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Grace Paley; Acclaimed Short-Story Writer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

Grace Paley, 84, an American writer who achieved literary renown as a master of the short story and created a small but influential body of work that illuminated the frustrations and joys of women's lives, died Aug. 22 at her home in Thetford, Vt. She had breast cancer.

Ms. Paley's output was relatively small -- several dozen short stories and a few collections of poetry and essays -- but the quality of her work attracted superlatives from the country's brightest literary figures.

Novelist Philip Roth praised her for an "understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike." Writer Susan Sontag called her "a rare kind of writer, a natural with a voice like no one else's: funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute."

Ms. Paley began writing professionally in the mid-1950s. She was often regarded as a feminist writer because her stories brought early and rare insight into how urban women struggle with emotional and physical vulnerabilities, demanding children and lovers, and absent, often misogynistic husbands.

She found the feminist label confining, yet she gave credit to the movement for elevating her stature. "Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in the feminist wave," she wrote. "No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it -- the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness."

Her earliest stories were rich in humor and irony. In "The Loudest Voice," a Jewish child's vocal stamina makes her the ideal narrator of a school Christmas play. Ms. Paley gradually gave way to grimmer themes, including rape and mental illness. She also ventured into character studies less driven by plot.

She tended to draw more mixed reviews for the later work. Still, Robert R. Harris, an editor for the New York Times Book Review, once noted that Ms. Paley's literary reputation remained largely untarnished because "her best stories have staying power, and a few can justifiably be called brilliant."

Her first collection, "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959), contained some of her most anthologized works, including "Goodbye and Good Luck." The story is narrated by the vivacious Rosie, who has a long affair with a married Russian actor known as "the Valentino of Second Avenue."

"Goodbye and Good Luck" contained many of the hallmarks of her prose -- the uncluttered sentences, the flawed but sympathetic female narrator and the pitch-perfect Bronx street vernacular of her youth, which U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once called "the lyrically yakking cadence of New York City speech."

The title of the collection referred to a line in another short story, "An Interest in Life," in which a housewife named Virginia sums up in the opening sentences the husband who has deserted her: "My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly."

Virginia later takes a lover who discourages her from trying to get on a game show called "Strike It Rich," because the program is meant to help people who "really suffer" in natural catastrophes, not those enduring "the little disturbances of man."

Ms. Paley wrote her fiction slowly and sparingly, spending a great deal of time focused on her deepening political involvement as a pacifist concerned with environmental and anti-military causes. There was a 15-year gap between her first short-story collection and "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974), which received mixed reviews as she experimented with style and darker content.

The short-story collection "Later the Same Day" came out in 1985, the same year as her book of poetry called "Leaning Forward." She also wrote "365 Reasons Not to Have Another War," published in 1989. In her fiction, she often rekindled her alter ego, a single mother named Faith, to comment on sex, friendship and, ultimately, aging.

Although Ms. Paley once attempted a novel, she said she had no luck and shrugged off the effort by saying "art is too long and life is too short."

Grace Goodside was born Dec. 11, 1922, in the Bronx. She was the daughter of Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants who had been dedicated anti-czarists and punished with exile. The family name was changed from Gutseit to Goodside upon arrival in New York. Her father, Isaac, became a doctor and a painter.

She later recalled her neighborhood as "a world so dense with Jews that I thought we were the great imposing majority."

She developed a keen ear for the Yiddish, Russian and broken English spoken around her. A bright but indifferent student, she entered Hunter College at 15 and was expelled the next year for absenteeism.

In the early 1940s, while working as a typist for an elevator repair company, she studied under English poet W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research in New York. He advised her not to borrow words from his prose, such as "subaltern," and instead find her own voice.

In 1942, she married Jess Paley, a movie cameraman. They had two children before divorcing, Nora Paley, now of Thetford, and Danny Paley, now of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Survivors also include her second husband, author Robert Nichols, whom she married in 1972, of Thetford; three stepchildren, Duncan Nichols of Thetford, Eliza Nichols of Manhattan, N.Y., and Kerstin Nichols of Hartford, Vt.; and seven grandchildren.

As a young mother, Ms. Paley drifted away from writing for more than a decade and became involved in community activism in Greenwich Village.

Then she had what she called "the first of two small lucks": a bout of flu that kept her away from her children and gave her time to think and write, and meeting a father of her children's friends who was an editor at Doubleday. He encouraged her writing and ultimately urged Doubleday to publish "The Little Disturbances of Man."

The book received elaborate praise and established her reputation. However, Ms. Paley, who once described herself as "a somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist," was willingly distracted from her writing by other pursuits. She gave more attention to teaching fiction at Sarah Lawrence College north of New York and especially to her political activism.

During the Vietnam War, she encouraged young men to avoid military service, participated in rallies against the war and in 1969 went to Hanoi as part of a U.S. delegation to bring home prisoners of war.

She once spent time at Greenwich Village's Women's House of Detention for blocking a military parade. She described her time there in the essay "Six Days, Some Rememberings," noting among other things that the bullpen is "an odd name for a women's holding facility."

In 1978, she and other members of the War Resisters League were arrested and fined $100 for unlawful entry on the White House lawn and unfurling an antinuclear banner. During this period, she also attended peace conferences in the Soviet Union and El Salvador, meeting in the latter with mothers of people who disappeared during a bloody anti-government struggle.

A New Yorker, she also maintained a second home in Vermont, where she protested the war in Iraq in a low-key manner she once described as "vigiling on the common."

Ms. Paley could talk wryly of her activism. In her introduction to the "Greenwich Village Peace Center Cookbook," she warned the reader that "this cookbook is for people who are not so neurotically antiauthoritarian as I am -- to whom one can say, 'Add the juice of one lemon' without the furious response, 'Is that a direct order?' "

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