and not looking the part, She helped us question the stereotypes and expectations that go with age. We were younger and she was older, but it didn’t matter. Her example was inspirational. While the exer- cise that my mom writes about was rooted in family and one’s heritage, I believe that her real goal was to get us young folks to focus on defining ourselves, on creating independent identities that seek positive change in our world. She made us question, self-reflect, and begin to define not just what we were but also what we wanted to be. While I still haven’t finished this process, it was Grace who helped kick-start it. I hope someday I’ll be a bad-ass old guy like her.
 — Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, WRL National Committee member

Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Judith Mahoney Pasternak, Paris-based activist-writer, is a veteran journalist in the alternative media, author of several books on travel and popular culture, and the former editor of WRL’s The Nonviolent Activist, the earlier incarnation of WIN. Her activist training was in the Second Wave of the feminist movement; since then, she has worked for peace, for social and economic justice, and for justice and self-determination for Palestine.