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Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in LettersBoyleSpanier
Edited by Sandra Spanier
University of Illinois Press, 2016

Kay Boyle wrote a lot of letters. An American expatriate writer in France in the 1920s, friend of William Carlos Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, Archibald MacLeish, Samuel Beckett, and many others, best known for her short stories, many originally published in The New Yorker, Boyle confessed in one letter to a friend that she wrote far too many letters. In her introduction to this new collection, Sandra Spanier, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, notes,

Based on the materials I have examined in library archives and private collections, plus what I assume to have been lost (while Boyle kept more than 150 letters from Samuel Beckett, he apparently did not keep hers and only a few survive), I estimate that Kay Boyle wrote at least 25,000 or 30,000 letters in her lifetime. I have obtained copies of more than 7,000 of her letters, from which I have selected the 378 letters for this collection.

Spanier benefited from a close relationship with Boyle that began when Spanier wrote to Boyle asking for permission to quote from some of Boyle’s unpublished letters in her book, Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist (1986). “I expected a simple yes or no answer,” she writes. “Instead, over a period of several months, she responded to my work page by page, paragraph by paragraph, even word by word.” Spanier ended up receiving more than 500 pages of correspondence from Boyle before the latter died.

Boyle was raised in a wealthy Minneapolis family that, over the years, fell into poverty. The men in her family were traditional and very conservative, the women progressive and very liberal. Though she loved her father and grandfather, she sided in politics completely with the women. Even as a young girl she was already well on her way to an artistic life because her mother, convinced Boyle was a genius, raised her that way. As Spanier quotes Boyle in Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist:

Mother accepted me and my word as she accepted James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, or Brancusi, or any serious artist. Because of her, I knew that anyone who wrote, or anyone who painted, or anyone who composed music, had a special place in life. And so, when I got to Paris, and really met these people who were accomplishing things, I felt I belonged with them, because my mother brought me up in that quite simple feeling.

At age nineteen she published a letter in Poetry, and before she left for France with her first husband, Frenchman Richard Brault, she became the assistant of Lola Ridge, the American editor of Broom, the famous literary journal edited in Europe by Harold Loeb, Hemingway’s model for Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. In that novel, Cohn comes off as a spoiled jealous bully unaware of the tragic beauty and nobility of bullfighting.

KayBoyleKay Boyle fell in love rather often. She left Brault for tubercular Irish poet Ernest Walsh, who soon died. She bore their child, Sharon, after Walsh’s death, and Brault was a gentleman about it and invited her and the child to live with him in England where he had found work. They were no longer intimate, however. Feeling she was wronging him with their now platonic marriage, Boyle returned to France with Sharon and lived in a commune run by Raymond Duncan, brother of the famous dancer, Isadora Duncan. Left alone for a few weeks to run the gift shop—which sold imported items as if they were handcrafted by commune members—she fell into a depressive promiscuous spree from which she emerged pregnant from an unknown father. She had an abortion (her second; she and Brault had aborted her first pregnancy) then, disgusted with Duncan’s hypocrisy—he bought a luxury car with contributions—she snuck away with Sharon. She had two abortions, six children, three husbands, numerous lovers, and wrote most days from eight to five, which is how she managed to write more than forty books.

These more than forty books, according to this volume’s selected bibliography, include eleven books of short stories, eight books of poetry, three books she edited, four translations of French works, four children’s books, two ghostwritten books, and five non-fiction books. Most of her work is autobiographical, based on her own experiences, transmuted into art according to Modernist principles. She was one of the signers of Eugene Jolas’s Revolution of the Word Manifesto published in 1929 in the journal, transition. Spanier, in her Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist, writes that Katherine Anne Porter, “in a review of Boyle’s second story collection [Wedding Day, and Other Stories (1930)] and first novel [Plagued by the Nightingale (1931)]” declared that, “Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were and are the glories of their time and some very portentous talents have emerged from their shadows, Miss Boyle, one of the newest, I believe to be among the strongest.” Archibald MacLeish said, “She has the power and the glory.”

She began, then, as a highly praised modernist writer, who gradually shifted during the World War II years to a middle-brow style, in order to make money for her growing family. This provoked the ire of some critics, most notable Edmund Wilson (more about him later). She was first known as a poet but her poetry–which to me seems to belong to the long-line free verse tradition of Whitman and Jeffers–was never consistently good enough for her to become well-known for it. That came with her short stories, especially the ones published in The New Yorker, and her non-fiction work, Being Geniuses Together: 1920-1930 (1968) in which she interwove fellow expatriate writer Robert McAlmon’s memoir with new chapters of her own. In later years, she taught creative writing courses at various universities.

Throughout her life Boyle was active in leftist politics; because of this and the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, she and her third husband, an Austrian baron and war hero, Joseph Franckenstein —he had endured several prison camps and been tortured by the Nazis—were accused of being security risks after they had moved to America. Five years later both were cleared by the State Department of all charges. William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, and his assistant, Gus Lobrano, according to Boyle’s letters, acted cowardly in their relations with her during this period; they did not renew her foreign correspondent status and wrote, after much pleading on her part, very weak and confusing letters defending her. She refused to ever write for The New Yorker again.

artist and activistSpanier writes in her Introduction that her “primary rationale for inclusion to this volume of selected letters is the extent to which a letter illuminates Boyle’s artistic development or is revealing of literary relationships, movements, and culture.” She adds that Boyle deplored the lack of focus on writers’ domestic lives. Boyle wrote Spanier, “I like to tell my students that they should follow the example of Bill Williams [that is, William Carlos Williams], who was a full-time poet, a full-time doctor, and a full-time father.” And so, Spanier, acting on this non-exclusive principle, I gather, includes only whole letters in this collection. That is, she selected letters according to their artistic relevance yet included only entire letters to show that Boyle’s work was done not in an ivory tower or cozy writer’s cottage but in the thick of all the domestic hubbub of family life.

These letters include such passages as the following, from an October 1956 letter to Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945):

In this particular lecture I said that I have “often maintained that any Paris taxi driver could tell you who Andrè Gide is, while no New York taxi driver would be able to do the same if William Faulkner’s name were mentioned. While we may try to explain this by the vast difference in European and American educational systems, one French intellectual (Father Bruckberger) suggests that is largely because the European intellectual functions in the tradition of the pamphlet and the manifesto. That is, the artist’s views are known and are a matter of stimulation to the European, taxi-driver or whatever he may be, for the artist himself has, outside of his books, made them public, and therefore a matter of civilized dispute. ‘By tradition,’ Bruckberger writes, ‘the European intellectual has a special character—a vocation beyond the limits of his own profession of writing, or science, or teaching. He believes himself called to a more universal responsibility, and that is to keep watch on the world and call the
plays as he sees them, as whatever risk to himself. The dangers of his position are as real as poverty, exile, prison, or death: and, unlike the soldier or priest, he has no organized body to defend him.’”

And this from a letter to Gordon Lish in November of 1963:

What is the formula for being a writer anyway? It annoys academic colleagues when I state that a short story is the expression of a man’s understanding of the predicament of other men. But that is what I believe—At least, of the short stories we remember, this is true.

In these letters, Kay Boyle reveals herself as a passionate devoted friend, daughter, sister, mother, lover and wife, though all these devotions became entangled, as they are wont to do, in human failings and foibles. As Spanier writes in her introduction, “As a writer who believed most sincerely in love, emotional connection, and social action and who at the same time subscribed to a modernist aesthetic that abhorred ‘sentimentality,’ Boyle sometimes felt herself in a difficult bind.” You wanted, if you were a fellow writer especially, to have her on your side. She wrote many admiring letters to Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and Howard Nemerov, among others, and at times these letters seem too admiring, even fawning.

For instance, to Katherine Anne Porter, she wrote the following:

This is a love letter–a declaration of love to the clarity of your mind, the warmth and balance of your emotions, to the sensibility of your decisions. Your simplicity is so perfectly achieved–given a language when you write it out, but not confused by words. You are rare, exciting, comforting–a judge to come eye to eye with without fear because you say so clearly what one has lacked the courage to say to oneself. Your justice is appalling–so good, so pure, so strong. I love your truth, no matter how bitter it might be.

avalancheTo Carson McCullers, with whom she eventually had a falling out, she wrote, “You have the two qualities I love most in people and in writers, you have passion and compassion.” However, in this same letter she gives McCullers an in-depth critique of The Member of the Wedding (1946). At the same time, McCullers was doing the same for Boyle about her novels, 1939 (1948)and Primer for Combat (1942).

She wrote some scathing and yet still respectful letters to Malcolm Cowley who she thought had unfairly criticized Robert McAlmon, especially on the fact of his homosexuality. And a letter to Kurt Vonnegut begins, “Dear Kurt Vonnegut, In my very long life, I do not recall having received a letter so condescendingly and ill-informed as your letter of September 28.” He had dared to suggest that Boyle and Studs Terkel transfer money they had raised for the Nelson Algren Fiction Award into “already existing funds for needy authors,” a step which to her would denigrate the legacy of Algren and his work.

She was quick to cross swords with writers or publications she thought had insulted friends of hers, as when Hayden Carruth wrote in a review in The Nation that Howard Nemerov’s poems, in Boyle’s words, “are not the kind that one returns to for re-reading.” In a letter to The Nation in January of 1961 she wrote:

During the past five years, I have used Mr. Nemerov’s work extensively in my writing courses. I have used his work because I believe his poetry will stand as a lasting contribution to the history and tradition of American poetry. The experience of my students and myself through the years has been that Howard Nemerov’s poetry at its best is essentially the kind to which one returns over and over. In his great poems, his understanding of man’s predicament, and his lyrical, modest, and oblique expression of that understanding, are a truly enduring reward.

Nemerov, the older brother of photographer Diane Arbus, was a formalist poet. Boyle herself, as we have seen, was not a formalist poet; her literary interests were usually more avant-garde, but she was not limited or confined by her politics or modernist ideas. She went to jail more than once defending leftist causes—refusing to pay taxes because of American involvement in Vietnam, for instance—yet she was not a big fan of dogmatic feminism, either. As she wrote to Spanier in April 1983, “I wouldn’t worry about the ‘feminist’ approach to your manuscript. Many professionally women’s lib ladies can be extremely narrow in their views—as you undoubtedly know—and to them a generalized vocabulary is of distressing importance.”

authorofherselfBoyle became a Roman Catholic in the last year of her life and, characteristically–she was never boring–during the private baptismal ceremony cracked a joke about Hitler. William H. Pritchard in a New York Times review of Joan Mellen’s biography, Kay Boyle: Author of Herself (1994), wrote, “Ms. Mellen is more than once moved to wonder how this woman so full of ‘sensitivity’ could perceive so little about her own daughters, three of whom at one time or another attempted suicide.” He continues,

The fact that Boyle preferred to live her life rather than examine it, eventually, her biographer says, “diminished her as an artist” and always “diminished her as a mother.” Yet except for her championing of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, Boyle had few regrets about her decisions. The writer Grace Paley, who got to know her late in her life, observed that people with full sex lives don’t have regrets.

Perhaps that is because, as Auden wrote somewhere, it is practically impossible to regret any physical pleasure in and of itself, even when you consider it a sin. Of course, St. Augustine would argue with that notion.

In Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters, one gets Boyle’s perspective. She thought of herself as a good but not perfect mother. In a letter defending herself to her daughter, Kathe Vail, she wrote:

I wonder very much what you mean by “the ideal, devoted mother.” Each of us doubtless has his own conception of what a mother is. I worshipped mine, as you know, and all I do now is still (in a sense) carrying on her beliefs. I believed that a mother is one who seeks to transmit to her child her own love for all people, her own convictions about justice, her own sense of freedom about the lives of others. Mother made me know when I was still very young that to love even one person very deeply and truly, you have to love all people.

If we care about the lives of the writers we read, what can we do but acknowledge they all had many faults. Boyle was perhaps, at times, narcissistic, and yet as Pritchard wrote, “on occasion she revealed herself as a true artist, put on earth for nothing but to write.” He names some of her short stories but not to my mind her best, “Rest Cure,” based on the last days of D.H. Lawrence. In this story the unnamed writer sits in a wheelchair, a blanket on his lap, and argues rudely with his publisher. After a glass or two of champagne he asks his wife to let him examine one of the langouste, or spiny lobsters, they are about to eat. He holds one on his lap and fancies it looks like his long dead coal miner father. The writer comes across as a passionate mix of petulant child and sophisticated artist. The story ends thus:

The invalid looked in bewilderment at his wife’s face and at the face of the visiting man. If they scold me, he thought, I am going to cry. He felt his underlip quivering. Scold me! he thought suddenly in indignation. A man with a beard! His hand fled to his chin for confirmation. A man with a beard, he thought with a cunning evil gleam narrowing his eye.

“You haven’t answered my question,” he said aggressively to the visitor. “You haven’t answered it, have you?”

His hand had fallen against the hard brittle armor of the langouste‘s hide. There were the eyes raised to his and the canny feelers lifted. His fingers closed for comfort about the langouste‘s unwieldy paw. Father, he said in his heart, Father, help me. Father, Father, he said. I don’t want to die.

The combination of psychological acumen and physical detail plus the conflict the writer feels with his publisher, seems to me exquisitely done. Boyle shows, as she wrote to McCullers, passion and compassion: passion in the description of Lawrence’s passion; compassion for his childish spite.

plaguedbythenightingaleShe also shows passion and compassion in her story, “Black Boy.” This story is about the summer friendship between a rich white girl around eleven years old and a black boy about the same age at a beachside resort. The narrator, the white girl, describes–spoilers ahead–how the girl’s grandfather, nicknamed “Puss” by the girl (as Boyle nicknamed her grandfather) warns her about befriending the black boy who might do her harm. She defends the boy but the conversation disturbs her; she loves both Puss and the black boy. When the girl is thrown from a horse, the black boy picks her up and carries her to the house. The story ends thus:

I could feel the long swift fingers of love untying the terrible knot of pain that bound my head. And I put my arms around him and lay close to this heart in comfort.

Puss was alive then, and when he met the black boy carrying me up to the house, he struck him square across the mouth.

Edmund Wilson, who partially derailed her writing career with a savage review of her only bestseller novel, Avalanche (1944), said she wrote in a “feminized Hemingway” style. There is a similarity but Boyle’s is a unique not imitative voice and her stories cover a much wider gamut than Hemingway’s do.

Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters brings this passionate whole flawed woman to life. Anyone who has been struck by the beautiful harrowings in her work, especially the stories, who is interested in the so-called Lost Generation, or who loves writing without wanting to give up a full life, will find this book well worth reading.

This is Frank Freeman‘s second review for Open Letters Monthly.


  • Al de Baran says:

    “This is Frank Freeman‘s second review for Open Letters Monthly.”

    The next time he writes “snuck”, please make it his last.

  • clancy sigal says:

    Mr Freeman, fascinating review. I met Boyle only once with Nelson Algren. At a NY publishers’ party with the Usual Suspects. Nelson showed up in pants too short for him, clodhopper shoes, suspenders and lumberjack shirt plus – as was his habit – a bow tie that flashed on and off. When he began telling us a long story about a WPA job he’d once had ripping the necks off chickens the other guests slowly departed for the next room leaving us three alone. I think Algren and Boyle were making an editorial judgment.

    Why did her 3 daughters try to kill themselves?

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