I can still remember, all these years later, the shiver of pleasure that ran through me when at the end of the 1950s I first read Grace Paley's early stories. Hers was a voice so raucous, so appealing, that I felt as if someone had grabbed me by the lapels of my very proper Peck & Peck jacket and was shouting at me to revise my view of the world. Young as I was, I knew that if I had any thoughts about becoming a writer, I had to listen. I never dreamed that I would one day sit in Grace Paley's office at Sarah Lawrence and that we would become friends with that special relationship of graduate student to teacher.
In recent years, and especially since her death in August 2007, Grace has been described as a protester, a troublemaker, a superb teacher and editor, a rebel, "a combative pacifist" (her own phrase), a feminist, and even "the sagacious elf of American letters" (A. M. Homes in her 1998 interview with Grace on Salon.com). Paley was all those things, depending on how you knew her and in what context, but most important, she was a writer of great originality who changed the face of the American short story. Not merely the nose or the eyes or even the peripheral ears, but the whole face. And she has been imitated so often and sometimes so badly that we have forgotten how innovative she really was.
When she began writing in the early 1950s, the great tradition of the American short story included some women who were primarily novelists: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Sarah Orne Jewett had written terrific stories. Later there were Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty, primarily story writers, who, unlike Grace, tried their hand at longer works. Then there were the men: Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Henry James, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, and Grace's contemporaries--Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Delmore Schwartz, I. B. Singer, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, Irwin Shaw, Herbert Gold, Philip Roth, John Updike. Roth's only story collection, Goodbye, Columbus, appeared in 1959, the year that Paley's The Little Disturbances of Man was published. One can understand why the Establishment chose Roth's book over hers to win the National Book Award in 1960. As good as his stories are and as willing as Roth was to confront every theme that would turn up in his later work, they seem tame, almost traditional, compared to Grace's loosely constructed, insistently wild stories that revealed in language and syntax how powerfully women yearned for sex and freedom. Critics who read her first collection were too startled and puzzled to award her anything like a prize, and Little Disturbances" "fell into a well," she would say with a wry smile.
Her women forebears had certainly written about women's lives, and although their tales were sometimes shocking, as at the end of Wharton's "Roman Fever," or deeply suggestive as in Porter's "Flowering Judas," or even wistfully sexy, as in Cather's "Coming, Aphrodite!" they stayed within certain boundaries. What they had to say about sexual feelings was largely masked, polite, implied, and it is interesting to note that when Wharton wrote about her feelings of entrapment in her own marriage, she chose to tell it through the story of a man, Ethan Frome.
Then along comes Grace Paley, who is utterly outspoken and outrageous, revealing the innermost thoughts and hurts of Rosie Lieber, Virginia and Mrs. Rafterty, and Faith Darwin--characters who will appear again and again, especially her alter ego, Faith--in language that had all the bumpy, funny qualities of spoken conversation, where logic simply doesn't have a place.
Although many of her male contemporaries had the same Eastern European Jewish ancestors as Grace did, and although they knew Yiddish and used it in their work, only I. B. Singer, who wrote in Yiddish and oversaw the translations of his work, could reproduce the strange, often inverted logic of that language and culture in English. But Grace, writing soon after World War II, somehow managed to capture it in her native tongue and to create a world in lower New York as alive, as memorable, as Singer's Frampol.
And she was content to do it in the shortest form available to her--the short story, and the short short story. For she had different goals from the men, who, she once told me with a laugh, "had big ideas and wanted to write long epic works." Her favorite example of that was the unforgettable first paragraph of Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March:
I am an American, Chicago born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles. Unlike Bellow and the rest of them, Grace wanted to write about what she called "everyday life" as it was lived by "ordinary people, mostly women," much as her almost exact contemporary, Doris Lessing, last year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, did. Although their backgrounds were very different (Lessing was born in Africa and spent most of her life in England), Lessing said, when asked recently about her novel The Golden Notebook, that she just listened to what women were saying and gave them a voice. So did Grace.
Where did Grace Paley come from? Her parents had emigrated from Ukraine and spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English. Her father, Isaac Goodside (their name was changed from Gutseit) was a physician, and when he settled his family in the Bronx a few years after Grace was born (in Coney Island), the Goodside home became a magnet for intellectuals and political activists who were Communists, socialists, even anarchists. Her given name, which she referred to as "goyishe" and "Puritanical," was given her by her older sister, who convinced the parents that Grace deserved a truly American name, and she had a rather ambivalent attitude toward Grace...