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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Grace Paley
(b. 1922)

Grace Paley was born to Isaac and Mary Goodside, Russian Jewish immigrants full of secular and socialist ideas gleaned from the intellectual ferment that preceded the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although her father, a doctor, influenced her love of Russian literature, both parents encouraged her intellectual precocity and political activism.

For a while Paley attended Hunter College and New York University, but a consuming interest in ordinary lives, a resistance to institutional authority, caused her to drop out. In 1942 at the age of twenty she married Jess Paley, a photographer, and later bore a son and a daughter. After they were divorced, Paley married Robert Nichols, a poet and playwright. Despite the vicissitudes inherent in raising children and working at marginal jobs, she found time to perfect her writing craft. Three small short story collections, The Little Disturbances of Man, 1959; Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974; and Later the Same Day, 1985 have established her reputation as a unique, virtually unimitatable contemporary writer. In 1961 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, and in 1970 received both a National Council on the Arts grant and a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for short story writing.

The titles of Paley’s collections suggest the stories’ themes: the irrepressible life force underlying the daily lives of New York working-class men and women; human courage in the face of aging and loss; the willingness to take risks which ensure the possibility of change within their lifetimes. Paley’s readers will discover more: loose vignettes artfully fragmented, the precise metaphors of a poet, characters created through conversations articulated with an impeccable ear for the varied tones, rhythms, and cadences of New York speech. Paley’s style creates small worlds, allowing readers to see what William Blake in another context called “the world in a grain of sand.” Above all, Paley’s is an extraordinary narrative voice, sassy, ironic, always authoritative, insistently faithful to pacifist and feminist ideals.

Paley’s abiding love for independent-minded children extended later to include their feisty mothers resisting boorish husbands; involving themselves in love affairs, playground politics, and an activism ranging from the fight for drug-free schools, to vehement opposition to the Vietnam War, and the ongoing resistance to nuclear proliferation. She remains engaged politically and personally, an iconoclast loudly debunking patriarchal institutions denying life-affirming choice. All of her stories embody this engagement.

In fact “The Expensive Moment” is best summarized as expansive, to include women beyond the confines of Vesey Street, namely Xie Feng, sent as a delegate to a woman’s convention from mainland China during a lull in the Cold War and after the Cultural Revolution. Ruthie, who has been to China, met Xie Feng in China; the latter understands her fears about Rachel, since Xie Feng’s children were left against her will with harsh grandparents. As Faith and Xie Feng wander throughout the urban, ethnic neighborhood where Faith recapitulates for her friend’s benefit, the places where she has come of age, loved, married, divorced, fought to make life safer and saner for her children, they are joined by Ruthie. All three women bond in mutual concern over their children and are united by the nagging question of whether in violent and dangerous times they have raised them to be resilient, compassionate, and responsible human beings.

Rose Yalow Kamel
Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science

In the Heath Anthology
The Expensive Moment (1985)

Other Works
The Little Disturbances of Man. Stories of Men and Women at Love (1959)
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1975)
Later the Same Day (1985)

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Featured Author: Grace Paley
Contains all Paley-related New York Times pieces, including an audio poetry reading.

New York State Writers Institute
A brief bio, a list of works, and a selected bibliography.'s Lit Chat
An interview with Grace Paley.

Secondary Sources