by Thulani Davis

Spotting Grace Paley anywhere — at a march, or on the street in Greenwich Village, and particularly in the crowded rooms of New York literary soirees — was like coming upon a sunny isle of sanity in a world gone mad with hasty, hardened greetings, glittering costumes, and too much patience with the intolerable.

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Photo courtesy New York State Writers Institute

To see Grace was to come upon a complete human being, so fully herself and at home with herself as to be easily noticed in crowds of people ambitious for any sign of accomplishment. When Grace Paley died on Wednesday at the age of 84, the writer and activist left us all much poorer in a world already running short of honest and fearless souls.

She taught many of us, particularly women, what it means to be writer and citizen. As a writer, she taught the value of lives that often go unremarked, and as a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist” she showed that embodying citizenship fully is liberating.

Born Grace Goodside, the third child of dissident Jewish immigrants who fled czarist rule in Russia, her childhood was steeped in political debate. She viewed dissidence as a part of citizenship, not as alienation from it.

She was married twice — first to Jess Paley, a film cameraman, and, in 1972, to playwright Robert Nichols, who survives her, along with her children Nora Paley, Danny Paley and three grandchildren.

Having started writing as a poet, studying at Hunter College and with W. H. Auden at the New School, she brought economy and an acute ear to her fiction. In a 1986 interview, she described the switch to fiction:

First of all, I began to think of certain subject matter, women’s lives specifically, and what was happening around me. I was in my thirties, which I guess is the time people start to notice things, women’s and men’s lives and what their relationship is. […] All sorts of things began to worry me […] I couldn’t deal with any of this subject matter in poetry; I just didn’t know how […]

[F]or me it was that in writing poetry I wanted to talk to the world, I wanted to address the world, so to speak. But writing stories, I wanted to get the world to explain itself to me, to speak to me.

Paley’s short stories liberated ordinary women — single mothers at an urban playground or perched in tenement windows — from the shadows they inhabited in the work of late 20th-century male writers. She heard the music in the conversations of those in her neighborhood and saw through the artifice of imposing tidy scenarios on the poetry of daily life.

And, of course, Paley continued to address the world even as she let it speak to her. Like many of the new French philosophers who turned the academy upside down in mid-century, and some of the jazz masters who took up the protests of the time, Grace was one of those members of her generation who could be said to have been waiting for the 1960s to happen.

In her 40s by then, she joined the anti-war movement, went to Hanoi, was arrested in protests and fought for women’s rights. “I happened to like the ’60s a lot,” she said in a 1994 interview. “I thought great things were happening then and I was glad my children were part of that generation.” She became a teacher of writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the City College of New York.

In 1973 at the World Peace Congress in Moscow, Paley denounced the Soviet Union for silencing political dissidents and the congress disassociated itself from her statement. Although it was of lesser moment, on a visit to the Supreme Court with a group of authors in the 1980s, I saw Grace surprise Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter with a pointed question about abortion. As they stumbled for answers, she peppered them with follow-up questions. The justices looked quite chagrined as if they should have known better than to make themselves available to a bunch of writers.

If the rest of us failed to do so, she kept our good name as troublemakers. She was New York State’s first “state author,” a past poet laureate of Vermont, as well as a past vice president of the PEN American Center.

In recent years she opposed the war in Iraq. It was all in keeping with a line from “A Conversation with My Father,” a story from the 1974 short story collection, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute”:  “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

Thulani Davis‘s most recent book is the memoir “My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots.” She currently lives in New Jersey.