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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Grace Paley: Faith in Diversity


Notably different than Cynthia Ozick, an icon of feminist critics although less studied by Jewish Americanists, is Grace Paley. With her profusion of New York Jewish voices and Yiddish inflected language, Paley can easily be placed among major Jewish American authors of the latter half of the twentieth century, and indeed fits squarely in Susan Gubar's characterization of "narrative exuberance and sometimes comic, sometimes satiric experimental performances"as defining elements of Jewish American literature. Although Paley published only three volumes of short stories and some poetry collections during her long life, she is something of a literary icon, an American original. An overt radical, a heir of Jewish socialism, Paley claimed to be too busy with her activism-protesting nuclear arms and the Vietnam War, among other issues-for a prodigious literary output.
Grace Paley
Grace Paley
Yet her voice is unique, a mixture of New York dialect, Jewish and otherwise, with literary modernist and postmodernist experimentation. Her characters babble a stream-of-consciousness, broken up by dialogue from outside characters, forming a rich pastiche, at times engaging in psychological alteration of space and time. In "Faith in a Tree," for instance, Faith Darwin Asbury spends much of the story levitated into a tree, watching the world below, a kind of omniscient narrator looking down at the park and characters that constitute the world of Paley's fiction, yet jolted by an anti-war demonstration into political awareness.

Faith, a recurring character throughout Paley's stories, may be seen as a stand-in for the author, though unlike Paley, Faith is a single mother. Indeed, many of the women in Paley live at cross-purposes with men, who are gently satirized as unreliable, seeking short-term pleasure while leaving women to raise the children. Faith lives through the trials of a single mother in the feminist era, though in a way far more affirming of the human community than that of Ruth Puttermesser. If Ozick disapproves of rootless America, Paley celebrates its multiculture community, the rich interconnections of Jews, Irish, Italian, black, Puerto Rican. In "The Loudest Voice," for instance, a Jewish child initially fearful of appearing in a Christmas play comes to accept it as a part of American culture. Jewish culture, Paley seems to say, is not threatened by American Christianity and can be enriched by existing alongside it. "The Long Distance Runner" explores another cultural juxtaposition when Faith returns to her old neighborhood, now an African American outpost. Although it takes on the troubles of a segregated community, the story can also be seen as a celebration of how one vibrant American sub-culture is replaced by another.

With mischievous satire, Paley also takes on criticism of her style as strange and opaque in "A Conversation with my Father," wherein her father, dissastified with "people in trees talking senselessly, voices from who knows where," asks why she can't write a normal story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The narrator dutifully does so, though in such a way as to undercut the assumptions of traditional narrative, revealing Paley's idiosyncratic postmodernism as a valid take on America's complexity. Resisting the predictable arc of conventional stories Paley often supplies surprises at the end. Indeed, she satirizes this tendency in the story-within-a-story of "A Conversation with my Father," when a drug addict, as if through a miracle, avoids a bleak death and lives a kind of sainted life.

Another story key to Paley's ethos is "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," which reveals a certain skepticism about the revolutionary generation of the 1960s that Paley so enthusiastically joined with, about the ability of that generation to create "enormous changes at the last minute," to replace old society with the new. Liberal certainty is also questioned in the story "Zagrowsky Tells," when the narrator annoints Faith "the Queen of Right." With their multiplicity of voices, then, Paley's stories, despite a concern with left-wing themes, with old socialists and war protests and racial interactions and female solidarity, resist easy closure and create a vivid portrait of a complex and contradictory America. As with Bellow, although from a very different political perspective, Paley's work exemplifies how literature resists easy ideology.

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