Kay Boyle, author of some forty books of prose and poetry, was an American who lived for more than twenty years in Europe, was on the cutting edge of poetry in the 1920’s, and in the 1930’s was hailed as “Hemingway’s successor” by critic Mary Colum. Joan Mellen’s book is the first complete biography published since Boyle’s death in 1992. Unlike Sandra Whipple Spanier’s earlier Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist (1986), which offers a literary assessment of her work, Mellen’s book focuses on Boyle’s life and relationships. She examines Boyle’s writing, which she finds strongly autobiographical, only as it reflects and illuminates her life. Mellen draws upon extensive personal and phone interviews with Boyle and her family and friends; letters and private papers; contemporary accounts; and Boyle’s own poetry and prose.
Boyle’s life was not a quiet one. Married at twenty, she sailed with husband Richard Brault to France, became involved in the literary life of Paris, and then met and fell in love with poet-editor Ernest Walsh, father of her first child. After Walsh’s death, she married Laurence Vail, whose spontaneous nature first enchanted and later alienated her, and by whom she had three more daughters.
When the Nazis invaded France, the Vails fled to America, where Boyle soon married Joseph von Franckenstein, an Austrian who had tutored her children in France and who became an American espionage agent during World War II. They had two more children. After the war, they returned to occupied Germany, where Franckenstein held a civilian post and Boyle served as correspondent for The New Yorker. Both underwent loyalty hearings during the 1950’s; when he lost his government position, she supported them with her writing. In subsequent years, she became known for her outspoken political activism.
Mellen shatters the image that Boyle carefully cultivated. Boyle presented herself as a fascinating woman, successful author, and devoted wife and mother. Upon her 1941 return to America at the peak of her literary reputation, she was perceived as a glamorous expatriate and was the subject of several interviews. Mellen exposes her, however, as stubborn, self-centered, attractive to men, yet indifferent to her children, whom she abandoned emotionally and often physically. She did not care for her family herself but hired domestic help, while she followed her own rigorous writing schedule.
In contrast, Mellen notes Boyle’s surprisingly conventional ideas on bearing children, suggesting that sex to her meant babies. Mellen is extremely harsh toward her subject for not taking precautions to avoid pregnancy (though at times Boyle did) and for not taking a loving interest in the children she had. She also chastises Boyle for openly preferring her son (by Franckenstein) to her five daughters.
Mellen examines the irony that “a writer who had spent forty years chronicling the emotions of men and women with sensitivity should perceive so little about her own children.” Boyle did not understand why her children felt abandoned, as their comments repeatedly testify. She believed that she was rearing them appropriately, even after three daughters and one stepdaughter attempted suicide. When one of her lovers seduced two daughters, she forgave him. Years afterward, her daughter Clover wrote, “What is the sense of saving the children of Biafra if you can’t save your own children?”
If at times Boyle appears monstrous by her indifference to her children’s needs, such a point might not even be raised in a discussion of a male writer. Nevertheless, looking at Boyle in the total context of her family, Mellen blames her (perhaps rightfully) for the children’s problems. She finds Boyle withholding approval from her children even in her eighties.
Frequently Mellen reminds the reader that Boyle was not only author of herself but a fabricator too. She loved to embellish a good story, even to the point of contradiction. She rewrote her own history with Ezra Pound, from her initial meeting, where she “liked him more than I ever have,” to her public statement, “I disliked him then,” made fifty years later. She exaggerated her closeness to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, among others, claiming Beckett as her oldest, dearest friend, though they met only once in 1931 and not again for many years. To her children, she even implied an affair with him, which he was generous enough not to deny.
Mellen points out numerous errors of fact and omission in the autobiographical chapters that Boyle added to poet Robert McAlmon’s memoir of the...
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