James Boyd Essay - Critical Essays

Boyd, James


James Boyd 1888-1944

American novelist, poet, and short story writer.

One of the best-known and most admired pre-World War II American writers of historical fiction, Boyd helped revitalize the genre with works distinguished by their psychological and historical realism.

Biographical Information

Boyd was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1888. His family, which had roots in the mining, lumber, and banking industries, was wealthy and maintained several townhouses and a summer estate. Boyd, who suffered from ill health most of his life, was tutored at home until he was twelve; at that point, he was sent to the private Hill School. Boyd entered Princeton University in 1906 and later earned a master's degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, in England. Boyd served with an ambulance corps in World War I. His unit participated in the Saint-Mihiel operation and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Boyd was discharged in July 1919 following months of treatment for what would be a lifelong sinus condition. Boyd and his wife, Katherine Lamont, settled in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and Boyd vowed to spend the next five years as an apprentice writer. At the end of that time, he would change vocations altogether if he hadn't succeeded as a writer. In 1923, apparently encouraged by John Galsworthy, who was vacationing nearby, Boyd shifted from writing short stories, some of which he had published, to writing novels. His first, Drums, was published to great acclaim in 1925. Boyd continued his success with more novels. His strong literary reputation and friendship with many leading American writers enabled him in 1940 to organize the Free Company of Players, a group dedicated to countering the threat of Nazi propaganda with the broadcasting of original radio plays that dramatized American civil liberties. While the broadcasts were popular with the general public, they were criticized as subversive and dangerous to the minds of America's youth and were brought to an end in the middle of 1941. Boyd next turned to journalism, buying the Southern Pines Pilot and serving as editor. He also wrote poetry. However, his health continued to deteriorate, and he died of a heart attack in 1944.

Major Works

Boyd's first novel, Drums, tells the story of Johnny Fraser, a young man from North Carolina who goes on to fight in the American Revolutionary War. In Marching On (1927) Boyd wrote of a descendant of Johnny Fraser's, Jim Fraser, during the American Civil War. Boyd's third novel, Long Hunt (1930), goes further back in history to the pre-settlement days of the North Carolina wilderness. The novel's protagonist, Murfree Rinard, is torn between the freedom of his life as a hunter and his love for a woman who asks him for a commitment. In Roll River (1935) Boyd was inspired by his youth in Harrisburg to write of the fictionalized town of Midian, Pennsylvania. Finally, in Bitter Creek (1939), Boyd returned to the more distant past, exploring life in the Wyoming Territory of the 1870s and 1880s. Consistent throughout Boyd's works is his concentration not only on historical exactness but also on psychological realism, which distinguished him from other writers of historical novels.

Critical Reception

Boyd's expert use of detail and the psychological depth of his characters were highly admired by both critics and the reading public. Prior to Boyd, the American historical novel was known for sentimentalism and little more. However Boyd's combination of history and realism revitalized the genre. In fact, Drums was used for years as a teaching tool in American high school history classes. However, critics found that Boyd failed to develop his style and subject matter beyond the historical genre, and his works eventually fell into near oblivion, despite his early success.

Principal Works

Drums (novel) 1925

Marching On (novel) 1927

Long Hunt (novel) 1930

Roll River (novel) 1935

Bitter Creek (novel) 1939

Eighteen Poems (poetry) 1944

Old Pines and Other Stories (short stories) 1952


Punch (review date 25 April 1928)

SOURCE: A review of Marching On, in Punch, Vol. 174, April 25, 1928, pp. 475-76.

[In the following review, the critic praises Boyd's rendering of the American Civil War in Marching On despite the book's familiar and romanticized material.]

I had thought that the species was extinct. Here we have once again a story of the American Civil War, told from the Southern point of view. Its simple name is Marching On (Heinemann), and its author, against whom I hold no previous convictions, is James Boyd. I hasten to add that he has produced an eminently readable piece of work, ancient as his material is. Indeed I felt sometimes that I must surely be reading some old favourite over again. He employs all the best traditional romantic stuff. Here we have again the aristocratic Southern planter, Colonel Prevost, his charming daughter Stewart, and his only son; the neighbouring family of Fraser, the struggling farmer whose young son James falls in love with Stewart as with some being from a higher sphere. Then comes their separation through the customary pride and misunderstanding, the boy's exile in Wilmington, working in the railway-shop, and then the sudden outbreak of war and his return home to enlist in the Cape Fear Rifles. It is curious how we welcome all the old incidents, even down to the killing of Prevost's only son, Stewart's brother, in the lover's presence, the sinking of the old Colonel under the blow, and the ultimate reunion. But Mr. Boyd has some scenes for which we can give him due credit. There may be a touch of Stephen Crane about his battle-pieces, but he has given us “Clubby” Jordan, that lovable commander. And the old life in North Carolina before secession bears the stamp of truth. As to James Fraser, he has all the virtues we expected to find in the clumsy rustic lovers of our youth. He carries us back twenty or thirty years—and what more can we ask than that?

Bernard DeVoto (review date 27 April 1935)

SOURCE: “A Novel Hammered Out of Experience,” in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XI, No. 41, April 27, 1935, pp. 645, 649.

[In the following review, DeVoto praises Roll River as a first-rate example of American realism but admits that the book will not likely find a wide audience.]

There are a number of ways to write that undefined entity, the American novel. Mr. Wolfe has recently exhibited one way: to print the word “America” ten thousand times, to depict young Faustus as a victim of manic-depressive insanity, to fill the stage with Mardi Gras grotesques who suffer from compulsion neuroses and walk on stilts and always speak as if firing by battery, to look at everything through the lens of an infantile regression which makes a Dutchess County kitchen or a glimpse of a way station on the main line equally important with the death of one's father and the first meeting with one's mistress and all of them frenetic, and to fluff up the material of fiction, one part, with ten parts of bastard blank verse ecstasy. I wonder if only an accident of the calendar led Scribners to hold Roll River till Of Time and the River was well launched, or whether capital investment may not have had something to do with the schedule. For Mr. Boyd now exhibits another way to write an American novel, and he wins by a number of Mormon blocks. (For the untraveled: they are 220 yards each.) His book is only 600 pages long, it contains not a single goat-cry, and no one beats his head or knuckles to a bloody pulp on any wall within its covers. But those pages are filled with characters who are hammered out of American experience, whose emotions are the bitter bread of us all, and who are directed and controlled by a superb technician.

The fact that Mr. Boyd has hitherto chiefly concerned himself with the American past has sometimes obscured his great merits as a realist behind the popular conception of historical fiction as romantic. He begins this essay in that hardest of all decades for contemporary novelists, the eighties, but after triumphantly...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Emily Clark (review date 28 April 1935)

SOURCE: “On the Susquehanna River,” in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 11, No. 34, April 28, 1935, p. 4.

[In the following review, Clark finds Roll River to be a “curiously moving and lovely book.”]

James Boyd, though following the indisputable fashion for long novels, has accomplished his best, his most important work in Roll River. Many persons will probably be misled. Mr. Boyd springs from North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and it will be thought that North Carolina and Southern Negroes inspired the title. This is not true. It is, I am sure, the Susquehanna that rolls through this book, and Midian, the upstate Pennsylvania town of his story,...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

James L. C. Ford (review date 15 May 1935)

SOURCE: “‘Life, Warm and Stirring’,” in The Nation, New York, Vol. 140, No. 3645, May 15, 1935, pp. 580-81.

[In the following review, Ford praises Boyd's characterization and evocation of various periods in American history in Roll River to be a true literary achievement.]

Moving with the majestic sweep of deep-running waters, Roll River carries James Boyd's talent to true literary achievement. It is a long book, covering 603 pages, but its length is not the result, one feels, of the present vogue of prolixity. Roll River is not unduly extended; you turn the pages and as you read you feel the story could not be told completely in less...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Edith H. Walton (review date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of Roll River, in Forum and Century, Vol. 94, 1935, pp. IV.

[In the following review, Walton describes Roll River as “warm with life, amply detailed, and singularly moving.”]

A fine, grave, leisurely novel, Roll River covers fifty years in the life of a prosperous American family which lives in a small Pennsylvania city. On the point of death, Tom Rand looks back over his own past and that of his immediate forebears and discovers that the rigid, frozen ideas of a narrow social world have been responsible for their unhappiness. His beautiful, intelligent Aunt Clara had seen her marriage end in catastrophe because of her enforced...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Bernard DeVoto (review date 18 March 1939)

SOURCE: “Escape to the West,” in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 21, March 18, 1939, p. 6.

[In the following review, DeVoto finds Bitter Creek to be a highly enjoyable work but overly dependent on the conventions of the historical novel.]

James Boyd's novels are among the best of our time in America and they are by so far the best historical novels that no others seriously challenge their preëminence. From Drums to Roll River, however, they have had a common characteristic that in varying degree moderates one's critical enthusiasm. As a form the historical novel has been depressingly subject to conventions; it has tended to deal...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

David E. Whisnant (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Two Novels of War: Drums and Marching On,” in James Boyd, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, pp. 60-86.

[In the following essay, Whisnant discusses Boyd's works Drums and Marching On as transitional war novels between historical romanticism and psychological realism.]

I DRUMS (1925)

Shortly after Boyd began Drums, his first novel, he observed that “Literature in [America], while showing many hopeful symptoms … [is] divided between the old virtue-triumphant school of false sentiment and false heroic and the new writers who, while much more skillful technically and truer to the superficial...

(The entire section is 11346 words.)

Further Reading


“James Boyd: A Checklist.” Princeton University Library Chronicles 6 (February 1945): 77-81.

Comprehensive bibliography of Boyd's writings, including all editions of books and contributions to periodicals, collections, and introductions.

Additional coverage of Boyd's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 186; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 16; Literature Resource Center; Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers; and Reference Guide to American...

(The entire section is 75 words.)