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Grace Paley

By Allan Gurganus

There are no bad photographs of Grace Paley. Usually in group shots, she stands left of center, child-high, wearing a bulky cardigan under some woven stocking-cap—some schmata, probably a gift. Your vision swerves to her face first, always. Dark eyes show extra highlights, knowing mankind’s pogrom worst but willing to take it one case at a time. Her grin, wild unto being sometimes feral, was still sexy at eighty-five. Great artists can seldom afford to be great people. It’s nobody’s fault. Two large pizza pans and so little dough to cover the bottom of both. The chance of getting each kind of genius, life and art, into one pair of size-four shoes has been unheard of since Chekhov, who wore a six. If Grace liked you, you knew your soul was saved. If you fell short, you could blame only yourself. After some reading or demonstration, her friends always asked first thing, “Was Grace there?” The answer: “Front and center.” Or “Grace had just left,” or often “Grace was late.” Such lateness, in theology and on West Eleventh Street, is the prerogative of Grace. Grace comes as is and when it likes and is always welcomed in.

1970: I landed at Sarah Lawrence College in avid quest of her. Male students were new there. I was both a male and a recent Vietnam Vet: that made me one hard-to-love Caliban wandering amongst many a Miranda (eleven in the freshman class alone).

Fresh off an aircraft carrier, I had saved at least one pie-slice portion of my soul by trying to write fiction. Drafted, attempting conscientiousness, I had tried to object. But I had done this in a dusty Republican Carolina county. Stuck onboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, I hid in a turret off the flight deck, my lapful of books and paper; I sunk myself safe into the luminous valley of the shadow called Literature. I became self-taught, self-doubting, self-amusing unto self-abuse, the way all artists are.

One Vogue magazine had 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 S. Paley, the greatest beauty of her age and class—had somehow slipped Vogue’s 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 socialite, all gems and cheekbones, reclining in her parlor made of pink spun-sugar Chinese silk. Just gone nineteen, I marveled at the contradictions inherent in the human personality. Only those explained how such a hothouse orchid could sound so goddamn street-smart on the page. Where had regal ‘Babe’ learned this much about welfare moms whose errant Irish boyfriends experienced definite heroin-probs?

Vogue stated: the author of this story taught at Sarah Lawrence. So, a civilian of twenty, I came seeking the lovely elongated Grace there. The college then seemed a containment area for deb-ballerinas with Jungian therapists and recording contracts. When I finally stepped onto campus, the true Grace Paley was at last pointed out to me. She proved not the albino swan I had expected but one perfect brown thrush with a very eagle’s force. She sat, of course, in the Health Food Bar. She sat eating borscht and one slice of bread as big and dark as Mother Russia. How approachable was Grace? No person that day ate at any table but hers!

A doctor’s daughter, she looked like a natural healer in the Health Food Bar. A doctor’s daughter, she had identified not with the professional class into which she was born, but, Dr. Chekhov-like, with her Dad’s charity patients. That day she wore a peacoat over a floral smock from Loehmann’s over a quilted Maoist vest with a little coral scarf at her neck she was saying she’d found on the street, “Pretty nice, huh?” Grace, among friends, was seated mid-flu season, between an amber bottle of Vitamin C and one big blue box of Kleenex she carried for others.

You would think that someone who’d spent much of every week protesting the Viet War might have resisted taking into her class a newly sprung veteran of that very mess, but Grace welcomed me as a specimen unique. History, she knew, remains the most personal thing on earth because it is the least personal.

In her chaotic family dinner of a Sarah Lawrence classroom, everybody spoke at once. Puerto Rican kids sprung from the Bronx, children of JFK cabinet members, Viet vets, former ambulance drivers, all chimed in. And Grace, the good conductor, would lift a strand here, overturn a phrase there. She was teaching us how to someday teach ourselves, and always aloud. There’s the African parable, “God created man because he likes hearing stories.” Conducted by the best ear alive, we listened our prose into being. Ballads, Chekhov, and Yeats, and myths we absorbed like the spuds that Vincent’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, honey. We were making things. Things that people needed. The opposite of pretense and artiness, it was as real as earthly things ever got.

But under her fanatically casual tutelage, I found that my own Naval efforts at writing had been, however shapely, pastiches of my adored George Eliot and Henry James. Grace showed me the headlong bulldozer genius of Subject-Verb, Subject-Verb. (My sentence construction had grown brocaded and eventual. I often hid the energizing verb at the back of a sentence, like the light-bulb snapping on only once your fridge is opened. “Put them more up front, honey, right up top.”) Grace liked action, folks in motion, people doing things helpful or self-destructive, you decide. She saw language as action painting paint, a messy force for life.

Jane Austen composed on small cards kept in her apron, hidden from family. Grace hid scrap paper and phone bills in her peacoat pocket; on their backs, she working out the algebra of those gorgeous single sentences—between student conferences, on long car rides home. She took her time. Each Grace sentence deserved ‘the open destiny of life.’

She invited me to join certain actions, on and off the page. We speak of a time when weekly marches tried to end our nation’s meddling in Vietnam and Cambodia before amnesia moved us on to Iraq, Iran, South Korea, you name it. Back then, if Grace told me that the War Resistors League had decided we must blow up Henry Kissinger’s limo as an allegorical action, if she had explained I’d been chosen as likeliest to blend in best among bureaucrats, and next Monday I should sneak this explosive briefcase into said car while I wore a Brooks Brothers suit, I’d have said, “The blue or the gray?”

For those teachers we loved we would literally do anything. And was there ever such a writer, such a teacher, as Grace Paley?

Simplifying memory tells me that we wrote toward peaceable clarity all week, then marched against the War in downtown actions Saturdays-Sundays. I felt a growing sense of inhale-exhale—how art and politics were two ways of talking of one creature, continuous.

As Grace’s class ended, I would never again question my validity as a writer. I mean: as at least ONE voice among the many. Grace had fondly butted me onto some upward path so broad I had not previously noticed it. I’d thought it was a field and not a road. I still walk that road.

She nudged me direct toward my in-born subjects: family history, erotic confusion, slavery’s daily tax on all our lives. In short, every subject that can still kick my ass around the block.

Never has my soul felt so singularly saved as when I, one bony kid just shamefacedly home from a war he loathed, walked into a classroom and found one grown woman who felt exactly the same. She didn’t blame me for that first big bite History had taken out of my neck. She told me it was the start of a story. And, because of Grace, because it was Grace, I believed her.

Last year she came to my house in North Carolina. Suspecting 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, being a novelist, did peek back.

I saw her there, leaning forward, hands on wood, head bowed, muttering something cabalistic and possibly funny but, as always, effective. I write this feeling oh so safe under the awning hoopah spell of Grace’s continual blessing. She is dead, they say. You could fool me. She’ll always be that tale-told pot of porridge, righteous, if short, and altogether unstoppable. All you need do is stand back and toss on brown sugar and the butter. I usually despise speakers who consult dictionaries for their final lines. But Mrs. Paley’s parents chose a word in English so perfect and complexly her, it fills most of one page with tiny OED print.

Grace: A courtesy title now given only to Dukes, Duchesses, and Archbishops.

Grace: To become, to show in a good light, to reflect credit on.

Grace: An embellishment consisting of notes additional to those required.

Grace: One of the sister goddesses regarded as bestowers of beauty and charm.

Grace: An exceptional favor, an unsought dispensation.

Grace: The divine influence which operates in human relations to regenerate, sanctify, inspire.

Grace: A short (often thankful) prayer asked as a blessing before meals.

Grace was my first writing teacher and stayed my friend and that was all the luck I ever needed. Because of one magazine found on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, I sought her ten thousand miles away. And, in this role unasked for, she saved my life. Of that much, I am sure. But how Grace did it, see… I still don’t know. I do not know how this woman rescued me by introducing me to my own soul which she proved to be exactly as political as aesthetical. She introduced me to my own voice, a voice I heard because she said she heard it first.

Here we must say that since Chekhov there has not been a greater writer who was also a finer larger person. She was something toward which we all aspire, but are probably too petty, fearful, mortal. She yet embodies something quantum, something mysterious. But what? How might we best define it? Simple.

It was, still is—Grace.

We always asked, “Was GRACE there?”

—Front and center, yes.

Tonight, is Grace HERE?

—Yeah, front and center, feel her?



Thank you.

Read by Alison Lurie at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 9, 2008.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters