By Allan Gurganus ’72
Grace Paley’s voice lives even in the prose of her recent Times obituary. Its writer, Margalit Fox, had surely done her homework. Like many of us, she’d grown prose-drunk on Grace Paley’s own odd prose:
“Grace’s childhood was noisy and warm, and always there was glorious argument…[Paley] often focused on single mothers, whose days were a mix of sexual learning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.”
Amen to all that.
Grace possessed one of the loudest voices and finest bull-detectors. If she liked you, you felt your soul saved. If you fell short, you blamed only yourself. Grace Paley’s tales will remain ones people memorize like poems. She has no former students, since her teaching just goes on and on in them, in us. I was lucky. I studied with her and remained a friend. Last year she 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. 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. 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. Male students were new there. I was both a male and a recent Vietnam vet: that made for one hard-to-love Caliban wandering amongst many a Miranda, (eleven in the freshman class alone).
Fresh off the aircraft carrier, I had saved at least one pie-slice-portion of my soul by writing fiction. Drafted, I had tried to be Conscientious, had attempted to Object. But I did this in a dusty Republican North Carolina county where no one had ever before said “No.” I failed to stay clear of the military, then Southeast Asia. And, even after devoting my eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth years to it, I never did solve the mystery, “Why are we in Vietnam?” But onboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, I eased myself out of harm’s way and deep into the luminous valley of the shadow called Literature. I became self-taught, self-doubting, and self-improving, the way all artists are.
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, then back to photos of a superstar all gems and cheekbones, reclining in her parlor made of spun-sugar white-and-pink Chinese brocade. I was one confused Paley-entologist! Eighteen myself, I marveled at the contradictions inherent in the Human Personality. Only that explained how such a hothouse orchid could sound so goddamn street-smart on the page. 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. I literally went looking for Grace Paley there. The College then seemed a containment area for debutante-ballerinas with Jungian therapists and recording contracts. When I finally stepped onto campus, the true Grace Paley was finally pointed out to me. She proved, not 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. How approachable was Grace? That day, no one ate at any table but hers!
A doctor’s daughter, she just looked like a natural healer. She wore a P-jacket and a colorful crocheted cap she probably wove from wool whose contributor-sheep she knew by name. Grace sat, mid-flu season, beside a bottle of Vitamin C and one big blue box of Kleenex that she carried, just in case.
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. History, she knew, remains the most personal thing on earth because it is the least personal!
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. My construction had been brocaded and eventual. I hid the energizing verbs at the backs of sentences like the lights within refrigerators. She urged me to put them right up front. 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. Like Jane Austen, she kept compositions in her pockets, working out the algebra of single sentences between classes, in the cafeteria, on car rides home. 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.”
Grace invited me to join certain Actions on and off the page. I speak of the days of daily demonstrations to end our meddling in Vietnam and Cambodia. If Grace had told me that the War Resisters League had decided we must blow up Henry Kissinger’s limo as a way of stopping the war, if she had told me that I had been chosen to sneak the briefcase into said car while wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, I’d have nodded, “Blue or gray?”
Simplifying memory tells me that I wrote toward peaceable clarity all week, then marched against the war in downtown actions on Saturday and Sunday. I felt a growing sense of inhale-exhale. How art and politics were two ways of talking of one creature, continuous. Grace hinted at how the “I” that had once seemed so sacrosanct was really just a class and racial construction never fully of my making.
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. Chekhov and Yiddish Folk Tales we received by ear first for laughs, then for all the “ahhs.” 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.
Once Grace’s class ended, I would never again question my validity as a writer. I mean: as at least one voice among 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, not a road. I’m still on that same road.
She nudged me direct toward my in-born subject matter: family ties and binds, erotic confusion and misalliance, the difference between historical myth and lived fact, racial politics, class warfare. In short, all the subjects that yet daily hold my interest and still kick my ass around te block.
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. She didn’t blame the boy for his own history or for History, everybody’s. She told him he (A) had got out alive and (B) had probably also gathered quite a story in the process of escaping while always so savagely noticing. To have a young life and a large, old-timey story, well, that was not nothing, was it?
Why did I believe her? Good question. Why, as we slog through yet another war even less comprehensible than the Vietnam one, doesn’t our whole world just settle down and listen afresh to Grace Paley? She’s not dead when we need her this much. Her stories improve and even humanize the prose of the New York Times. I happen to have a petition here to the effect of keeping her around. Do list your e-mail address, please. They’ll need that, the FBI is keeping tabs on your movements and library activities.
I end with our chant that managed to stop, if after long delay, an earlier war. Maybe it will work again.
“What do we want?”
“When do we need her?”