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Marge Piercy

b. March 31, 1936

by Sara R. Horowitz
Last updated June 23, 2021

Marge Piercy's life as a poet and novelist has been informed by her political activism, her feminism and her Judaism. Her work—which includes fifteen books of poetry, sixteen novels and the memoir Sleeping with Cats—is marked by humanity and empathy, focusing frequently on the disenfranchised and the alienated in society.

Institution: Sylvia Edwards, Longview Community College

In Brief

Novelist and poet Marge Piercy's life and life’s work of more than thirty volumes reflect her deep engagement with political activism, feminism, and Judaism. Born to a Presbyterian father and a Jewish mother in Detroit, she grew up in a working-class neighborhood marked by racial tension. She credits her vocation as a poet to her mother and her love of Judaism to her maternal grandmother. In genres including fiction, poetry, liturgy, memoir, and essays, Piercy’s work brings together spirituality, creativity, memory, sensuality, and political commitment. Her novels engage memory and history, construct imagined futures, and probe the inner lives and circumstances of those at the margins. Her poems probe family connections, intimacies, sensuality, community, and Jewish meaning.

In Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, a collection of autobiographical essays, novelist and poet Marge Piercy admonishes, “Pay sharp attention to that trouble looming but don’t let it taint your Sabbath celebration.” This tension between celebration and disquietude marks Piercy’s life and work. Grounded in feminism, political activism, and Jewish spirituality, more than thirty volumes comprise Piercy’s oeuvre. Above all else, Piercy wishes her work to be “useful” to people’s inner and political lives. By articulating their experiences, poetry gives “validation and dignity” to the disenfranchised. Novels persuade readers “to cross those borders of alienation and mistrust” and empathize with “characters whom the reader would refuse to know in ordinary life.” Piercy’s poetry fuses the political, domestic, and autobiographical spheres, with imagery drawn from nature, sensual and dream memories, and Jewish mysticism. Her novels explore “the choices people make, out of their characters and their time and their class and their social circumstances.”

Family and Education

Piercy was born March 31, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Robert Douglas Piercy, from a working-class Presbyterian family in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, installed and repaired heavy machinery for Westinghouse. Her mother, Bert Bernice Bunnin, from an observant, working-class Jewish family in Cleveland, received only a tenth-grade education. Together with her older brother Grant, her mother's son by a previous marriage, Marge Piercy grew up in a working-class neighborhood marked by racial tension.  Remembering her mother as deeply intuitive and imaginative, Piercy attributes her own vocation as a poet to Bert. Piercy developed her love of Judaism from her Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking maternal grandmother Hannah, daughter of a Lithuanian rabbi. Hannah gave Piercy her Hebrew name, Marah. Indeed, Piercy’s earliest memories of Jewish ritual are bound up with the scent of Hannah’s clothes and kitchen. Piercy’s grandfather, a union worker, was murdered while organizing bakery workers.

From an early age, Piercy grappled with issues of identity. In race-torn Detroit, her Jewishness set her apart, provoking anti-Semitic bullying. At home, she recollects in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, her discomfited father “told me I wasn’t Jewish and...mother...would wait till he went to work and tell me of course I was.” In “Autobiography,” she notes wryly, “All my husbands were Jewish....I felt a mixed marriage was more than I personally could handle. Marrying a man is mixed enough.” Central to her commitments to both Judaism and political activism is the knowledge of the Holocaust. Shaken by her Lithuanian-born grandmother’s grief over relatives murdered by the Nazis, at age ten Piercy vowed that she would always remain Jewish. The Holocaust also made clear the necessity of political engagement.

The first in her family to attend college, Piercy earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan (B.A. 1957), winning several Hopwood awards for writing. At Northwestern University (M.A. 1958), she married Michel Schiff, a French Jewish exchange student in physics. Schiff’s family had survived the Holocaust by crossing illegally into Switzerland; her encounter with them informed the French-Jewish family in Gone to Soldiers, her 1987 novel about World War II. Divorced at twenty-three, Piercy faced financial difficulties, writing poetry and fiction and struggling to get her early novels published, with publishers initially reluctant to take on their feminist content.

In 1962 Piercy married Robert Shapiro, a computer scientist. The couple lived in Cambridge, San Francisco, Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, finally settling on Cape Cod in the early 1970s. Their unconventional open marriage ended in divorce in 1980. Piercy’s first book of poetry was accepted in 1966 and published in 1968, the year her first novel was accepted. On June 2, 1982, she married writer Ira Wood, whom she had known for six years. They have cowritten a play, The Last White Class (1979), and a novel, Storm Tide (1998). They also co-founded the Leapfrog Press, a small literary publishing company. Piercy has no children.

Activism and Jewish Engagement

Although by then no longer a student, Piercy was active in the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 1960s. By 1970, however, she had become disillusioned with the devaluation of women, of Judaism and Zionism, and of creative writing by the New Left. Fearing censure by her fellow activists, she curtailed her Jewish practice. Finally, she left SDS and became actively involved in the women’s movement, a commitment that continues to fuel and validate her artistic work. Saying Lit. (Aramaic) "holy." Doxology, mostly in Aramaic, recited at the close of sections of the prayer service. The mourner's Kaddish is recited at prescribed times by one who has lost an immediate family member. The prayer traditionally requires the presence of ten adult males.Kaddish for her mother, who died during Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.Hanukkah 1981, renewed her creative interest in Jewish practice—in what she termed, in “The Repair of the World,” “the female lunar side of Judaism,” sparking a desire to live as “a full Jew again but with my entire being, my history, my intelligence, my knowledge and aesthetics.” She began to compose liturgical poems and rituals, contributing actively to the Reconstructionist prayer book Hadesh Yameinu: A Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals. She was part of the committee that produced Or Chadash, the siddur of P’nai Or (a Philadelphia-based Jewish renewal center), where her liturgical poems also appear.  In addition, she contributes to Jewish journals such as Tikkun, where she served as poetry editor, and Lilith and Kerem. Piercy is active in the Jewish renewal moment. She was one of the founders of the havurah Am ha-Yam, on Cape Cod, serving on its board of directors and in various other offices, and teaching at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish renewal retreat in New York. In 2007, she published Pesach For The Rest Of Us, a creative guide to creating a meaningful A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.seder, complete with recipes and contemporary reflections on the elements of the festival.

Novels and Poetry

As fictions that “help us make sense of our lives,” Piercy’s novels focus on the possibility for radical social change. They are characterized by exhaustive background research and a close and imaginative attention to the details of domestic arrangements. In Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), an impoverished Hispanic woman time travels to a future society whose genderlessness and social organization embody the ideas of radical feminism. He, She and It (1992) intertwines the sixteenth-century legend of the Golem of Prague with a cyberpunk depiction of a cyborg created to protect an embattled Jewish community in a futuristic dystopia. Gone to Soldiers (1987) creates a counter-war story by focusing on women’s experiences of World War II from multiple perspectives, including a Jewish heroine of the French resistance, twin Jewish girls (one dies on a death march, the other escapes to America but encounters sexual abuse), a romance writer turned foreign correspondent, and a lesbian fighter pilot. Storm Tide, co-written with Ira Wood, explores issues of Jewish identity, spirituality, passion, politics, and redemption.

Piercy’s poems explore ecofeminism, love, political awareness, and spirituality. The “Chuppah” section of My Mother’s Body (1985) contains selections from her 1982 wedding ceremony to Wood; some of her liturgical poems appear in Available Light (1988), Mars and Her Children (1992), and What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997). The Art of Blessing The Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (1999) includes new as well as previously published poems, focusing on such themes as Jewish holidays, marriage, prayer, midrashim, and tikkun olam.

While most feminist critics show a strong appreciation for all aspects of Piercy’s work, mainstream critics have tended to favor her poetry over her novels, which are sometimes seen as too political. In Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Piercy notes, “People tend to define ‘political’ or ‘polemical in terms of what is not congruent with their ideas.” In fact, Piercy’s activism permeates both her fiction and her poems, and she traces some of those engagements in her memoir, Sleeping with Cats (2003), and her collection of essays and poems, My Life, My Body (2015). On The Way Out (2014), her first collection of short stories, features writing from different moments in her life. Her 2020 collection of poems, Turn Off The Light, addresses hot-button issues such as immigration and reproductive rights, along with what she perceives as dangerous political forces in contemporary America. The collection continues her exploration of Judaism and Jewish identity, along with feminism, sensuality, and issues of aging.

Honors

Piercy’s awards include the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction (1992), Bradley Award, NEPC (1992), Brit ha-Dorot Award, Shalom Center (1992), May Sarton Award, NEPC (1991), Golden Rose Poetry Prize, New England Poetry Club (1990), Caroly Kizer Poetry Prize (1986 and 1990), and the National Endowment for the Arts award (1978). She has been awarded four honorary doctorates, including one from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Her manuscripts are housed at the University of Michigan Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

Selected Works by Marge Piercy

Fiction:

Going Down Fast. New York: Trident, 1969.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Small Changes. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Knopf, 1976.

The High Cost of Living. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Vida. New York: Summit Books, 1980.

Braided Lives. New York: Summit Books, 1982.

Fly Away Home. New York: Summit Books, 1984.

Gone to Soldiers. New York: Summit Books, 1987.

Summer People. New York: Summit Books, 1989.

He, She, and It. New York: Knopf, 1991.

The Longings of Women. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

City of Darkness, City of Light. New York: Fawc: 58-62.ett Columbine, 1996.

Storm Tide (with Ira Wood). New York: Fawcett/Ballantine, 1998.

Three Women. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

The Third Child. New York: William Morrow, 2003

Sex Wars. New York: William Morrow, 2005.

The cost of lunch, etc. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014.

Poetry Collections:

Breaking Camp. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

Hard Loving. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

To Be of Use. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Living in the Open. New York: Knopf, 1976.

The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing. New York: Knopf, 1978.

The Moon is Always Female. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Circles on the Water. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Stone, Paper, Knife. New York: Knopf, 1983.

My Mother’s Body. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Available Light. New York: Knopf, 1988.

The Earth Shines Secretly: A Book of Days. Cambridge, MA: Zoland, 1990.

Mars and Her Children. New York: Knopf, 1992.

What Are Big Girls Made Of? New York: Knopf, 1997.

Early Grrrl. Leapfrog Press,1999.

The Art of Blessing The Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Colors Passing Through Us. New York: Knopf, 2003.

The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010. New York: Knopf, 2011.

Made in Detroit: Poems. New York: Knopf, 2015.

On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light. New York: Knopf, 2020.

Drama:

The Last White Class:  A Play About Neighborhood Terror. With Ira Wood.  Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press,

Selected Nonfiction:

Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982.

“Autobiography.” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. 1:267-81.

“The Repair of the World,” Review of On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader, ed. Suzannah Heschel.  Women’s Review of Books 1:5 (1984) 5-6.

“The Dark Thread in the Weave.” Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal. Ed. David Rosenberg. New York: Random House, 1989.

“What Rides the Wind.” Tikkun 4 (March-April

Sleeping with Cats: a memoir. New York: Perennial, 2003.

Pesach for the Rest Of Us. New York: Schocken, 2007

My Life, My Body. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2015.

Bibliography

Montresor, Jaye Berman. “Marge Piercy.” Jewish American Women Writers:  A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, ed. Ann Shapiro et.al, 298-305 Boston:  Greenwood Press, 1994.

Shands, Kirstin W. The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

“Marge Piercy.” Contemporary Authors. New Revisions Series. 43:359-65.

Levitsky, Holli.  “Marge Piercy.” Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, ed. Joes Shatzky and Michael Taub.  Boston:  Greenwood Press, 1997.

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How to cite this page

Horowitz, Sara R.. "Marge Piercy." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 28, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/piercy-marge>.