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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Grace Paley (b. 1922)

[7863] Committee for the Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners, The Left and the Soviet Union: Is a Broad-Based Left Wing Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners Possible? (n.d.), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Of her early writing, Paley notes, “I didn’t yet realize that you have to have two ears. One ear is that literary ear,” and the other is “the ear of the language of home . . . the language of your street and your people.” Such an intuitive ear helped define her as one of the twentieth century’s most noted American writers and “urban chroniclers.”

Grace Paley was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City and grew up listening to the stories of her family, sometimes told in English, sometimes in Russian or Yiddish. She attended Hunter College and the Merchants and Bankers Business and Secretarial School, although she never received a degree from either. She attri-butes her political activism to her parents, both of whom were political exiles in Europe and later were active members of a variety of progressive movements. A self-described “combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist,” Paley has continued to play an active role in peace, feminist, and anti-nuclear war movements throughout her life. Paley balanced married life, motherhood, and teaching creative writing at such institutions as Sarah Lawrence, Syracuse, and Dartmouth.

Although she began her career as a poet, Paley is best known for her short stories. Her first collection, Little Disturbances of Man(1959), while highly praised by novelist Philip Roth, was not an immediate success. It did help her to establish a steady readership that grew over time and positioned her as a contemporary local-color writer. Her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), was published fifteen years later. Paley’s other collections include Later the Same Day (1985), The Collected Stories(1994), and her most recent, a collection of essays, Just as I Thought (1999). Her insight into the complexities of post-World War II Jewish American urban life is vibrant and telling, her characters opinionated, stubborn, angry, and outspoken. Critic John Leonard notes that her writing combines “a Magical Socialism” with “Groucho Marxism.” Through her stories, Paley has been able to capture the cadences and complexities of everyday life and give voice to the causes of those who are both American and part of an ethnic community.

Teaching Tips

  • Invite a speaker to discuss what it was like to be young in the late 1960s and early 1970s. You could also have your students interview their parents and grandparents about what it was like to be alive during this era. (It would be useful to have more than one generation commenting on what those years were like.) Alternatively, have students volunteer their impressions of hippies, “free love,” campus antiwar protests, the drug culture, etc. Then discuss “A Conversation with My Father” in the context of your students’ comments.
  • Have students discuss how place or a sense of place affects a person’s identity. Ask how they might be different if they had grown up in a different location or environment. Then discuss Paley’s story in terms of place and identity.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “A Conversation with My Father,” how do the narrator and her father have different concepts of the truth and of what fiction is supposed to do?
  2. Comprehension: “A Conversation with My Father” seems to call into question Paley’s own career as a conscientious creator of and experimenter in self-consciously “literary” trends. The narrator’s father asks for a simple, readable story: why does the narrator listen to the complaints of an eighty-six-year-old man?
  3. Comprehension: Does the father teach the writer an important lesson about fiction? About life or the relationship of art to life? What does he mean by those last words: “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?”
  4. Context: Compare the dialogue in “A Conversation with My Father” to the dialogue in “The Magic Barrel.” Do you hear differences in the voices? Consider carefully the voice of the writer herself: in becoming a New York artist, has she lost or forgotten something of who she once was?
  5. Exploration: Use Grace Paley’s work as a springboard for an exploration of metafiction. Read another piece of metafiction, such as Pynchon’s “Entropy.” Think about whether such works as The Way to Rainy Mountain or Invisible Man qualify as metafiction.

Selected Archive Items

[3043] John A. Gentry, LCpl, Vietnam … Private First Class Joseph Big Medicine Jr., a Cheyenne Indian, Writes a Letter to His Family in the United States (1969),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Soldier from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, on clear, search and destroy mission near An Hoa. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam encouraged antiwar protests and distrust of the government. Writer Grace Paley described herself as a “combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist” and was deeply involved in the antiwar movement.

[3296] Dick DeMarsico, Protesting A-Bomb Tests (1962),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-126854].
Demonstrators protesting U.S. tests of atomic weapons. The use of nuclear weapons in World War II prompted a variety of responses from U.S. citizens, including fear, protest, and feelings of alienation.

[6180] United Women’s Contingent, When Women Decide This War Should End, This War Will End: Join the United Women’s Contingent on April 24 (1971),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-6882].
Protest poster against the Vietnam War. The antiwar, civil rights, women’s rights, and gay liberation movements were connected politically and artistically. In 1961, writer and activist Grace Paley founded the Greenwich Village Peace Center, which was integral to draft resistance during the Vietnam War.

[7360] Frank Moffit, SPC 5, Vietnam … A Sky Trooper from the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) Keeps Track of the Time He Has Left on His “Short Time” Helmet (1968),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Soldier, part of Operation Pershing, near Bong Son. By 1968, many Americans were ambivalent about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Most of the soldiers drafted after 1965 were troubled by their role in what they saw as a morally ambiguous conflict. A variety of American poets protested the war, including Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, and Galway Kinnell.

[7362] Phil Stanziola, 800 Women Strikers for Peace on 47th St. near the UN Building (1962),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-128465].
Women protest for peace. Antiwar sentiment grew throughout the 1960s as many Americans became more critical of the Cold War mentality. Throughout the Cold War, the United States became involved in international conflicts that had high American death tolls and no apparent resolution, such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

[7863] Committee for the Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners, The Left and the Soviet Union: Is a Broad-Based Left Wing Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners Possible? (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
While dominant U.S. political movements condemned communism and socialism throughout the Cold War, many activists, writers, and intellectuals supported non-capitalist forms of government while also grappling with political repression and authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union. This panel discussion on “The Left and the Soviet Union” featured such figures as the English historian E. P.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6