Sunday, December 11, 2022

The Loudest Voice

Grace Paley (1922–2007)
From American Christmas Stories

Entrance to Starlight Amusement Park on East 173rd Street, Bronx, NY. Printed by Belmont Postcard Company, 1923. A popular destination during the 1920s and early 1930s, the park was alongside the Bronx River. (Seymour B. Durst Old York Library, Columbia University)

Until she was 19, Grace Paley lived a short walk away from Starlight Park in a two-story townhouse (built in 1901 and still standing). To the west, also within walking distance, is Crotona Park; the Bronx Zoo is a fifteen-minute stroll to the north. In her later years, she pinpointed the moment that, in retrospect, defined how city managers, commercial interests, and highway construction would ensure the neighborhood’s eventual demise. “I was in kindergarten,” she recalled in 1996. “My entire class, probably many other classes as well, walked all the way from our school, P.S. 50 on Vyse Avenue and East 173rd Street, east, east to the Bronx River. There the Mayor of the City of New York, Jimmy Walker, dedicated the East 174th Street Bridge. Dedicated to what?”

Gracie Goodside, who would one day be known to the world as Grace Paley, joined a Socialist youth group called the Falcons when she was nine years old. “With the Socialist ending, not the Communist one, we sang the ‘Internationale,’” she recalls in her collection of autobiographical pieces, Just As I Thought. The Falcons were warned against singing the wrong version by mistake whenever the group joined demonstrations at which members of the Communist camp might be in attendance. “They would try, with their sneaky politics, to drown us out.”

One of the leaders decided that the Falcons would host a party, at which they would perform a musical play. The skit was, according to Paley, typical Depression-era “agitprop,” pitting an unemployed father against City Hall—and Gracie was asked to sing a solo number. Her mother was appalled. “Gracie darling, you can't sing. You know you can't hold the tune,” she told her daughter. “You'll make a fool of yourself. People will laugh. . . . And I'm supposed to sit in the audience and see how your feelings are hurt when they laugh at you?” So Mrs. Goodside prohibited her from going. “Guiltless but full of shame,” Gracie never went to another Falcons meeting.

This childhood experience might remind readers of Paley’s 1959 story, “The Loudest Voice.” Instead of acting in socialist agitprop, the children are corralled into a public school’s Christmas play, and instead of withdrawing from the performance full of shame, Shirley Abramowitz emerges triumphant from the production. As the poet and children’s author Janet Ruth Heller remarks in her appraisal of this often-anthologized story, “Paley emphasizes Shirley’s ability to retain her own ‘voice,’ despite various attempts to silence her.”

The story is also a celebration of the Jewish community in the Bronx between Croton Park and the Bronx River, where Paley grew up. She was the youngest of three children. Isaac and Manya Guzeit, both socialists pardoned by the Russian czar in 1904, immigrated to the United States, anglicized their last name, and had two children by 1908. By the time Gracie came along fourteen years later, Isaac Goodside had purchased a two-story townhouse, learned English, gone to medical school, and become a doctor. “They didn’t stay radical,” Paley told an interviewer in 1985. “They began to live the life of the immigrant—extremely patriotic, very hardworking—but they talked a lot about that period of their lives; they really made me feel it and see it, so there is that tradition. All of them were like that; my father’s brothers and sister all belonged to different leftist political parties. My grandmother used to describe how they fought every night at the supper table and how hard it was on her!” In the introduction to Just As I Thought, Paley notes that “my serious atheistic Jewish parents gave me enough stories—biblical, historical—so that I grew up as a Jewish woman and liked it.”

During the mid-1950s, while raising two children, she tried writing fiction and finished three short stories. With a prose style echoing the cadences of Yiddish, the pieces were unlike the literary fiction published at the time, which she described as “fifties fiction, a masculine fiction, whether traditional, avant-garde, or—later—Beat.” She wrote what she knew (“Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me, my portion”), and her submissions were roundly rejected by magazines.

A neighbor who had heard about the stories from his ex-wife asked to read them. The next time he saw Paley, he asked her to finish seven more like them and he, Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday, would publish them as a book. The collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, appeared to acclaim in 1959. Two more books of stories would be published over the next quarter century, and in 1994, The Collected Stories, which gathered all 44 selections from the three books, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. “I’m not writing a history of famous people,” she had told a reporter for The New York Times years earlier. “I am interested in a history of everyday life.”

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There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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