Boyle, Kay

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Nationality: American. Born: St. Paul, Minnesota, 19 February 1902. Education: The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music; Ohio Mechanics Institute, 1917-19. Family: Married 1) Richard Brault in 1922 (divorced); 2) Laurence Vail in 1931 (divorced), five daughters and one son; 3) Baron Joseph von Franckenstein in 1943 (died 1963). Career: Lived in Europe for 30 years. Foreign correspondent, The New Yorker, 1946-53; lecturer, New School for Social Research, New York, 1962; fellow, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1963; professor of English, San Francisco State University, 1963-80, professor emerita, 1980-92. Director, New York Writers Conference, Wagner College, New York, 1964; fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964-65; writer-in-residence, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1967, Hollins College, Virginia, 1970-71, and Eastern Washington University, Cheney, 1982. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1934, 1961; O. Henry award, 1935, 1941; San Francisco Art Commission award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1980; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1983; Celtic Foundation award, 1984; Los Angeles Times Kirsch award, 1986; Lannan Foundation award, 1989. D.Litt: Columbia College, Chicago, 1971; Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1982. Honorary doctorates: Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1977; Bowling Green State University, Ohio, 1986; Ohio State University, Columbus, 1986. Member: American Academy, 1979. Died: 27 December 1992.


Short Stories

Short Stories. 1929.

Wedding Day and Other Stories. 1930.

The First Lover and Other Stories. 1933.

The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories. 1936.

The Crazy Hunter: Three Short Novels. 1940; as The Crazy Hunter and Other Stories, 1940.

Thirty Stories. 1946.

The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany. 1951.

Three Short Novels. 1958.

Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart. 1966.

Fifty Stories. 1980.

Life Being the Best and Other Stories, edited by Sandra Whipple Spanier. 1988.


Plagued by the Nightingale. 1931.

Year Before Last. 1932.

Gentlemen, I Address You Privately. 1933.

My Next Bride. 1934.

Death of a Man. 1936.

Monday Night. 1938.

Primer for Combat. 1942.

Avalanche. 1944.

A Frenchman Must Die. 1946.

1939. 1948.

His Human Majesty. 1949.

The Seagull on the Step. 1955.

Generation Without Farewell. 1960.

The Underground Woman. 1975.


A Statement. 1932.

A Glad Day. 1938.

American Citizen: Naturalized in Leadville, Colorado. 1944.

Collected Poems. 1962; augmented edition, 1991.

Testament for My Students and Other Poems. 1970.

This Is Not a Letter and Other Poems. 1985.


The Youngest Camel (for children). 1939; revised edition, 1959.

Breaking the Silence: Why a Mother Tells Her Son about the Nazi Era. 1962.

Pinky, The Cat Who Liked to Sleep (for children). 1966.

Pinky in Persia (for children). 1968.

Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930, with Robert McAlmon. 1968.

The Long Walk at San Francisco State and Other Essays. 1970.

Four Visions of America, with others. 1977.

Words That Must Somehow Be Said: Selected Essays 1927-1984, edited by Elizabeth S. Bell. 1985.

Editor, with Laurence Vail and Nina Conarain, 365 Days. 1936.

Editor, The Autobiography of Emanuel Carnevali. 1967.

Editor, with Justine Van Gundy, Enough of Dying! An Anthology of Peace Writings. 1972.

Translator, Don Juan, by Joseph Delteil. 1931.

Translator, Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, by Rene Crevel. 1931.

Translator, The Devil in the Flesh, by Raymond Radiguet. 1932.

Translator, Babylon, by Rene Crevel. 1985.

Ghost-writer for the books Relations and Complications, Being the Recollections of H.H. the Dayang Muda of Sarawak by Gladys Palmer Brooke, 1929, and Yellow Dusk by Bettina Bedwell, 1937.


Critical Studies:

Boyle, Artist and Activist by Sandra Whipple Spanier, 1986; Boyle: A Study of the Short Fiction by Elizabeth S. Bell, 1992; Critical Essays on Kay Boyle, 1997.

* * *

With the exception of her work as a memoirist (Being Geniuses Together), Kay Boyle is most often recognized as a writer of short fiction. Her prolific literary career and eventful life offer a compelling profile of a twentieth-century American writer: thrice married, mother of six, and an unrelenting political activist, she published almost 40 volumes of fiction, poetry, essays, translations, and children's stories. In her 70-year career she has used various strategies and techniques that have helped her reach a wide range of audiences.

She began her apprenticeship as a short fiction writer with a brief course at Columbia University undertaken when she was also serving as Lola Ridge's editorial assistant in Broom in 1922. Her early fiction, much of which was collected in Short Stories and Wedding Day and is retained in Life Being the Best and Fifty Stories, was published in such avant-garde journals as This Quarter and Contact along with the work of such modernists as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Ernest Hemingway. Her later work appeared regularly in The New Yorker, Story, The Nation, The Atlantic, and Harper's.

Boyle's best work is characterized by an experimental, lyrical style that often manages to treat political themes in a nondoctrinaire way. Her first published short story, "Passeres' Paris" (This Quarter 1, 1925), demonstrates one of Boyle's most consistent narrative forms; it contains a series of expressionistic images and scenes that culminate in an intense moment in which the narrator and the reader share insights about a universal experience. Set in Paris, the story renders a knowing portrait of the tentative traveler or outsider who hopes to enter a new world without giving offense by her inevitable ignorance. Like many of Boyle's earlier stories, it creates a brief sequence of events and images that reverberate with meaning through her poetic language and its ordering of experience and detail. These stories provide a window on everyday life and invest it with symbolism and elucidation.

Many of her early stories also contain decidedly political undertones. In "Episode in the Life of an Ancestor" Boyle sketches the conflict between a father, who is determined to mold his daughter into the woman he and the patriarchal society expect, and a daughter, who refuses to be pigeonholed into any predetermined role. She embodies the superior strength found with flexibility; the father's rigidity emerges as brittleness. While this story investigates the politics of gender, the stories "Ben" and "Black Boy" treat the injustice of racism.

Although her later stories also depend upon the craftsmanship of her language and her political concerns, they show the impact of Boyle's international lifestyle and its intrepid connection to twentieth-century European and American political history. Set against the backdrop of Hitler's increasing power, the relationships in the mountain village of "The White Horses of Vienna" invoke a subtle dilemma of moral judgment. Written in 1935 before Hitler had come to be an international symbol of oppression, this story illustrates the prescient nature of Boyle's intelligence and her ability to handle complex political and emotional issues. The story's evocation of the friendship that results between the two doctors and its gradual mitigation of the Austrian family's assumptions about racial stereotypes displays a rare facility: Boyle evades the artificial binaries of race and creates a dialogic argument about the ways in which bigotry impinges upon personal relationships.

Having firsthand observation of the fall of Europe, Boyle also created raw and bitter fiction about the emotional cost of these events. Stories such as "Defeat," "Effigy of War," and "The Lost" deal with the practical and moral problems inherent in existing in an occupied country. Boyle provides additional resonance by showing the conflict's effect upon the sexual and familial relationships of the occupied people and by illustrating the negative aspects of overly zealous nationalism—even when it is practiced by those who resisted Nazism. The barman of "Effigy" cannot live in Italy because he did not return to serve in the Italian army, yet he cannot remain in France because he has retained his Italian citizenship. Ironically, he is denounced as a foreigner by a naturalized Greek who is more xenophobic than the French. The barman's death and the life of young Janos of "The Lost" reflect the fate of many Europeans who found themselves without a country: their innocence failed to guarantee them immunity.

In other stories about the aftermath of war, Boyle writes about the American occupation of Germany. Many of the stories in The Smoking Mountain present subtle but indicting portraits of American officers. These men flaunt their victory and their material assets in the presence of an impoverished and defeated Germany. The Americans of "Summer Evening" and "Army of Occupation" emerge as dangerous and relentless as Hitler's Nazis. Boyle's stories suggest that unchecked patriarchal law has devastating results, regardless of the nationality of its practitioners.

The political and personal consequences of patriarchal ideology undergird much of Boyle's short fiction. She depicts the aftermath of war and its effects on survivors, even those who—as is the case of the young girl in "Winter Night"—will only encounter war through their association with its survivors. Stepping outside the definition of war stories as centering around combat, Boyle shows us that the failed human understanding that leads to war continues when war ceases. She examines the gap between myths about war and its reality, disavowing any hierarchy that privileges the oppressor, and elucidating the basic human need for understanding and for tolerating difference. In her essay "The Vanishing Short Story?" Boyle calls for the writer to sound "the inarticulate whispers of the concerned people of his time." Certainly, Boyle's short fiction articulates these whispers.

—Marilyn Elkins

See the essays on "Astronomer's Wife" and "The White Horses of Vienna."

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Boyle, Kay

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