Poet and short story writer Grace Paley, a literary eminence and old-fashioned rebel who described herself as a “combative pacifist,” has died. She was 84.
Paley, who had battled breast cancer, died Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt., according to her husband, playwright Robert Nichols.
“She was a great writer,” said Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar Straus & Giroux, which is about to publish a book of new Paley poetry. “Her sense of the vernacular of the particular world she came from was just wonderful. She was able to capture the humor and pathos in a certain New York voice.”
A published writer since the 1950s, Paley released only a handful of books over the next half century, mostly short stories and poems.
Among her story collections were “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” 1974, and “Later the Same Day,” 1985.
Writing was a passion, but not a compulsion: She never felt the need to put every experience into words. Her fiction, although highly praised, competed for time with work, activism, family and friends.
“None of it happened, and yet every word of it is true,” she once said of her fiction. “It’s truth embedded in the lie.”
From New York to VermontPaley, a longtime New Yorker, moved to Vermont in 1988 after having spent summers there. She was named state poet laureate in early 2003. “Artists are known for challenging convention,” Gov. Jim Douglas said at the time. “Great artists like Grace Paley do that and more.”
In many ways, Paley wasn’t a typical American writer. Her characters did not suffer “identity crises.” Instead of living on the road, they stayed home, in Greenwich Village. They discussed politics, dared to take sides and belonged to clubs anxious to have them as members.
“People talk of alienation and so forth,” she said in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t feel that. I feel angry at certain things, but I don’t feel alienated from it. I feel disgusted with it, or mad, but I don’t feel I’m not in it.”
She was a child of immigrants who seemed to embody a more intimate time, the kind of person strangers at readings would call by her first name. Short and heavyset, she had a round, open face, a warm smile and a friendly disarray of hair.
Her voice was small and surprisingly girlish, with every thought seeming to occur to the speaker only at the moment she expressed it.
Politics in the family
Born Grace Goodside in New York in 1922, she was one of three children of Russian Jews. Her family spoke English, Russian and Yiddish, but politics proved the universal language. Her parents had opposed the czar in Russia and were supporters of the New Deal. The bitterest neighborhood feuds were not among drug dealers, but between Trotskyites and Stalinists.
“I thought being Jewish meant you were a Socialist,” Paley said. “Everyone on my block was a Socialist or a Communist. ... People would have serious, insane arguments, and it was nice. It makes you think the rest of the world is pretty bland.”
She started writing poems early and continued to do so even as she married a movie cameraman, Jess Paley, had two children, worked part time as a typist and became involved in community affairs around Greenwich Village.
Paley began writing prose in the 1950s.
Novels seemed too long — she never wrote one — so she turned to short stories. Although many of her pieces were rejected by magazines, an editor at Doubleday learned of her work and her first collection, “The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women at Love,” was published in 1959.
“I felt some of these stories, writing about women and writing about children, I had a reluctance to write for a while because it seemed to me it was not interesting,” said Paley.
The new book, tentatively titled “Fidelity: A Book of Poems,” will be published early next year, Galassi said.
Careful attention to storiesPaley’s fiction set an easy, informal tone, but was developed out of weeks and months of careful refinement, all sentences read aloud before being committed to paper. Many stories were not so much “stories” as conversations overheard, with fitting titles such as “Listening” and “Talking.”
Like longtime neighbors, Paley’s characters become familiar faces, especially the compassionate Faith Darwin. It was typical of Paley that she did not look upon Faith as an alter ego but as someone who might have been a “good, close pal.”
At the same time, Paley was a self-described “combative pacifist” who joined the War Resisters League in the ’60s and visited Hanoi on a peace mission. She was arrested in 1978 during an anti-nuclear protest on the White House lawn and for years could be found every Saturday passing out protest leaflets on a street corner near her New York apartment.
“I happened to like the ’60s a lot. I thought great things were happening then and I was glad my children were part of that generation. As an older person in the peace movement, I learned a lot from it. I mean I learned a LOT,” Paley said.
“So, I don’t know where things went wrong, except, whatever happens in society, the society corrupts, eats up and takes over. ... But at the same time there’s always this really small little hill of hope that’s right in the middle of this. You see people from that period doing wonderful things, all the things they meant to do.”
Paley married Nichols in 1972. In the late 1990s, they formed Glad Day Books, which publishes political fiction and nonfiction.
She never let fame or politics obscure her devotion to family, her stepson said.
“A lot of well-known people are hard to access,” Duncan Nichols, of Thetford, told the Valley News of Lebanon, N.H. “She was just the opposite. She was just a very family person. I think it’s absolutely true that she would give someone the shirt off her back. She was just very, very generous that way, a people person rather than a reclusive artist type.”