It is the early 1930s. A girl in New York City, just tall enough to see over her family’s kitchen table, catches a moment of tacit communication between her parents. The mother pauses in her reading of the newspaper to say to the father: “Zenya, it’s coming again.” Even the young girl, Grace Goodside, knows what “it” means: Hitler’s rise to power. The “again” was more mysterious—more compelling—both for the girl and for Grace Paley, the writer and activist she became, who retold this memory. The 1905 pogroms that killed her uncle and drove her parents from Russia to the United States were only dimly known to her as a child. A penumbral and weighty silence, common to refugees from politically murderous areas of the globe, covered much of the family’s past in the old country. A lesson emerged from that parental shorthand “again”—namely that nothing, even the worst, was entirely new. Politics was a matter of taking the long view and enduring.
Paley never forgot the rebuke her parents’ wariness offered to American innocence, but she lived to shatter the silence with the volubility of an American child. From her Bronx childhood to her maturity in Greenwich Village’s radical heyday, lasting to the Vermont retreat of her old age and her death in 2007, Paley was a fearless and unflagging arguer. She was someone who gained energy through the give-and-take of political debate, whose brash, blunt New York manners made the tacit sayable. A co-founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center and a noted member of the War Resisters League whose pacifism was rooted in a continually evolving feminism, Paley blended the socialism of her secular Jewish upbringing with the unruly passions of the left during and after Vietnam: The civil-rights, antiwar, and environmental movements each counted her as an ally. Much of her arguing happened on the ground—at protests, at the constant meetings that her life as an activist demanded, during visits abroad to nations that her own country was spending its young men and money ravaging. But from the 1950s until the 2000s, much of it also happened in writing: in poetry, in essays and political reportage, and in short stories, where her brilliance found its best outlet.