Thomas Boyd Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Boyd 1898-1935

American novelist, biographer, and short story writer.

In his short writing career, spanning only twelve years, Boyd was known for his vivid, unromanticized depictions of war in the twentieth century, as well as for his biographies of American figures. Admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald and often compared to the works of Ernest Hemingway, Boyd's writings were considered to be some of the most accurate and evocative portraits of wartime experience.

Biographical Information

Born in Defiance, Ohio, in 1898, Boyd dropped out of high school before graduating to join the marines. During World War I he served with the Sixth Regiment at Verdun-sur-Meuse, Belleau Wood, Soissons, and Saint-Mihiel—all in France—before effects from a gas-shell explosion at Blanc Mont in October of 1918 ended his military career. Living in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the early 1920s, Boyd worked as literary editor of the St. Paul Daily News and was part owner of Kilmarnock Bookshop, where he established close friendships with visiting writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1922 Boyd sent a manuscript copy of his novel Through the Wheat (1923) to Fitzgerald, who interceded on Boyd's behalf with Scribner's, which had previously rejected the book. Shortly thereafter Boyd received a cable from the publisher accepting his book for publication. The success of Through the Wheat and the rapid acceptance and publication of subsequent fictional works convinced Boyd to devote himself to writing fulltime, moving with his family to the Connecticut countryside. Over the next four years he published several highly acclaimed biographies, adding to the critical respect he had already earned. In 1934 Boyd, disillusioned with capitalism and convinced that greed and ambition were the causes of all wars, joined the Communist Party and in the fall of that year ran for governor of Connecticut on the Communist platform. He lost the election but remained faithful to his social and political ideals. Boyd was an active member of the League of American Writers and was in strong support of the creation of the first American Writers' Congress in 1935. That year Boyd suffered a mild stroke. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage two weeks later.

Major Works

Boyd's first novel, Through the Wheat, is a portrait of twentieth-century war stripped of the romance and glamour that had previously been associated with military service. Boyd's own service in World War I gave him an insider's view of the death, filth, and despair of service on the front lines. The protagonist of the novel, William Hicks, is stationed in France during World War I. Despite his disgust and exhaustion, he remains with his regiment and continues fighting. Hicks is depicted as a typical American soldier of the era, willing to fight for survival but completely without delusions of glory or honor. Boyd's second book, The Dark Cloud (1924), tells the story of a British scout in Indian territory during the American Revolution. In Samuel Drummond (1925) Boyd returned to the historical genre, depicting the dramatic changes in the life of an American farmer from the mid-1800s to the 1920s. Boyd's next publication, Points of Honor (1925) is a collection of short stories dealing again with the experiences of soldiers during World War I that cemented Boyd's reputation as a great chronicler of twentieth-century warfare. The most lauded story, “The Long Shot,” was adapted for the screen as Blaze O' Glory in 1929. In 1928 Boyd began publishing a series of biographies that reflected his changing social and political beliefs. Chronicling the lives of American figures, Boyd's biographies established him as a respected nonfiction writer. Boyd's last two books, the novel In Time of Peace (1935) and the biography Poor John Fitch, Inventor of the Steamboat (1935), were both published posthumously.

Critical Reception

While Boyd's work is today generally overshadowed by the works of more well-known writers of the World War I era, his fiction at the time of publication was highly respected and often compared favorably with the war writings of Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings. Boyd is remembered as a writer who captured the American experience in clear, unadorned language and narration.