The cross between Kay Boyle’s midwestern roots and cosmopolitan experience produced the distinctive flavor of her work. Although born into an upper-class family in St. Paul, Minnesota, Boyle spent her early years not in the Midwest but in the eastern United States, France, Austria, and Switzerland, and especially in the mountains, which become a symbol of human transcendence in her work. The active and involved nature of her childhood is expressed in her love of horses, riding, and skiing, and its aesthetic and creative aspect in the family custom of gathering sketches and stories between marbled covers for gift books. Katherine Evans Boyle, the “shining light” to whom Boyle dedicated her first works, provided an image of strength and purpose, introducing her daughter to the most avant-garde of European art and literature as well as the most progressive of American populist politics. Kay Boyle’s grandfather, Jesse Peyton Boyle, a dynamic, charismatic St. Paul businessman whom the author later called a “charming reactionary,” was a model of the aggressive, compelling patriarch, in contrast to the more vulnerable and intuitive male figure typified by her father, Howard Peyton Boyle.
The next years saw Boyle return to the Midwest and then to the Greenwich Village literary and political circles that would provide her with friends and supporters. A series of financial reversals brought the family to Cincinnati, where Howard Boyle became established in the retail automotive business. After a brief stay at Shipley, Kay Boyle studied violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory and architecture at Ohio Mechanics Institute, later calling hers “no education at all,” saying that she had never been “properly through the eighth grade” and had instead pursued writing on her own, a training she advocated later for her students as well. Less than twenty years old, Boyle moved to New York City, attended a few classes at Columbia University, worked as a secretary, and met Greenwich Village literati of a progressive bent. In the space of her short stay, she worked for Broom, a journal of European and American experimentalism, and became acquainted with Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine; with Lola Ridge, whose Gaelic ancestry she shared; and with William Carlos Williams, who became her friend and mentor. Described as a shy, timid ingenue, Boyle appears in Williams’s memoirs attending Fourteenth Street parties with John Reed, Louise Bryant, Jean Toomer, Kenneth Burke, and Hart Crane.
The 1920’s was another expatriate decade for Boyle. In 1921, she married Richard Brault, a French student whom she had met in Ohio, and she returned with him to his family’s provincial seat. Williams recalls meeting a lonely and isolated Boyle in the vicinity of Le Havre, in which atmosphere her first two novels take place. When the marriage deteriorated and ended a few years later, Boyle remained in Paris and the Riviera, playing a central role in the literary underground of American exiles and the European avant-garde. Centered on the publication of small magazines, these groups brought Boyle together with Ernest Walsh, the effervescent poet, critic, and editor of This Quarter, the lover and compatriot whose death from lung injuries incurred as a pilot Boyle recounts in Year Before Last.
The aesthetic of Boyle’s group, represented by Transition magazine and Eugene Jolas, was eclectic, drawing on the work of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Carl Sandburg. Experimental, antirational, and antirealist, this loosely knit group ascribed to an informal creed known as Orphism, set down in the 1929 manifesto “The Revolution of the Word,” signed by Boyle, Laurence Vail, Hart Crane, and others interested in representing a primarily interior reality in a rhythmic, “hallucinatory” style cognizant of current psychological and anthropological lore and inimical to standard realism and the genteel tradition. It was in this milieu that Boyle developed the lyrical subjectivism reflected in her early poems and stories, a quality she found in D. H. Lawrence and Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, Stein and Joyce.
Following Walsh’s death and the birth of her first child, Sharon, Boyle, out of money and dispirited, joined a communal art colony led by Raymond Duncan, brother of dancer Isadora Duncan; his personal charisma and exploitative idealism are reflected in a number of Boyle’s novelistic relationships in which one will is subsumed in another. Rescued from this amalgam of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Tolstoy, and...
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