Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Napalm and After: The Politics of Grace Paley's Short Fiction

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Napalm and After: The Politics of Grace Paley's Short Fiction

Article excerpt


In its play with narrative omniscience as a form of aerial reconnaissance Grace Paley's 'Faith in a Tree' draws upon a long tradition of anti-ocular discourse, from the validation of the Word of God over the graven image, to Foucault's analysis of vision as complicitous in the apparatuses of surveillance, central to the maintenance of repressive power. The 1967 version of the story is gender-political, local; the revised 1974 version macro-political, global. The form of the tale thus brings into sharp focus the inherent problem of finding an appropriate form for political protest.

I object not to facts but to people sitting in trees talking senselessly, voices from who knows where.

('A Conversation with my Father')[1]

Grace Paley's commitment to political radicalism has never been in much doubt. Comparatively few contemporary writers have accompanied American POWs home from Hanoi, been arrested on the White House Lawn, or been dragged off in shackles to serve time in the Greenwich Village Women's House of Detention. Paley's pacifist, socialist politics are also deeply rooted in a family past where memories were still fresh of Tsarist oppression -- one uncle shot dead carrying the red flag, and parents who reached America only because the Tsar had a son and amnestied all political prisoners under the age of twenty-one. At this point, Paley's father (imprisoned in Archangel) and her mother (in exile) took their chances (and all their surviving relatives) and very sensibly ran for their lives. Her grandmother recalled family arguments around the table between Paley's father (Socialist), Uncle Grisha (Communist), Aunt Luba (Zionist), and Aunt Mira (also Communist). Paley's own street-wise adolescence involved the usual teenage gang fights, between adherents of the Third and Fourth Internationals.

Until recently, critics of Paley's work have tended to focus upon gender politics, and upon the feminist form of her writing, with its communal narration, revisions of conventional genre, and restoration of women's unwritten experience.[2] The publication of Just As I Thought in 1998,a collection of Paley's autobiographical pieces, has drawn attention back, however, to politics in the newspaper sense of the term.[3] Reviews were, at best, mixed. For Alan Wolfe, Paley exemplified an idealistic, romantic, impractical Leftism, complacently convinced of its own righteousness, and demonstrating how the Left in America 'has happily chosen the easy path of political sentiment over the difficult business of moral reckoning'.[4] In his view Paley's sentimentality had converted radicalism into 'little more than a story itself ', in which America is always bad, and all the countries that challenge it, implicitly good.

Only a storyteller could write in Paley's gushing terms about the idyll of North Vietnam. 'Water spinach,' she exclaims, 'is a wonderful vegetable.' And only a fabulist could write about her fellow writer Christa Wolf and never discuss her work for the East German secret police. (p. 36)

Carol Iannone, in Commentary, was (predictably) even more scathing, accusing Paley of having been seduced by a Potemkin-style display in Vietnam, and reminding her of the North Vietnamese 're-education' camps, and the fate of Vice Admiral James Stockdale.[5] In her account Paley insists that American POWs were always very well treated, quoting in support the Vietnamese proverb: 'The man in the sky is a killer, bring him down; but the man on the ground is a helpless human being' (Just As I Thought, p.79). Even without stampeding quite as far to the right as Iannone, it does seem faintly unlikely that the North Vietnamese had evolved such a perfect form of human nature that nobody ever revenged their napalmed children by taking a pitchfork to a captured airman.

Be that as it may, Paley has none the less defended the political impetus behind her stories. Interviewed in Index on Censorship, she complained:

There's some kind of inhibition in this country about writing about people who live and think politically. …

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