Kay Boyle Boyle, Kay (Vol. 5) - Essay

Boyle, Kay (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Boyle, Kay 1903–

Ms Boyle is an American novelist, poet, and short story writer, long respected for her intelligent and expertly crafted fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

From the time of her first book in 1929, Wedding Day and Other Stories, [Kay Boyle's] fate has been occasional high praise and an occasional succès d'estime. Meanwhile, writers far less gifted have been overrated by public and critics alike. At present there are only a few books of Kay Boyle's in print; these fortunately include a hardbound edition of her novel Monday Night and paperbacks of Thirty Stories and Three Short Novels (the last containing one of the masterpieces of this genre in our time, The Crazy Hunter). Of her first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale, it is safe to say that it is the finest portrait of a French family by a writer from this side of the Atlantic since Henry James fixed his attention upon the Bellegardes in The American. Nor is it out of place to mention James here, for Kay Boyle is an important later practitioner in the area in which he worked—"the international theme." Since James, no American except Kay Boyle has concentrated so thoroughly upon that theme.

Despite the excellence of the results, however, Kay Boyle's writing career has had some severe setbacks, partly attributable to timing. She learned to write in the 1920s, when craftsmanship was important, but by the time she began turning out her full-length novels the Depression was on; instead of her subtle penetration of the behavior of Americans in Europe, readers over here wanted what seemed to be the only realities of the moment—rough stories of hunger marchers, factory slaves, or dispossessed tenant farmers. It was a time when entire social classes, rather than individuals, were of dominant interest in fiction, and it was a period when the autobiographical novel was not fashionable; consequently it didn't help Kay Boyle's cause for her to have, in most of her books, a sensitive American girl as the reflector of the action, which usually involved a group of expatriates. Now it may be seen (and I hope it will be seen) that these novels were not indulgently self-centered, not mere personal chronicles, but were rather the reworking of significant experience into fable, intensified by a prose style at once delicate and forcible. (pp. 32-3)

[She is] among the fine women authors of our time who do not write like men (as, say, Willa Cather does), but operate through a distinctly feminine vision (as Dorothy Richardson does), to capture and project experience in a unique and important way. (p. 36)

Harry T. Moore, "Kay Boyle's Fiction" (originally published in Kenyon Review, Spring, 1960), in his Age of the Modern and Other Literary Essays (copyright © 1971, Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 32-6.

The fates and other bureaucracies have never quite realized how unprofitable it is to mess with writers. Throw one into jail, prompt the IRS goons to work another over, visit sickness on the family of a third, and the result is ever the same: another book. "The Underground Woman" is one of these. Kay Boyle, I understand, went to jail briefly for attempting to obstruct our recent war in Vietnam; she lost, too, a daughter to one of those horrifying communes, run as religious dictatorships, that sprouted over America in the latter half of the '60s. From these simultaneous ordeals she has wrung a novel. It is a nice, even sweet, book, clearly deeply felt and fairly humming with love and sentiment. Many readers will come away from it convinced they have read a good novel—any reader should instinctly want it to be a good novel—but it is not. Probably it shouldn't have been a novel at all….

The novel's problem lies just here. Good fiction feeds upon the particular; imprecision will dent it, a muddled goodwill toward man will corrode it absolutely. Miss Boyle generalizes her characters by identifying them with Greek myths; her generalizations about man's estate should have been left to her readers to infer. We are all one body, she seems to say, and our virtue will move mountains. Probably, if one must emphasize this theme, he had better follow Tolstoy's course and abandon fiction for moral essays. There is good material in ["The Underground Woman"], and some good writing, but I am convinced that Miss Boyle is too close both to her prison experience and her daughter's ordeal in a malevolent commune to turn either into good fiction. This book seems less the product of inspiration than of obligation, and should surely have been told as nonfiction.

Peter S. Prescott, "Life With Daughter," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1975, p. 67A.

Athena Gregory [protagonist of "The Underground Woman"]—42-years-old, a widowed mother and teacher of a distressingly simple college course in Greco-Roman mythology—finds herself suddenly involved, with many other women, in a protest against the Vietnam war. Facing nine days in the county's Rehabilitation Center, her group prepares for Doom and Tragedy: "What we need is a little optimism around here, if we're going to make it!" one cries. Another says that optimism is not enough: "I think we have to try now to believe that our separate lives are really of no importance."

Such rhetoric is totally disproportionate to the occasion—or it will seem so to the cynical former young who have endured many jails, many cops, many hostile citizens and dangerous inmates, first in the civil rights wars and then in the anti-war wars. But Kay Boyle (author of over 20 works of fiction) is writing, as perhaps she had to, from the viewpoint of older and more sheltered generations. She is writing for them, too, trying to draw lessons appropriate to them out of the horrors that Watergate seems to have superseded….

After all it was the sixties that destroyed—perhaps forever—the American family, the authority of public morals, and the credibility of government; no small achievement. That experience has not ended American error, indeed it failed miserably; yet it was in some ways more respectable than the present. Kay Boyle is right to remind us of it (however imperfect her novel), and to call up again the old circumstances and ideals out of which we might have made so much nicer a country. That jail cells tend to be as alike as Howard Johnsons may seem a small, middle-class perception; but if every patron of HoJo's shared it, things might be better.

Kay Boyle's underground woman is pale and sweet, no relation to Dostoevsky's underground man; and her novel is essentially feminine in its familial concerns, kaleidoscopic feelings, mythical rhetoric and persistent subjectivity; but it speaks to all sensitive and conventional women with bad consciences, and it tries to offer them a way toward self-respect. (p. 4)

J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1975.

Sooner or later it would have happened that a strong voice from the '30s-'40s generation would speak out in fiction about what it is like to be a parent of Vietnam-war-age children. No one's voice is better suited to such witness than Kay Boyle's. The Underground Woman … comes at the end of a long line of novels (13), short stories, novelettes, four books of poetry, three children's books, and a memorable essay about her experiences during "the bust" at San Francisco State. Her dedication to belles-lettres has not made Kay Boyle an intellectual or esthetic elitist. This new book shows what an extraordinary development hers has been. She is, one supposes, much like her heroine, a professor of English in her middle age, an active participant of the Vietnam antiwar movement. She writes powerfully, vividly and with much of her usual irony, of her experiences in demonstrations, of her arrest and brief stay in jail, of her entry into the lives of her fellow-prisoners. The novel ends as she is about to go to jail again.

If this were all, the book might be interesting but not unusually compelling. What gives it an added edge of poignancy is the story of the heroine's daughter, who leaves home to join a commune based upon mindless devotion to a cultic figure, Pete the Redeemer. All the pain of what I suspect might be an event in her own life (Kay Boyle has six children) is contained in this portrait. A woman with a profound personal commitment to human freedom, Kay Boyle shows us the loss of a daughter to a tyrannical movement as one of the tragedies of parenthood.

It might be thought that this issue-centered book would be diminished as fiction. Indeed a recent critic has blamed the book for this, saying that as a result of her concern for current events Kay Boyle's characters lose their believability. My own feeling is that, while this novel is perhaps a lesser Boyle, it is still a valuable fictional document, intensely projected and felt keenly by the reader, of our times, of the pain and trauma of civil disobedience, seen through the eyes of a woman who loves her own family and the rest of the human family with equal passion….

Never lost or isolated in her own identity, Kay Boyle writes of the human condition, in jail, in political action, in the grip of irrational religious fervor. Recently she said: "Nothing can ever make me believe we are helpless as individuals." Her new fiction, and her activity on behalf of amnesty, and for the freedom of political prisoners everywhere in the world are evidence of that conviction. Clearly she has suffered. An earlier novel is called Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart; for her, heartbreak is the side product of her fight for liberation of people everywhere. (p. 33)

Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 8, 1975.

There is a kind of telescopic intimacy to Kay Boyle's work that manages to relate the grand concerns of the world to the personal lives of individual people in a way that is both touching and magnanimous. That has always been Boyle's strength, and it shines through again in her latest novel, The Underground Woman.

For about five decades now, Kay Boyle has demonstrated her literary abilities in a variety of forms: novels, poems, essays, children's books, and memoirs. Throughout that period she has consistently been able to be topical without being superficial, to be radical without being irrational and to be humane without being hypocritical. Perhaps that is because to her generation—she was a member of that distinguished literary set in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s that included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Joyce and Pound—there was no contradiction between social conscience and artistic expression. In any case, The Underground Woman is a further extension of her lover's quarrel with the world. As such, it is a plea for the exercise of political conscience on the part of the middle class….

This is a novel about women and about femininity as much as it is about politics; but it is not a feminist novel, in the tendentious sense, any more than any honest novel could be a propaganda tract. Boyle is too good an artist for that….

This is also, in another way, a novel about a group of freaks walking in the shadows of the epic Greeks, a novel about people freaked out of a society that seems unfit for them; about people who, despite their apparent ineffectuality, try nobly to obey the gods of their consciences, their underground men and women, in order to make their lives more meaningful.

The most consistent set of allusions in the book are to Greek mythology, and actually, they form the framework for the novel. To begin with, there is the matter of names. In addition to Athena [the protagonist], there is a famous folk singer named Calisto and a young woman named Calliope. Callisto emerges as Athena's most trusted friend, and Calliope as an admired companion. There are also repeated references to the Greek myths in Athena's thought and speech. And finally, there is the ever-present specter of intrafamilial strife, the central subject of Greek tragedy….

In other words, the characters, the struggles, and the issues in this novel are intended to have a transcendency, to be an "echoing of history." And although the characters are undeniably pedestrian, they are meant to be invested with a certain nobility, a stature grander than their conventional lives suggest….

In The Underground Woman, Kay Boyle would have us believe that the grief of the people in her novel sets them apart from those immortal robots who are beyond grief. At times she succeeds and at times she does not. But whatever the final result her effort is a worthy one, and one thoroughly consistent with those of a writer whose energies have always been expended imaginatively and unselfishly in a constant attempt to enlighten her fellow citizens.

Phillip Corwin, "The Telling of the Story," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 22, 1975, p. 347.