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.
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.
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.)
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."