Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
The writer Charles William Goyen suffered the difficult fate of the artist whose work defies or resists classification. Born in the East Texas sawmill town of Trinity, Goyen spent his early boyhood on the border between the pine forests of the Big Thicket and the open grasslands of central Texas. For the first seven years of his life he lived in and around his grandmother’s house, in the company of cousins and uncles whose voices and stories, along with Goyen’s own, eventually formed the fabric of his first novel, The House of Breath. In 1923 Goyen’s family moved first to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then to Houston, Texas, where he attended Sam Houston High School and later Rice Institute (now Rice University). At Rice, Goyen studied literature and creative writing, eventually winning prizes for both his short-story and his play writing. After receiving his B.A. in 1937 and M.A. in 1939, Goyen taught briefly before enlisting in the Navy, where he served from 1940 to 1945 aboard the aircraft carrier Casablanca.
It was during these difficult years of isolation and frequent loneliness that Goyen began The House of Breath. This short lyric novel—a series of descriptions and monologues summoned from the memory of an unnamed narrator—recreates the world of Goyen’s childhood. Instead of a single, unified narrative, the book is constructed of descriptive pieces, remembered visions of relatives (Sue Emma, who is called “Swimma,” Granny Ganchion, Aunt Malley, and Uncle Walter Warren), disconnected stories, and imagined voices that speak for the place and the land. These fragments of time and speech are gathered together and held in place by the image of the old house, itself a figure for the narrator’s own recollection and evocation of his past. The publication of The House of Breath in 1950 brought Goyen significant recognition. He was awarded the MacMurray Prize for the best first novel by a Texan and went on to win Guggenheim Fellowships for 1951 and 1952. In 1952 he published his second book, Ghost and Flesh, a collection of stories that added to his growing reputation as a remarkably original master of the short form. In the years immediately following this initial success, he also began work as a dramatist, adapting The House of Breath for the stage and writing The Diamond Rattler in 1955 and two teleplays in the early 1960’s.
In 1955 Goyen published his second novel, In a Farther Country, a romance set in an intentionally unrealistic, dreamlike New York City. The story centers on Marietta McGee-Chavez, a woman divided between her Irish and Spanish ancestries, who marries Thomas Harold McGee, the owner of “Artifices of Spain,” a small shop that sells Spanish art. Marietta practices the dying art of the Colcha stitch, a type of embroidery learned from the Spanish side of her family. Trapped between the “artificial” world of her husband and the more genuine art of her Spanish heritage, she eventually finds herself more and more alienated in the unnatural city. She attempts to recreate a true Spain in her room above the shop, rescuing a dying macaw (in her mind the roadrunner of her youth in New Mexico), and welcoming those who pass by in their search for the genuine. The story moves toward a sense of fulfillment, though the final chapters reveal that the book’s world has been a dream, created and “stitched” by Marietta herself.
In part because of the increasingly complex, idiosyncratic development of Goyen’s work, his reputation gradually began to fade. Though his short stories continued to attract attention, his novels proved more difficult for readers to accept. In 1963 he published The Fair Sister, an expansion of the earlier short story “Savata, My Fair Sister,” and in 1974, Come, the Restorer, a complex tale of spiritual and sexual transformation and resurrection. His Collected Stories received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, but Goyen continued to experience difficulty finding publishers for his work. Not until his death in 1983 was his fifth novel, Arcadio, published, followed by another collection of stories in 1985 and a long-unpublished novel, Half a Look of Cain: A Fantastical Narrative, in 1994. After his death, interest in Goyen began to increase again steadily. New readers, no longer disconcerted by his work’s overt symbolism, see his fiction as representative of a deeply religious, prophetic strain in American writing. Goyen’s isolated, divided characters explore the many ways in which humanity has become separated from its beginnings and from its place in a natural world. Taken as a whole, his fiction ultimately suggests that the divisions within each individual can be healed, if only through the restorative powers of the imagination.
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