Kay Boyle Boyle, Kay (Vol. 121) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kay Boyle 1902–1992

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Boyle's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 5, 19, and 58.

Boyle is a renowned American short story writer and novelist. A participant in the expatriate movement of the 1920s, she is acclaimed for her flawless sense of style. Critics cite Boyle's body of work, much of which is semi-autobiographical, as one of the most significant chronicles of the twentieth century. In addition, Boyle is known for her essays, many of which deal with the social obligations of writers, and her poetry.

Biographical Information

Boyle was born on February 19, 1902 in St. Paul, Minnesota to affluent parents. Her mother tutored her at home, and throughout Boyle's youth she traveled extensively in the United States and Europe. Boyle began writing as a teenager under the encouragement and guidance of her mother, and by 1922, she had secured a position at the magazine Broom. In 1922 Boyle married Robert Brault, a French engineer, and moved to France. She would remain in Europe until World War II necessitated her return to the United States in 1941. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Boyle lived and worked within the expatriate community in Europe, assisting Ernest Welsh with This Quarter, his avant-garde journal which featured the writings of such revisionists as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. By the 1930s, Boyle's fiction was becoming increasingly well known and respected. She won her first O. Henry Award for "The White Horses of Vienna" in 1934 and her second in 1941 for "Defeat." In 1943, Boyle married her third husband, Joseph Franckenstein, an anti-Nazi Austrian baron whom Boyle helped in his escape from Europe. Boyle returned to occupied Germany in the late 1940s as a foreign correspondent for the New Yorker, remaining there until the anti-communist hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy precipitated her final return to the United States. Throughout the postwar period, Boyle continued to write about her experiences and to protest social injustices such as McCarthyism, minority rights, and the American involvement in the Vietnam War. She served a short prison sentence for her involvement in anti-war demonstrations. From 1963 until 1980, Boyle taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. She died in Mill Valley, California in 1992.

Major Works

Boyle published extensively throughout her career, completing more than forty novels, volumes of short stories, essays, poetry, and childrens books. Through her writings, Boyle advocates an awareness and involvement in social and political issues such as Fascism in Europe, McCarthyism in the United States, and American involvement in the Vietnam War—events which Boyle encountered firsthand. Throughout her career she returned to common themes: the importance of individual accountability and salvation from human destruction in love and fidelity. Her first works, such as "Wedding Day" (1930), Plagued by the Nightingale (1931), Year Before Last (1932), Gentleman, I Address You Privately (1934), My Next Bride (1934), and "The White Horse of Vienna" (1936), are set in the turmoil of prewar Europe and center upon independent women who, through their search for their own identity and voice, come into conflict with men and society. Her use of metaphors, experimentations with consciousness and point of view, and powerful descriptions are consistently apparent in these works. Through the late 1930s and 1940s she wrote several novels and short stories about World War II. These include Death of a Man (1936), which was misinterpreted as advocating fascism; Primer for Combat (1942); Avalanche (1944), her only bestseller; and His Human Majesty (1949). In the postwar period, Boyle continued to write about social responsibility; among her best known works is an account of a jailed antiwar protester, The Underground Woman (1975.)

Critical Reception

The principle question which drives scholarly debate over Boyle's work is why she is not as well known nor as highly valued as peers such as James Joyce. Samuel Beckett, or Virginia Woolf. Early critics such as author Katherine Anne Porter praised her writing style, noting the ways in which Boyle was moving literature away from the traditional novels of the past and towards a period of transition. Consistently throughout the prewar period, critics such as Robert Cantwell, William Carlos Williams, and Struthers Burt praised Boyle's sense of style, skillful use of metaphors, ability to sustain tension, ambitious themes and subjects, and unusual characters. However, many critics noted that despite her skill, many of her stories were inadequately developed, not compelling, and confusing. Louis Kronenberger suggested that Boyle's failure stemmed from attempting too difficult a goal. World War II marked a transition in Boyle's work which irked many critics. Edmund Wilson called her bestseller Avalanche (1944) "a piece of pure rubbish" and Betty Hoyenga protested the overpowering role of propaganda in Boyle's work. However, many critics label Boyle a first rate writer, praising her skill at transforming the major events of the twentieth century into powerful, appealing, and personal accounts. As Philip Corwin writes, "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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wedding Day and Other Stories (short stories) 1930
Plagued by the Nightingale (novel) 1931
Year Before Last (novel) 1932
The First Lover and Other Stories (short stories) 1933
Gentlemen, I Address You Privately (novel) 1933
My Next Bride (novel) 1934
The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories (short stories) 1936
Death of a Man (novel) 1936
Monday Night (novel) 1938
Primer For Combat (novel) 1943
Avalanche (novel) 1944
A Frenchman Must Die (novel) 1946
1939 (novel) 1948
His Human Majesty (novel) 1949
The Seagull on the Step (novel) 1955
Generation Without Farewell (novel) 1960
Testament For My Students and Other Poems (poetry) 1970
The Long Walk at San Francisco State and Other Essays (essays) 1970
The Underground Woman (novel) 1975
Fifty Stories (short stories) 1980
Words That Must Somehow Be Said (essays) 1985
This is Not a Letter and Other Poems (poetry) 1985

New York Times Book Review (review date 16 November 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kay Boyle's Experiments," in New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1930, p. 8.

[In the following review of Wedding Day and Other Stories, the critic argues that Boyle is at her best when she combines experimentation with structure.]

These short stories and five-finger exercises by Kay Boyle represent both the good and the ephemeral that have come out of the experimental epoch that is now closing. And, because the best of Kay Boyle is quite good (as in "Episode in the Life of an Ancestor"), it is easy to forgive the inclusion of the worst of the five-finger exercises (let us choose "Spring Morning" as the scapegoat) in this slim volume. An example or so of the ephemeral, indeed, helps to show us how Miss Boyle gets her happiest effects—effects that derive from a wide-open sensibility that enables her to fasten upon amazingly apt images. The merit of the transition experimenters was that their work let the subconscious out, and this subconscious often sees things in sharper, more vivid terms than the conscious mind which is silted over by ordinary ways of seeing, learned by rote. When the garnering of the subconscious is thrown helter-skelter upon the paper (as in "Spring Morning") we get little benefit from it. There is no order, progression, resolution. But, when this garnering is used to enrich a story that has order, progression, resolution (as in "Episode in the Life of an Ancestor" or in "Polar Bears and Others"), then we do get a great deal of pleasure from the result. Bits like "Spring Morning" may be queer jumbles, calling for an alertness at untangling them that is not quite worth the...

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Louis Kronenberger (review date 12 November 1933)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kaye Boyle's Story of a Moral Crisis," in New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1933, p. 9.

[In the following review of Gentlemen, I Address You Privately, Kronenberger states that although Boyle enjoys moments of genius in this novel, she fails to sustain the quality.]

It is only recently that we have had much fiction in English whose predominating note is that of sensibility. Our older novelists flirted with the same note; but Meredith, Jane Austen, Henry James impress us, in the long run, as really psychologists or novelists of manners. It is among certain recent women writers—Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, Virginia Woolf and latterly Kay...

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Robert Cantwell (review date 13 December 1933)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exiles," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXVII, No. 993, December 13, 1933, pp. 136-37.

[In the following review which compares Gentlemen, I Address You Privately with Jack Conroy's The Disinherited, Cantwell concludes that Boyle's writing suffers from isolation and unrealistic characters.]

Kay Boyle has now published three novels and two volumes of short stories and, with this much evidence on hand, the character and development of her work is becoming clear. She is one of the most eloquent and one of the most prolific writers among the expatriates; her work is always finished in the sense that her phrases are nicely cadenced and her imagery often...

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Edith H. Walton (review date 11 November 1934)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Miss Boyle's Irony," in New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1934, p. 6.

[In the following review of My Next Bride, Walton accuses Boyle of focusing on trivial matters and failing to meet her potential.]

Several years' ago Kay Boyle published a short story, "Art Colony," which contained the kernel of this ruefully ironic novel. Outlines which she sketched briefly then have been filled in, and Sorrel, the leader of the colony, has moved from the shadowy wings to the centre of the stage. Miss Boyle, incidentally, makes the conventional statement that all her characters are imaginary, but Sorrel, with his tunics and sandals, his craftwork, his dead...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 11 October 1936)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kay Boyle's New Novel," in New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1936, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review of Death of a Man, Kazin suggests that while Boyle's sense of style is successful, she fails in her narrative.]

It is some time now since a reviewer was moved to write, concerning a reference to the late Mr. Dillinger in one of Miss Boyle's earlier works, that a reference to Senator Borah in the New Testament could not be more astonishing. Miss Boyle is still far removed from her own, her native land, but she has come to reveal a growing preoccupation with the little tragedies attending the present era of European politics, and no one, I am sure,...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 16 March 1940)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Springs of Tragedy," in Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 39, No. 1989, March 16, 1940, p. 133.

[In the following review of The Crazy Hunter, the critic claims Boyle has found her best literary form in the novelette.]

Are there varieties of literary talent for which there is no recognized form of aesthetic expression? Young people who "write" or who "want to write" are inclined to think there are. Yet talent is surely specific, a gift for this or that specific form of literature, and what the young people in question may have in mind is only that there are numerous types of literary facility or accomplishment which are not easily adapted to any of the two...

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Marianne Hauser (review date 8 November 1942)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kay Boyle's Primer for Combat," in New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1942, p. 6.

[In the following review, Hauser praises Primer for Combat as a powerful portrayal of France in 1940 under Nazi rule.]

Last year, after nearly two decades in Europe, Kay Boyle returned to America. Primer for Combat, her first book since her return, has its setting in France in 1940 during the months that followed Compiègne. It is a novel which in the form of a diary presents an incisive portrait of France after her defeat.

Miss Boyle is no journalist. She does not content herself with a mere enumeration of facts but searches for the human...

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Edith R. Mirrielees (review date 1 December 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories to Remember," in New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1946, pp. 9, 72.

[In the following review of Thirty Stories, Mirrielees praises the collection, citing the French section as the best.]

This most recent of Kay Boyle's short-story collections offers only fact in its title. In the book will be found thirty stories; it is left to the reader to supply any more colorful designation. And Kay Boyle is a writer who can afford to leave it to the reader. Whatever judgment may be passed on her novels, each of her short-story collections thus far has enlarged her following. The present one can hardly fall to do the same.

The present...

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Virgilia Peterson (review date 17 November 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "There Is No Armistice," in New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1960, pp. 4, 26.

[In the following review of Generation Without Farewell, Peterson, a radio commentator and critic, credits Boyle with creating a profound account of postwar Germany which reflects the conditions from multi-perspectives.]

Always a lyrical troubling writer, Kay Boyle has never written more poignantly, never come closer to absolute pitch than in this new novel. Generation Without Farewell, set in Germany during the American military occupation. Miss Boyle has drawn before, for a number of stories, upon her experience as foreign correspondent for The New...

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Patricia Holt (essay date 17 October 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "PW Interviews: Kay Boyle," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 218, No. 16, October 17, 1980, pp. 8-9.

In the following essay based on an interview with Boyle, Holt provides an overview of Boyle's life, concentrating on the author's political activism.]

Climbing the steps of Kay Boyle's four story Victorian home in San Francisco PW is greeted by an enormous poster for Amnesty International that has obviously been hanging on the front door for years. It seems a fitting symbol of the long and productive career of this civil rights activist whose personal stand against fascism, McCarthyism and Vietnam exacted a high price: a ruined marriage in the '40s, a...

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Tom D'Evelyn (review date 19 June 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Boyle's Moral Essays Chart the Century's Contours," in Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 1985, p. 21.

[In the following review of Words that Must Somehow be Said, D'Evelyn claims the book is a valuable record of the twentieth century as Boyle recounts her life experiences artfully and with skill.]

Kay Boyle is best known for her short stories. Words that Must Somehow be Said, which collects her occasional nonfiction prose of more than five decades, combines the discipline of the short story and the passion of the writer's involvement in the political and social crises of her own time.

The pieces range from book reviews to...

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Susan Slocum Hinerfeld (review date 29 September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Words That Must Somehow Be Said, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 29, 1985, p. 10.

[In the following review of Words That Somehow Must Be Said, Hinerfeld, a critic and writer, praises Boyle's writing, but cites the story "Farewell to New York" as a piece in which she falls short.]

It is not possible to write a line without telling, something of oneself, and in the essay from the very choice of subject speaks.

The person revealed by these essays is clear-thinking direct, sometimes tart, concerned both with fine distinctions and larger meanings. The point of view is principled, liberal, vigorous: Wrongs can...

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Studs Terkel with Kelly Baker (interview date 26 April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Studs Terkel: An Interview," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 304-9.

[In the following interview, filmmaker Kelley Baker talks to famous social historian and radio personality Studs Terkel about his personal recollections of Boyle.]

Edited in consultation with Studs Terkel from an April 26, 1986, interview in Chicago with filmmaker Kelley Baker. (From "No Past Tense Permitted," a documentary in progress, courtesy of Kelley Baker, Portland, Oregon.)

[Baker]: What do you remember about the first time you met Kay Boyle? What stands out in your mind?

[Terkel]: I remember an elegant...

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Suzanne Clark (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Revolution, the Woman, and the Word: Kay Boyle," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 322-33.

[In the following essay, Clark explores the balance between literary and feminist ideology in Boyle's writing.]

Modernist experiments with language have an especially problematic relationship to women's writing which is experimental. Kay Boyle's early work puts the old categories into motion and marks out a new literary space of intense descriptive prose. Yet her impact on literary history has not seemed so powerful as her writing would warrant. In 1929, Kay Boyle signed a manifesto for transition calling for "The Revolution of the...

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Burton Hatlen (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual Politics in Kay Boyle's Death of a Man," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 347-62.

[In the following essay, Hatlen reconsiders Death of a Man from a feminist perspective in an attempt to explain why the novel has been misinterpreted as Pro-Nazi.]

When Kay Boyle's Death of a Man was first published in 1936, many reviewers, and even one member of Boyle's own family, read the novel as expressing pro-Nazi sympathies. Mark Van Doren, writing in the Nation, said that the book tries to "hypnotize the reader into a state of what may be called mystical fascism." In the New Republic, Otis Ferguson...

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Ian S. MacNiven (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kay Boyle's High Country: His Human Majesty," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 363-74.

[In the following essay MacNiven praises His Human Majesty as a near perfect novel that is well balanced, with a great tone.]

When Hugh Ford quoted Glenway Wescott's comment on Kay Boyle, "She was more completely abroad than the rest of us," he wanted to emphasize the extent of her commitment to Europe, the fact that she had gone quickly beyond the role of expatriate to become wife and adopted daughter of France, Austria, Germany. Adopt Europe she did, despite the fact that she took with her for her art the vision of the innocent...

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Elizabeth S. Bell (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Call Forth a Good Day: The Nonfiction of Kay Boyle," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 384-91.

[In the following essay, Bell argues that Boyle's essays are proof of Boyle's conviction that writers must be a voice of consciousness and accountability.]

Noted as a stylist and awarded distinguished recognition for her short fiction, Kay Boyle, in her prodigious writing during the 1930s, earned for her fiction and poetry an enthusiastic and discriminating following. Her later reputation, born perhaps from her reporting of post-World War II Europe and nurtured in the caldron of McCarthy's 1950s, encompasses another element of Boyle's...

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Robyn M. Gronning (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Boyle's 'Astronomer's Wife'," in The Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 51-3.

[In the following essay, Gronning explores the issue of androgyny in Boyle's short story "Astronomer's Wife."]

Since Kay Boyle's mother, aunt, and grandmother all fought for women's rights, it is not surprising that "Astronomer's Wife" is a feminist story. What is surprising, though, is that Boyle, in 1936, not only depicted in one of her characters—the astronomer—the old conception of androgyny as sexless, but also anticipated in the characters of the plumber and Katherine the modern definition of androgyny as sex equality: namely, a condition "in which both sexes...

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Donna Hollenberg (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Abortion, Identity Formation, and the Expatriate Woman Writer: H. D. and Kay Boyle in the Twenties," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 499-517.

[In the following essay Hollenberg compares the conflicted views on maternity of American writers H. D. and Boyle.]

In memoirs written later in life, when they were self-assured, H. D. and Kay Boyle speak of their respective decisions to leave America for the "freedom" of England and France as if their youthful expatriation were simply liberation from outmoded literary conventions and inhibiting roles as women. H. D. wrote, referring to the anomaly of being a woman writer in the male...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bendall, Molly. A Review of Collected Poems, by Kay Boyle. The Antioch Review 50, No. 4 (Fall 1992): 780.

Argues that the poetry in Collected Poems are important documents of Boyle's life and the twentieth century.

Cohn, Ruby, "Being Ingenious: A Montage for Kay." Twentieth Century Literature 34, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 264-71.

Chronicles Cohn's experiences as a friend and colleague of Boyle.

Gelder, Robert van. "An Interview with Kay Boyle, Expatriate." Writers and Writing, pp. 193-6. New York: Charles...

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