Grace Paley, the beloved poet, short-story writer, teacher, and political activist, died august 22, 2007. she taught writing at sarah lawrence college from 1966 to 1989 and played a central role in the development of the college’s writing program.
Last year Grace Paley came to my house in North Carolina. Guessing that we’re all mortal, I showed her my writing desk and asked if she would say a blessing on the spot where I write even this. I left the room but did peek back. I saw her, leaning forward, hands on wood, head bowed, muttering something cabalistic and possibly funny but, as always, effective. I write this safe under the awning spell of Grace’s blessing. She is dead, they say. You could fool me. Grace was my first teacher of writing. I see that as my own purest luck.
I landed at Sarah Lawrence College in 1970 in avid search of her. Fresh off the aircraft carrier, I had saved at least one pie-slice-portion of my soul by writing fiction. One Vogue magazine must’ve been left onboard by some visiting shipmate’s girlfriend. In it, I found a strangely compact, enormous story by a woman named Paley. I reread it many times, feeling confused and stirred, stoked by its energized, citified, disjunctive unity. I assumed that the subject of the preceding photo essay—“Babe,” Mrs. William Paley, the greatest beauty of her age and class—had somehow slid the editor this, her own most recent writing. I remember flipping from that civil disobedience of a red fire-hydrant story back to photos of a superstar all gems and cheekbones, reclining in her parlor made of spun-sugar white-and-pink Chinese brocade. Where did regal “Babe” learn so much about welfare mothers whose errant beaux had definite heroin problems?
The magazine said the author of this story taught at Sarah Lawrence. When I finally stepped onto campus, the true Grace Paley was finally pointed out to me. She proved not to be the albino swan I had expected, but a brown hen with an eagle’s force. I first saw her, of course, at the Health Food Bar. She sat eating borscht and one slice of bread as big and brown as Mother Russia.
You would think that someone who’d spent much of every week protesting the Vietnam War might’ve resisted taking into her class a newly sprung veteran of that very mess. But Grace welcomed me as a specimen unique. Under her fanatically casual tutelage, I found that my own naval efforts at writing had been, however shapely, pastiches of the George Eliot and Henry James novels I’d inhaled all over Southeast Asia. Grace showed me the headlong bulldozer genius of subject-verb subject-verb. Grace liked action, folks in motion, people doing things to get what they wanted, then to avoid precisely that. She saw language as an action painter’s paint, a messy force for life. Translated Russian, street slang, literary words like “subaltern” and “verily”—they all went into one steaming pot. But mainly Action, that was the ticket, kiddo! Each sentence deserved “the open destiny of life.”
In her chaotic family-dinner of a Sarah Lawrence classroom, everybody talked at once. Puerto Rican kids from the Bronx, children of J.F.K. staffers, Vietnam vets, and former ambulance drivers all chimed in. And Grace, the good conductor, would lift a strand here, overturn a phrase there. She was teaching us a way to someday teach ourselves, aloud. Grace read us Isaac Babel aloud, the Old Testament’s Book of Samuel. Seemingly simpler forms—ballads and myth—we absorbed like the spuds that Vincent Van Gogh’s potato eaters fed themselves. What we grew, we ate. And that gave us the energy to cultivate an even better crop of spuds and tales next year. There was nothing fancy going on. We were making things. Things that people needed. Their needs were meant to shape the forms. It was the opposite of pretense; it was as real as things got.
Grace’s own stories seem to me our truest articles of faith, the funniest and wisest. Her elisions, her combinations of dictions high and low, street meets academic, the true and the fakey all made true again—these remain original in the extreme. Each story is a different sort of teacher, then companion. But never has there been a living teacher worthier of leading by example. Never has there been an advocate readier to see what each of her own brood might next do best. Never has my soul been so singularly saved as when I, a bony kid just shamefacedly home from a war he loathed, walked into a classroom and found one grown woman who felt exactly the same. Why, as we slog through yet another war even less comprehensible than Vietnam, doesn’t our whole world just settle down and listen afresh to Grace Paley? “What do we need?” “Grace.” “When do we need her?” “NOW!”
Allan Gurganus ’72 was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His books include Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and the forthcoming Assisted Living.
Web extra: web extra: Read an expanded version of this piece at www.slc.edu/magazine/paley.