US writer of subtle and discursive short stories, poet and 'combative pacificist'
Friday 24 August 2007 00.19 BST
Grace Paley, the American short-story writer and a prominent activist during the Vietnam period, has died of breast cancer aged 84. Her "combative pacifism", as she called it, took her to Hanoi in 1969, to Chile during the precarious rule of Salvador Allende, and to Nicaragua in 1985. Paley was what is known, in the US, as a "movement" person, which meant that political activism was part of her normal life, not an off-again, on-again response to the most spectacular crises. She joined the War Resisters League in the 1960s and, for years, could be found every Saturday handing out protest leaflets on a street corner near her New York apartment.
Paley's unglamorous, day-to-day activism caused her to be admired by other movement people, but it was her short stories that made her loved. She grew up in a Jewish immigrant family amid the sounds of Russian, Yiddish and English, and became as acquainted with the idiom of New York street talk as with the language of respectable literature. So Paley was able to create in her fiction a world of voices and an ethnic style that was uniquely her own. With her humour and humanism in mind, some critics compared her with the Russian-Yiddish storyteller Sholom Aleichem. But the truth is that the oral folk tradition was not lying around waiting to be inherited by a young American writer finding her voice in the 1940s. Her literary manner, which has the effect of simplicity and naturalness, owes a great deal to modernist self-consciousness about questions of style and form.
The confidence that enabled Paley to write like a turn-of-the-century Russian or a female Mark Twain in the Bronx owed a great deal to the happy circumstances of her early years. Her parents, Isaac and Manya Goodside, were revolutionary students in Russia, and her father had spent time in one of the tsar's prisons. But they were able to escape to the United States in 1905, thereby avoiding the worst pogroms that would traumatise Russia's Jews, particularly in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Like so many other eastern-European Jews without money, they settled in New York's Lower East Side.
Supported by his wife and sisters, Paley's father was able to study for a medical degree in New York. By the time she was born, the Goodsides were comfortable, though not rich, and had moved to the Bronx, which was then (1922) primarily Jewish and middle class. Paley was the much-loved baby in a household that included her father's mother, her parents and an aunt, a brother of 16 and a sister already 14. She recalled being much fussed over and strongly encouraged by her parents to accomplish all that she could. Paley evokes her own childhood self-confidence in her charming early story The Loudest Voice, which depicts little Shirley Abramovitz belting out the story of Jesus in her school's Christmas pageant.
At 19, Grace attended Hunter College and briefly New York University, but, abandoning her formal education in 1942, she married Jess Paley, a cameraman and film-maker. Because her husband was serving in the army from 1942 to 1944, she lived among other women, separate from their men, in army camps. She said that it was in these camps that she first became conscious that the ordinary lives of women were an actuality of great importance, albeit largely ignored in formal literature. She was writing poetry and continued after the end of the war, when she gave birth to her two children, Nora in 1949 and Daniel in 1951.
In the 1950s Paley turned to the writing of stories: she never wrote a novel, though she tinkered with drafts. Although she was starting late, it was as if, from the start, her voice was hers alone, as was her perspective on things. Critics greeted Paley's first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), with the kind of superlatives used in the same decade for first books by Flannery O'Connor and Philip Roth. Roth himself praised Paley for "a language of new and rich emotional subtleties, with a kind of backhanded grace and irony all its own."
Despite this reception and many fellowships and awards, it was 15 years before Paley published her second collection of stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. During those years, she had to fit her writing in among a wide range of activities, some of which had as great a claim on her as fiction. Most importantly, she was raising her children. Although she and Jess were not formally divorced until 1971, she was effectively a single mother during much of her children's early years. In 1972 she married a fellow writer, Robert Nichols.
Paley dedicated Later the Same Day (1985), her third collection, to her children, "Without whom my life and literature would be pretty slim". The body of work is small - Paley's Collected Stories (1994) takes up only 386 pages. Where did her time go? For over 20 years she taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. But the main non-family commitment was to politics. Sometimes it was upper-case "Politics", as when, during the Vietnam war, she literally put her body on the line at sit-ins, where she risked being trampled by the horses of mounted policemen. But sometimes it was the "politics" of ordinary life, at least the ordinary life of an advanced feminist with old-fashioned loyalties and emotions.
Her vicissitudes are well documented in Paley's stories about the compasssionate Faith Darwin, the fictional alter ego whose perils we can follow in Paley's successive collections and in Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991), a thin medley of stories and poems that should be read alongside her attractive New and Collected Poems (1992).
In the stories about Faith, we have the portrait of a modern woman whose openness to life disposes her to have affairs with men who often let her down. Her closest relationships are with other women. Together they converse endlessly about their children, men and sick parents. In one story Faith has parents in an old people's home who wish only she would find a way to live that would cost her less pain. In the story A Conversation with My Father, her father wishes also that Faith would write fiction with a beginning, middle, and definite ending. But Faith counters with an explanation of her stories, with their seemingly plotless meandering, which might be Paley's own credo both as a writer and as a secular radical. She explains that she doesn't write well-made stories "because the traditional form of fiction takes all hope away". And for Faith, "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."
A new book of poetry, tentatively titled Fidelity: A Book of Poems, will be published next year. She is survived by her husband, son and daughter.
· Grace Paley, writer, born December 11 1922; died August 22 2007