Boyle, Katherine (“Kay”)
Boyle, Katherine (“Kay”)
(b. 19 February 1902 in Saint Paul, Minnesota; d. 27 December 1992 in Mill Valley, California), writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry best known for her novellas and short stories, for which she twice won the O. Henry Memorial Award, and for her social and political activism.
Boyle and her older sister, Joan, were born into a family marked by conflicts between its suffragette women and the authoritarian, patriarchal figure of the author’s grandfather Jesse Peyton Boyle, who founded the West Publishing Company. The three generations of the family lived and traveled together, with vacations in the Poconos in Pennsylvania and summer voyages to Europe. Katherine Evans, Kay’s mother, supported the socialist Eugene Debs, read to her daughters from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and encouraged their artistic aspirations. Boyle’s father, Howard Peterson Boyle, lost most of the family fortune through mismanagement.
Throughout her life Boyle carried the lessons of her family situation: women had a right to careers independent of marriage; dominant and especially heroic men were to be admired, unless they threatened a woman’s independence; and social and political activism were the individual’s obligation. Boyle attended schools briefly and irregularly in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Cincinnati, but never earned a degree, seeing it as irrelevant to her writer’s calling.
Early in 1922 Boyle moved to New York City, where her sister Joan was a fashion designer for Vogue. On 24 June, Boyle married Richard Brault, a French veteran of World War I. Two of her reviews appeared in The Dial, and Harriet Monroe published Boyle’s first poem in Poetry. In November 1922 Boyle joined the staff of Harold Loeb’s Broom under Lola Ridge, who was a friend of the anarchist Emma Goldman and who inoculated Boyle with progressive ideas. Broom printed a few of Boyle’s poems. She met many writers through Ridge, including William Carlos Williams, who became a lifelong friend.
In the spring of 1923 Boyle and her husband went to France, where they stayed with the Brault family in Saint-Malo. The stultifying atmosphere of provincial Brittany furnished material for Boyle’s first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale (1931), in which a young American woman struggles against French bourgeois culture and attempts to avoid pregnancy. A pattern was established: Boyle would convert the stuff of her life into fiction, using the story line to analyze and provide the moral justification for her actions. Contemporary reviews ranged from Katherine Anne Porter’s favorable New Republic summation to the New York Times, which complained of a lack of substance beneath a polished surface. Plagued by the Nightingale marked Boyle’s invention of an inexperienced young American woman as the point-of-view character. Later many critics and Boyle herself would come to see the prevalence of this figure as a weakness in her novels.
Residence in Harfleur, where Brault was employed, provided the material for Gentlemen, I Address You Privately (1933), a sympathetic novel about homosexuality. After Boyle became ill in the damp northern coastal climate, she accepted the invitation of the Detroit-born tubercular poet Ernest Walsh and joined him in March 1926 at sundrenched Grasse. Soon Boyle and Walsh became lovers; he died on 16 October, and Boyle later gave birth to their daughter. She claimed that Walsh was her one great love, and in rapid succession she wrote poems, short stories, and the novel Year Before Last (1932) based on her life with the dying poet.
Following Walsh’s death, Boyle lived with Brault in Stoke-on-Trent, until 1928 when she joined, for six months, the Paris commune run by Raymond Duncan; this led to the novel My Next Bride (1934). She quickly garnered a wide acquaintanceship that included Harry and Caresse Crosby, who published Boyle’s 1929 volume Short Stories; Eugene Jolas, editor of transition magazine, who printed many of her poems and stories; and Sylvia Beach, Constantin Brancusi, Hart Crane, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Robert McAlmon, Francis Picabia, and Gertrude Stein. To these were soon added Archibald MacLeish, Ezra Pound, Nancy Cunard, Samuel Beckett, and William L. Shirer. Tall, thin, and beautiful, Boyle was photographed by Man Ray.
Jonathan Cape brought out Boyle’s first commercially produced volume, Wedding Day and Other Stories, in 1930; the reviews were mixed, as they always would be, but she was praised in the Nation and the New York Times. In July 1931 the New Yorker published “Kroy Wen,” a clever piece about overwork and linguistic dysfunction, the first of her many stories to appear in the magazine. She has been credited with inventing a type of New Yorker story: the narrative line begins in the middle of an action, usually at a critical point and without a formal exposition, then reaches a conclusion without any hint of moral judgment. No such judgment was needed, Boyle implied: “All human misery,” she said, stemmed from a “failure of love.” Meanwhile, she and Brault were divorced on 9 January 1931.
After leaving the commune, Boyle lived with Laurence Vail, an American writer and artist whom she married in April 1932. He introduced Boyle to cross-country skiing and mountain climbing, sports that would feature in her fiction. Boyle received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1934. Residence in Austria resulted in her novel Death of a Man (1936), in which Boyle attempted to show how, under oppressive economic conditions, even decent folk could embrace fascism. The title story of her 1936 collection The White Horses of Vienna won an O. Henry Award. Two of her novellas published in 1938, The Crazy Hunter and The Bridegroom’s Body, rank among the best of the century, and the same year her first volume of poetry, A Glad Day, appeared, remarkable for the intensity of its love lyrics.
Boyle and Vail had three daughters and escaped to New York from a Europe at war in 1941, the same year in which her short story “Defeat” garnered her second O. Henry Award. By this time Boyle had met Joseph Franckenstein, an antifascist Austrian baron who followed her to the United States. They were married in February 1943 (soon after her divorce from Vail) and had a daughter and a son. Franckenstein’s experiences in the U.S. Army ski corps provided Boyle with episodes for her novel His Human Majesty (1949), and their life together in postwar Germany, where she reported on the Nazi war-crimes trials and he edited the Franktfurter Neue Zeitung, led to The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany (1951). During the U.S. congressional inquiry into subversive activity led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, Franckenstein and Boyle were accused of harboring Communist sympathies, and he lost his position in 1953; their names were cleared only after a long struggle.
Boyle’s novel Generation Without Farewell (1960) marked a successful return to long fiction, and in 1961 Boyle received another Guggenheim grant. Before Franckenstein’s death in 1963, Boyle had become an antiwar activist and started teaching English and creative writing at San Francisco State University, where she remained until 1979. Her revision of McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (1968), to which she added supplementary chapters, is an important sourcebook on the expatriate generation.
Boyle purchased a four-story Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, and she was sentenced to thirty days in prison for picketing the Oakland Induction Center in protest against the Vietnam War. Testament for My Students and Other Poems (1970), The Long Wall at San Francisco State and Other Essays (1970), and The Underground Woman (1975) reflect her antiwar activities. She also founded the San Francisco chapter of Amnesty International. Fifty Stories, a collection representing her lifetime production, appeared in 1980. Words That Must Somehow Be Said, a selection of essays, appeared in 1985, and Collected Poems in 1991. Her total output came to nearly forty volumes. For the last several years of her life Boyle lived in a retirement community called the Redwoods, where she died of natural causes. She is buried in San Francisco.
Perhaps more than any other American writer, Kay Boyle epitomized and often anticipated the pulse of the twentieth century.
The major archive of Boyle’s extant manuscripts and papers is at the Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. There is also important Boyle material at the Beinecke Library, Yale University; the Berg Collection, New York Public Library; the James Laughlin archive, Harvard University; the Harold Loeb archive, Firestone Library, Princeton University; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. The only full-scale biography is Joan Mellen, Kay Boyle: Author of Herself (1994), but Sandra Whipple Spanier, Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist (1986), is especially valuable for its appraisal of Boyle’s writing. For interviews and analyses see Elizabeth S. Bell, Kay Boyle: A Study of the Short Fiction (1992), and Marilyn Elkins, Metamorphosing the Novel: Kay Boyle’s Narrative Innovations (1994). Two collections of essays are Marilyn Elkins, ed., Critical Essays on Kay Boyle (1997), and Sandra Whipple Spanier, ed., Kay Boyle: A Special Issue of Twentieth Century Literature 34, no. 3 (1988). The most complete bibliography is that included in David V. Koch, “Kay Boyle,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, 4 (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Dec. 1992).
Lan S. MacNiven