(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.