The writer Charles William Goyen suffered the difficult fate of the artist whose work defies or resists classification. Born in the East Texas sawmill town of Trinity, Goyen spent his early boyhood on the border between the pine forests of the Big Thicket and the open grasslands of central Texas. For the first seven years of his life he lived in and around his grandmother’s house, in the company of cousins and uncles whose voices and stories, along with Goyen’s own, eventually formed the fabric of his first novel, The House of Breath. In 1923 Goyen’s family moved first to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then to Houston, Texas, where he attended Sam Houston High School and later Rice Institute (now Rice University). At Rice, Goyen studied literature and creative writing, eventually winning prizes for both his short-story and his play writing. After receiving his B.A. in 1937 and M.A. in 1939, Goyen taught briefly before enlisting in the Navy, where he served from 1940 to 1945 aboard the aircraft carrier Casablanca.
It was during these difficult years of isolation and frequent loneliness that Goyen began The House of Breath. This short lyric novel—a series of descriptions and monologues summoned from the memory of an unnamed narrator—recreates the world of Goyen’s childhood. Instead of a single, unified narrative, the book is constructed of descriptive pieces, remembered visions of relatives (Sue Emma, who is called “Swimma,” Granny Ganchion, Aunt Malley, and Uncle Walter Warren), disconnected stories, and imagined voices that speak for the place and the land. These fragments of time and speech are gathered together and held in place by the image of the old house, itself a figure for the narrator’s own recollection and evocation of his past. The publication of The House of Breath in 1950 brought Goyen significant recognition. He...
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