Thomas Boyd Essay - Critical Essays

Boyd, Thomas


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.

Principal Works

Through the Wheat (novel) 1923

The Dark Cloud (novel) 1924

Points of Honor (short stories) 1925

Samuel Drummond (novel) 1925

Shadow of the Long Knives (novel) 1928

Simon Girty, the White Savage (biography) 1928

Mad Anthony Wayne (biography) 1929

Light-Horse Harry Lee (biography) 1931

In Time of Peace (novel) 1935

Poor John Fitch, Inventor of the Steamboat (biography) 1935


John W. Crawford (review date 1923)

SOURCE: “A Malicious Panorama,” in The Nation, Vol. 117, No. 3028, 1923, p. 66.

[In the following review, Crawford calls Through the Wheat “a remarkable first novel” despite a disappointing ending.]

War is a panorama of “grim comic imbecility” to the eyes of Mr. Boyd's character Hicks. Toplofty idealism is brought into the picture, only to be shattered by a barrage of deftest malice. A pompous captain, with a Napoleonic vision, or a zealous top sergeant, actuated by a crusading delusion, becomes helplessly ridiculous in the face of a platoon of unimpressed and “kidding” soldiers. The antithesis is given a more sharply ironic twist in the spectacle of men under fire becoming vocal in photographically trivial conversation about mail, food, and cigarettes. The popular sentimentalism of a bitter and personal hatred for the Germans is dismissed with a hilarious gesture:

Possibly for an hour during his whole life he [Hicks] had hated the German army. Now he only disliked them. And for one reason: because they marched in a goose-step. He felt that for any people to march in that manner was embarrassing to the rest of humanity.

The author permits himself a broader view than would be provided through the personality of Hicks. Mr. Boyd takes a dive into the mental processes of a subordinate character to heighten the absurdity of his self-importance and his...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Edmund Wilson (review date 1923)

SOURCE: “The Anatomy of War,” in The Dial, Vol. 75, July, 1923, pp. 93-5.

[In the following review, Wilson deems Through the Wheat an important war novel.]

Mr Thomas Boyd's Through the Wheat is much less brilliant than Three Soldiers, but I believe that it is nearly as important. Mr Dos Passos rendered one thing admirably: the nightmare oppression of the army, the ruin by war of certain characters which might under normal conditions have proved decent and useful. But Mr Boyd's theme is something different: the adventures of the man who does not break down. His Sergeant Hicks is a hero: he endures, he accepts authority, he fights boldly. But he is a hero tout autrement intéressant than that other hero Sergeant Empey. His endurance is half helpless exhaustion, his obedience is deeply tinctured with bitterness, and his bravery becomes finally an utter numbness beyond horror and beyond pain. This is probably the only candid account on record of what it meant to be a hero in the Marines, and a valuable document on the ordinary human virtues in reaction to the conditions of modern warfare.

Yet in tone Through the Wheat resembles Three Soldiers and most other sincere pictures of modern war. It is a tone which, I should think, if persisted in, should ultimately discourage humanity with war altogether. One finds it first in its characteristic coolness after the Napoleonic wars. Not that there had ever been lacking in European literature a realistic attitude toward war: Homer describes its ignominies as well as its glories; Aristophanes never tired of making fun of it, and Pindar writes, “Gλυκύ aπείροιsι πόλεμοs,” (war is sweet to those who have never tried it); The Roman Empire, to be sure, dignified its conquests with a noble ideal (parcere subjectis et debellare superbos); but by the chaos of the Middle Ages common sense was revolted again and great men from Dante to Kant devoted much thought to European peace: the religious wars provoked the satire of Erasmus and Grotius' foundations of international law, and as comment on the War of the Spanish Succession you had Swift's pamphlet on The Conduct of the Allies and Southey's poem about little Peterkin...

(The entire section is 941 words.)

The Dial (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: A review of The Dark Cloud, in The Dial, Vol. 79, July, 1925, p. 77.

[In the following review, the critic finds The Dark Cloud to be an interesting and picturesque “prose panorama.”]

The Dark Cloud, by Thomas Boyd, projects a picture of life with camera sharpness, and yet the outlines of it have been so softened by tones of understanding that the effect is in no sense photographic. Mr Boyd has sought and successfully recaptured the picturesque background of early steamboat days along the Mississippi; he has written a narrative of incident rather than of sustained plot, done in flexible and vigorous prose. It is chiefly interesting as a...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Punch (review date 1926)

SOURCE: A review of Samuel Drummond, in Punch, or the London Charivari, Vol 170. June 16, 1926, p. 647-48.

[In the following review, the critic praises Boyd's realism in Samuel Drummond.]

If Mr. Thomas Boyd has already written other books I do not know them. If he should write others in the future I shall certainly read them. For Samuel Drummond is a satisfying book, unexciting, but as nourishing to the mind as the kindly fruits of the earth are to the body. Its scene is Ohio before, during and after the Civil War; its theme the simple annals of a farmer's life. When we first meet Samuel he is a boy working on his father's farm. But soon Marthy Jane, a...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

H. W. Boynton (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of In Time of Peace, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 11, No. 33, March 2, 1935, p. 517.

[In the following review, Boynton admires Boyd's storytelling in In Time of Peace despite sections of moralizing.]

The success of Through the Wheat (was it really a dozen years ago?) did not tempt the late Thomas Boyd to repeat himself. So far as the form of the novel was concerned, he had said his say about the world in wartime. The book established him as a writing man, and he continued to write. But his later novels dealt with a safer and remoter past, to be recalled, if with qualified approval, at least without anguish. In...

(The entire section is 1110 words.)

Ramon Guthrie (review date 1935)

SOURCE: “Blood of the Pioneers,” in The New Republic, Vol. 82, No. 1062, April 10, 1935, p. 252.

[In the following review, Guthrie admires the documentary nature of both In Time of Peace and Through the Wheat.]

In Time of Peace is a posthumous novel. Thomas Boyd died suddenly a few days before its publication. He was thirty-six years old. His literary output consisted of a dozen books about evenly divided between novels and biographies. His first book and the one for which he is best known is Through the Wheat, a novel which, a dozen years after it appeared, still deserves to be rated as the most authentic picture of the World War as the...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Granville Hicks (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: “Last Spree of the Middle Class,” in New York Herald Tribune Books, Sunday, February 24, 1935, p. 6.

[In the following essay, Hicks praises the scope and depth of In Time of Peace.]

Thomas Boyd's last novel, In Time of Peace, continues the story of the hero of his first, Through the Wheat, William Hicks, six months after he got out of the Army, was working a twelve-hour night shift in a Chicago machine shop. He threw up his job to go to another city to visit his girl. The girl, Patsy Hughes, wanted to see him wearing a white collar, and he succeeded in getting work on The Farmer-Labor Beacon.

A wife, a child, and...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

The Nation (review date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of In Time of Peace, Vol. 140, No. 36, May 22, 1935, p. 609.

[In the following review, the critic dismisses In Time of Peace as “plodding” and forgettable.]

It is unusual to find a proletarian novel which is not violent enough for the most sensational taste. Yet it must be confessed that In Time of Peace, Thomas Boyd's last work, is too placid to realize the revolutionary intent. It continues the story of Hicks, the protagonist of the war novel Through the Wheat, carrying him through boom times, through marriage and a successful, moneyed career as a newspaperman, down to the crisis, the depression, and ultimate personal...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Saturday Review of Literature (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of In Time of Peace, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 11, No. 33, March 2, 1935, p. 517.

[In the following review, the critic finds In Time of Peace unoriginal and didactic.]

This last and posthumously published novel, by the author who scored so brilliant a success with Through the Wheat, charts a straight course through the post-war social history of the United States and elaborates a pattern that has been made thoroughly familiar to us by many novels and short stories, and by a great mass of factual reporting. During the past sixteen years we have heard much of the hero's return, of the difficulty of the soldier's...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Edith H. Walton (review date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of In Time of Peace, in Forum and Century, Vol. 93, No. 4, April, 1935, p. iv.

[In the following review, Walton finds In Time of Peace an unsatisfactory sequel to Boyd's Through the Wheat.]

Written just before his recent death, the title of Mr. Boyd's novel is astringently ironical. Hicks, the hero of that excellent war book, Through the Wheat, finds, after passing through a typical experience of the 'twenties, that peace can be as cruel and murderous as ever the war was and that for the underdog everywhere the fight is not over. A stubborn, honest-minded, rather inarticulate man, Hicks marries during the early postwar depression...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Paul Fussell (review date 1978)

SOURCE: Shrapnel and Solecisms, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3977, June 23, 1978, p. 694.

[In the following review, Fussell asserts that Through the Wheat has been overvalued as both literature and as a document of war-time experience.]

Thomas Boyd's novel of 1923 about his experiences with the United States Marines in France during the First World War was said by Boyd's friend F. Scott Fitzgerald to be “not only the best combatant story of the great war, but also the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage.” It is neither, nor does it provide, as James Dickey asserts in an afterword, “a vision of war that is as profound as any vision of...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

Frank Wilson (review date 1978)

SOURCE: A review of Through the Wheat, in Best Sellers, Vol. 38, No. 5, August, 1978, p. 140.

[In the following review, Wilson laments Boyd's early death, asserting that Through the Wheat is a well-wrought novel.]

There is a certain kind of novel that is simply a straightforward chronicle of events. It is a kind usually written in a manner equally straightforward and precise. Such is Thomas Boyd's Through the Wheat, a novel of World War I first published in 1923—when it was glowingly reviewed by F. Scott Fitzgerald—and now reissued by University of Southern Illinois Press as part of its Lost American Fiction series.

Like his...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Kliatt (review date 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Through the Wheat, in Kliatt, Vol. 13, No. 6, Fall, 1979, p. 5.

[In the following review, the critic recommends Through the Wheat to young readers because of the book's unsentimental presentation of the experience of war.]

[In Through the Wheat] we follow Private William Hicks's days in the trench warfare of World War I, along a slow hard-fought front in which each field, each wood is taken with enormous losses of men. From Hicks's viewpoint, the strategy and the purpose of the war are not visible; the war is made up of exhaustion, monotony, hunger, hot coffee, dirt, interrupted by sudden attacks and deaths. Over everything...

(The entire section is 288 words.)