Editor's note: This article was updated on July 27, 2017 at 11:37 a.m. to reflect a correction in the title of the book being reviewed. It also clarrifies elements in the author bio.
"A Grace Paley Reader," with its 15 short stories, 19 non-fiction pieces, and 34 poems, is a superb introduction to the work of a powerful American writer.
Paley was born in 1922 to Jewish, Ukrainian, socialist, immigrant parents and grew up on the streets of Greenwich Village when it was a neighborhood of working people. Driven by a strong sense of social justice, she was a tireless advocate for women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, peace, and equal opportunity in 20th century America. She published her first book of short stories in 1959 fitting her writing around a busy life as a mother of two, and her Collected Stories, published in 1994, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. When she married for the second time in 1972, she moved to Thetford where she lived full time, traveling to New York and more broadly to lecture, teach, and participate in marches, sit-ins, and other demonstrations to support her passion for peace and social justice. She was Vermont's Poet Laureate from 2003 to 2007.
This volume was edited by Kevin Bowen, an artist and writer who is the former director of the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He had been a member of an informal group that gathered each December to read Paley's work as a reminder of the importance of art and social action. Based on those readings, he worked with Paley's daughter, Nora, to create this book in order to provide Paley enthusiasts with a "single manageable collection of the stories, poetry, and essays, to provide a resource useful to teachers and students and to introduce Grace's work to a new generation of readers, writers, teachers and activists."
They have most definitely succeeded.
The book's introduction was written by the novelist and short story writer George Saunders who observed that Paley's work is "marked by heart, precision, and concern for others, and surges with real, messy life, and the way life, lived, actually makes us feel: outgunned, befriended, short on time, long on regret, so happy we can't stand it, so in love we become fools."
That sentence is a perfect summary of the short stories comprising the first section of the book. Loosely connected by the primary character who reappears in nearly all of them, we follow Faith as she raises her beloved Richard and Tonto, adjusts to the departure of her good-for- nothing husband, navigates her relationships with her relatives, and spends hours talking with her dear friends over coffee, sitting in Washington Square Park, and hanging out on the stoop. Paley tells about life in language that is authentic and in settings which feel real. The truth emerges vividly. My favorite story was the first one, "Good Bye and Good Luck," in which Aunt Rosie, about to be married after a life of serial lovers and careers, tells her young niece about life, being a woman, and being joyful. In that story and the others, the central theme is Paley's love for women, their roles and relationships as mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, nieces, wives, lovers, and especially as friends. Paley firmly pushes back against the man's world she grew up in where merit and effort mattered less than gender and where women were second class citizens despite having society's most important responsibility — raising the children.
The section on non-fiction, unfortunately labeled "Essays," was less satisfying.
Most of the pieces were not written as essays but were originally lectures, notes, or informal comments. Nonetheless, these works are valuable for the insights they provide to both Paley's values as well as to her work methods. The powerful and emotional descriptions of sit-ins, police violence, and her six days in the women's prison in her Greenwich Village neighborhood highlight Paley's visceral commitment to the progressive political causes of her time. Reading the pieces on El Salvador, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the women's march in Seneca Falls, and her experience riding a bus to Richmond in the 1940s when she was forced to move to the front of the bus in D.C., is a sad reminder of how the same issues continue to roil the politics and social fabric of our country so many years later.
The most interesting essay is entitled "Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken," where Paley urges student writers to tell the "Truth," tell stories, use language that comes from their "parents and your street and your friends" and using the first person narrative, write about "conflict and use a situation which you don't understand." Paley's wisdom remains fine advice for any writer.
I found the final section on poetry less satisfying, though the poems dealing with her family, "My Father at 85," "Sisters," "My Sister and my Grandson," and "For my Daughter," are powerful and beautiful. One line from "Sisters" in which she mourns the passing of friends summarizes much of Paley's view of the world and a woman's place in it: " at an absolute minimum/loving brainy sexual energetic redeemed."
It is uncommon for a writer to excel in all three writing genres of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. James Agee, William Carlos Williams, Donald Hall, and Jim Harrison come to mind, but these triple-threats were unusual and are even rarer in today's world. Grace Paley managed it with joy, enthusiasm, a deep commitment to her values, a boundless love of family and a talent that this book estimably displays for us. If you don't know her work, read it and discover a wonderful fellow Vermonter. If you do know her work, enjoy having so much of the best near at hand.
"An Engaged Life: A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry," is edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2017.
— Michael Epstein is a retired physician with a deep interest in reading and writing. He lived in Brownsville for 30 years and now divides his time between there and Cambridge, Mass.