Kay Boyle

Saint Paul's Other Writer

by Joel Van Valin

Saint Paul is, technically, the birthplace of two famous early 20th century writers. There’s the guy who has a theater named after him, whose sad statue in Rice park rather looks as though he were wandering home after a night of hard drinking. And then there’s Kay Boyle. While Fitzgerald was spending his childhood dreaming of the rich, a few blocks away another future expatriate writer of 1920’s Paris was getting her first glimpse of the world.

Of course, Kay Boyle did not even live with us a full year. Jesse Peyton Boyle, the family patriarch, was editor-in-chief and a major share holder of the fledgling West Publishing Company; but after quarreling with his partners, he left West and moved the family to Philadelphia, and later to Cincinati. It was there she came of age and, like most other writers from the Midwest, developed a strong longing to leave it. She suceeded in 1922, moving at the age of 20 to New York with her new husband, a Frenchman named Richard Brault. Her mother had always wanted her to be a great writer, and this became her lifelong ambition. She broke into the publishing business the way most writers do: by networking. Her older sister Jo, who worked for Vogue magazine, gave her letters of introduction. Soon she had a job as the advertising manager for Harold Loeb’s literary magazine Broom , under the direction of the revolutionary feminist poet Lola Ridge. Boyle’s first poem, "Monody to the Sound of Zithers", was published in Poetry that same year, and she struck up a friendship with William Carlos Williams.

Soon after she and her husband went to Normandy to visit his family, but they did not have the money to sail back to America. That event proved fate­ful—Kay would not to return to this country again until 1941. Stifled by the atmosphere and the narrow bougeois life of her inlaws, Boyle fled to the south of France on the invitation of Ernest Walsh, who wanted to publish her in his magazine This Quarter.

The two became lovers, and through him she was acquainted with most of the outstanding writers working in Paris in the 20’s. But Walsh’s days were numbered—he had tuberculosis, and he and Kay drove all over southern France, moving from hotel to hotel (they were asked to leave as soon as the propriet­ors saw Walsh coughing up blood). His illness and death was probably the most traumatic event of Kay Boyle’s life, and the basis for her novel Year Before Last, perhaps her best early work:

In the morning, when the sun was scarcely in the room, Martin sat upright in bed and reached out for the vessel that came under his hand on the table beside him.

Get up, he said through his teeth. I’m going to bleed.

His voice betrayed no fear and he sat quiet, wait­ing, while Hannah slipped out of bed and stepped on the timber of the floor. Then the thing within him leapt at his throat and seized him there, clutched fast to his wind and shook him like a rag. His own voice was throttled, and in its place rang out the frenzied barking of a wild fox pursued and almost at the death.

Afterwards, Boyle moved to Paris with Sharon (her daugh­ter by Walsh) and became well known among the expatriate writers there. Her own set included James and Nora Joyce, Robert McAlmon, the Crosbys, Archibald MacLeish, and Hart Crane. She knew but disliked Hemingway, because of a dis­agreement between him and Ernest Walsh. At any rate, Boyle was soon talked about as one of the most promising young Americans in Paris. But the much-too-much-written-about Paris scene was not the setting for Kay Boyle’s best work—it would be World War II that made her as a writer.

Her first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale, appeared in 1931, and Year Before Last followed and was a critical success. It is interesting to compare this novel with Fitzgerald’s master­piece, Tender Is the Night, which was written at roughly the same time and in the same place. While Fitzgerald portrays an entire society through his universal characters, Year Before Last hardly gets beyond the charged emotions of its three main pro­tagonists; it could have happened at any place and time, and feels as though it was written yesterday.

In 1932 Kay Boyle married Laurence Vail, the former hus­band of Peggy Guggenheim and a fanatic climber, and the cou­ple moved to Austria. It was here, in the mid-Thirties, that she witnessed the birth of Austrian fascism. Her work of this period is important, because it portrays Nazis and members of the Heimwehr (Austria’s indigenous fascists) not as the neurotic murderers of recent books and films, but ordinary people; they turn to fascism not because of irrational anti-Semitism and need for conquest, but because the treaty of Versailles and the worldwide Depression left them a nation of penniless, out-of-work men with no hope. "The White Horses of Vienna", one of Boyle’s finest stories, captures the atmosphere of this time perfectly. A young Jewish doctor from the city is sent to a vil­lage while the village doctor recovers from a broken leg. The village doctor is a fascist, and in fact he broke his leg lighting swastika fires on the hillside; yet he is very courteous to the Jewish doctor. For him, the Nazi movement is about reclaim­ing the nobility of his fatherland; he is like the white horses of Vienna, the Lippizaners, who in the arena would still bow toward the emporor’s loge, even though an emperor no longer sat there.

Kay Boyle’s sympathetic view of the Nazis disturbed many readers in America, and her novel Death of a Man was labeled "A Nazi idyll." She also visited Ezra Pound in Mussolini’s Italy—a visit about which she was questioned later by the FBI. But Kay Boyle was no Nazi; she answered the telephone opera­tor’s "Heil Hitler" with "Guten Tag." Throughout her life, her convictions were to the individual, not a political system or ideology.

She was living with Laurence Vail in France when war broke out, and she remained in free France until 1941. Some of her best-known stories were written in this period— "Men", "Defeat", and, what is probably her most beautiful piece, "This They Took with Them". It is a portrait of France during the German invasion, when the roads were clogged by refugees from all walks of life. “"Everyone who came stream­ing down the highways of France in that month of June," the story begins, "coming on foot or by bicycle or cart or car out of Paris and from the north, carried his separate past, like his suitcases with him." The main character is a Mexican who thinks nostalgically back to the days when he was a telegraphist for Pancho Villa.

Most of Boyle’s fiction is drawn from her own experience. This leaves many of her novels unstructured and inaccessible, but works well in her short stories, which revolve around a single event. “Men”, for example, appears to be the most detached of stories. The group of prisoners on work detail do not even have names—they are referred to as “the Baron”, “the Span­iard”, and so on. Yet this story is based on the real experiences of the Baron Joseph von und zu Franckenstein, Kay’s third hus­band who was interned in a German prison camp (later on in the war he infiltrated the Gestapo, and was only saved from a firing squad by the advancing American troops).

After the war Kay Boyle returned to Europe, this time as a foreign correspondent in Germany. Just as she did not depict Nazis as monsters, neither did Boyle depict the Americans as saint-like heroes. In “Army of Occupation”, for example, a young woman sharing a train car with a group of drunken American soldiers comes very close to being raped. And then there is that saddest of stories, “The Lost”, about the orphaned children of Europe who during the war had been taken care of by the American GIs. Now that the war is over they can be for­mally adopted and immigrate to America. The main character, a boy named Janos who had seen his parents hung by the Nazis, has a letter of adoption from an American soldier. But when he goes to the Children’s Center to apply for adoption, he is advised not to go: the soldier is black. "Maybe in a combat out­fit you didn’t hear much talk about men being colored or men being white," a gray-haired woman at the center tells him. "But over there, back home, in the States, there’s the color question."

During the war Kay Boyle reached the height of her popu­larity, and her novel Avalanche was a best-seller. The book is about an American girl who becomes involved in the French resistance. Those same mountain guides who in years past had guided rich climbers up the Alps were now guiding Jews over the mountains to freedom. Boyle wrote the book as “pot­boiler” and it is indeed over-romanticized. She had become the breadwinner for her family, which now included six children, and she needed to make money. Her attempt to write both types of fiction—literary and blockbuster—may have contrib­uted to her relative obscurity from the 1960s onward. Her writing continued, however—as did her convictions to indi­vidual dignity: she took part in civil rights marches in San Francisco and elsewhere.

In 1945, Kay Boyle was one of the best known American writers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was all but forgotten. Now, at the turn of the millennium, the opposite seems true. But her Fifty Stories is still in print, and the better used bookstores will have a few of her novels on hand. She also pops up occasionally in anthologies, such as The World of the Short Story, where Clif­ton Fadiman calls her the most "undervalued" writer of her generation: "...she has never become a ‘name’, an impressive point of reference, like Fitzgerald. Yet when I match the entire body of her work in the short story against his, she seems the more serious, more moving artist." And he adds: "She has been close, uncomfortably close, to history."

The other day I stopped by the house on Goodrich Avenue where Kay Boyle was born. No placard sets the house apart from the other old Victorians on the sleepy street, and the neighbors I talked with had never heard of Kay Boyle.

© 2001 Joel Van Valin. All rights reserved.