Enormous Changes… Arrived at Slowly, Over a the Course of a Politically Engaged Lifetime

Author Grace Paley sits beside a pile of books in her home in Thetford, Vt., April 9, 2003. Paley, a critically acclaimed writer of poetry and short fiction, was named Vermont's state poet in March. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

For the April edition of The Atlantic, Nicholas Dames profiles late author and activist Grace Paley. In particular, Dames focuses on Paley’s persistence in the face of political obstacles, as an activist, and as a writer — often through a stalwart recurring character, Faith Darwin Asbury.

Through Faith, Paley discovered her great subject: the evolving political engagement of the generation of women who came of age in the shadow of World War II. The stories Paley wrote after The Little Disturbances are ever more plotless. They are snapshots of female community—in particular, the group of Greenwich Village women early to the postwar quest for feminist consciousness—or, in Faith’s own words, “a report on … the condition of our lifelong attachments.” Paley borrowed the method of linking characters across a story series from Isaac Babel, one of her lodestars. But unlike Babel’s Odessa stories—–or, for that matter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—–Paley’s stories about Faith extend the timescale well into adulthood. Faith and her friends age, shedding lovers and children and parents, and finding new objects for their political passions. It turns out that rather than voice, Paley’s true subject was time.

Put another way, her theme was how the ethical aspirations of political life extend over time: how they survive inevitable disappointment; how they steel themselves into endurance.

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