Grace Paley (December 11, 1922 – August 22, 2007) was an American short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist.
Grace Paley (née Goodside) was born in New York to Isaac and Manya Ridnyik Goodside, who anglicized the family name from Gutseit on immigrating from Ukraine. Her father was a doctor. The family spoke Russian and Yiddish along with English. The youngest of the three Goodside children (sixteen and fourteen years younger than brother and sister Victor and Jeanne, respectively), Paley was a tomboy as a child.
In 1938 and 1939, Paley attended Hunter College, then, briefly The New School, but never received a degree. In the early 1940s, Paley studied with W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research. Auden’s social concern and his heavy use of irony is often cited as an important influence on her early work, particularly her poetry.
On June 20, 1942, Grace Goodside married cinematographer Jess Paley, and had two children, Nora (1949-) and Danny (1951-). They later divorced. In 1972 Paley married fellow poet (and author of the Nghsi-Altai series) Robert Nichols.
She taught at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1980, she was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1989, Governor Mario Cuomo made her the first official New York State Writer. She was the Vermont State Poet Laureate from March 5, 2003 until July 25, 2007.
She died at home in Thetford, Vermont at the age of 84 of breast cancer. In a May 2007 interview with Vermont Woman newspaper – one of her last – Paley said of her dreams for her grandchildren: “It would be a world without militarism and racism and greed – and where women don’t have to fight for their place in the world.”
Paley taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College from 1966 to 1989, and helped to found the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York in 1967. She also taught at Columbia University, Syracuse University and the City College of New York. Paley summarized her view of teaching during a symposium on “Educating the Imagination” sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in 1996:
“Our idea,” Paley said, “was that children—by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started!”
Paley’s honors include a 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the Edith Wharton Award (1983), the Rea Award for the Short Story (1993), the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (1993), PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction (1994), and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literary Arts (1994).
In 1988, American composer Christian Wolff set eight poems from Leaning Forward (1985) for soprano, bass-baritone, clarinet/bass-clarinet, and cello.
At Dartmouth College’s fifth annual Social Justice Awards ceremony in 2006, Paley received the Lester B. Granger ’18 Award for Lifetime Achievement.